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Media Should Apologize for Gullibility on Gustafsen Lake

Vancouver Province, Friday, September 26, 1997, Page A12, By Joey Thompson

When it came to covering the events clouding the 1995 Gustafsen Lake fiasco RCMP took reporters for a ride. We bought the Mounties' take on what was going down during that tense month-long summer siege. A lot of what we got -- and dutifully reported -- was crock.

It's time we conceded that and apologized to the natives and citizens of BC.

The fact is camp members weren't the terrorists RCMP made them out to be. Nor did they invite the shootouts the police press releases claimed.

Officers were ordered to back off the "terrorist" label three days into the mud-slinging and name-calling. But the damage was done. By then we were sold on the RCMP's script of good vs. evil: Our men in red blazers against trigger-crazed Indian thugs. And that's what stung the most.

"To be called terrorists in their own country; they're still hurting over that," natives' defence lawyer George Wool told me yesterday. "It's set relations between them and the police back 100 years. All the good work RCMP have done with native youth is lost. The trust is gone."

Ditto for members of the media, some of whom were cherrypicked to tag along on the RCMP's flight to the area near 100 Mile House. A radio reporter told me he's skeptical now when covering RCMP press conferences. "I want to jump up and say, 'Why should I believe you?"'

Which may explain the exit of some of Gustafsen's lead men. I hear operation commander Supt. Len Olfert and several other senior strategists have since been handed retirement pins. Sgt. Peter Montague, the RCMP's spin doctor, was elevated to staff-sergeant, and moved out to commercial crime.

Montague, longtime palsy-walsy with a select crop of reporters, was caught on camera telling his cohorts, "Smear campaigns are our speciality." He later told the criminal trial jury he was just kidding. But it was too little, too late.

"I never believed he meant it as a joke," said a senior print reporter who covered the standoff. "After his testimony in court he lost a lot of credibility in my eyes. He had often said his superiors didn't tell him a lot. But we found out he had been a party to a lot of strategy meetings. Those reporters who didn't play by the rules were frozen out. Yet they were all we had to depend on for information. There was an incredible amount of pressure to conform."

And so they did.

Not even the most professional and skilled of the scribes had the grit to step back and ask the tough questions.

I'm not saying the camp's members had haloes as headgear. A few of the 14 natives and four whites did have criminal records.

But an army of 400 officers in camouflage gear?

A base camp dubbed Camp Zulu 10 kilometres away, decked out with a field hospital, a communications control central, several choppers, a landing field, militia assault weapons and several armored personnel carriers?

Not to mention an eight-month criminal trial.

Talk about overkill.

One native officer quit the force after becoming fed up with the RCMP actions. The entire affair cost the taxpayer millions of dollars. It cost the RCMP their credibility.

All for a handful of mischief convictions and a few raps involving weapons.

Court transcripts tell the story; we got had:

bulletCops told reporters they had to fire at two natives fleeing a pickup truck (which they had disabled with an early-warning device) because they were armed.

They also deliberately shot and killed a husky/Lab-cross dog that was in the back of the pickup.

Turns out the natives weren't armed; police never rectified their error.
bulletPolice led the media to believe they had "consistently been fired upon" by camp occupants, including shots fired at an RCMP chopper. But most were never confirmed.
bulletPolice successfully argued for the deployment of two APCs after they claimed natives shot at a moving police van, damaging the rearview mirror. But evidence at trial revealed a tree branch was likely the cause of the damage, not a bullet.
bulletPolice illegally released the juvenile record of several camp occupants.

"No apology, no retraction, nothing," said Wool.

" Hey, we all make mistakes. Too bad they didn't have the courage to say, 'We're sorry."'

I have.

If you have a comment or column idea call Joey Thompson at 605-2119 or write care of The Province.