(Secwepemc Elder William Jones “Wolverine” Ignace died Tuesday in his home. He was 84. Photo courtesy of Ts’Peten Defenders)
APTN National News
Secwepemc Elder William Jones “Wolverine” Ignace, who gained international recognition after the 1995 Gustafsen Lake standoff, died early Tuesday evening surrounded by family in his Adams Lake Indian Band home on Secwepemc territory.
He was 84, said his widow Flora Sampson.
Sampson said in an interview Wednesday that Jones, who is known as Wolverine, was suffering from cancer and had been seriously ill since December.
“He travelled the world and he comes back and now that he is gone I am thinking he went somewhere and he will be back,” said Sampson,74, in a telephone interview from the home she shared with Wolverine. “It hasn’t sunk in yet.”
During his last hours, Wolverine’s children and grandchildren gathered around his bed singing traditional songs to him, said Kanahus Manuel, who was there at the time of his death.
After Wolverine died, at about 5:30 p.m., those in the room sang the American Indian Movement song of resistance, said Manuel.
Then, after family members whispered their final goodbyes, the women cleaned his body with rosebush water.
A fire now burns in the backyard, said Manuel.
The family is considering holding the burial next Monday to allow those who knew Wolverine and wish to say goodbye time to travel to the community, which sits about 50 kilometres northeast of Kamloops, B.C.
“He fought for our rights all his life, he knew the law, he studied law. He fought for our rights ever since I met him in 1970. I met him and both of us stood for our rights fighting for housing, our land, our resources, our salmon, burial grounds and fighting against the pipelines,” said Sampson.
Throughout his life Wolverine worked variously as a logger, trapper, fisherman and farmer who “planted huge gardens to feed the people and his family,” said Sampson.
While Wolverine was involved in multiple rights battle all the way to his last days, it was his role in the Gustafsen Lake standoff that presented him to a wider audience.
The standoff centred on land leased by the province to a rancher near 100 Mile House, B.C., that was used for Sundance ceremonies. The land, which was never surrendered, was reclaimed by the Ts’Peten Defenders in 1995 who refused to leave despite attempts by the rancher to evict them.
The standoff saw the RCMP, backed by the Canadian Forces, and warriors exchange more gunfire than during the 1990 Oka crisis.
Wolverine was convicted of wilful mischief, firing at police officers, assaulting police officers and possession of weapons and explosives in 1997 in connection with his involvement in the Gustafsen Lake standoff. He served about six years in prison as a result.
“That was more of a driving force for him to do that much time for something he should never have done time for,” said Manuel. “None of those people that shot at him did time….That he survived, that is a victory that no one was killed at Gustafsen Lake.”
One of Wolverine’s last acts was to issue a call for a public inquiry into the actions of the RCMP and Canadian military during the Gustafsen Lake standoff. The RCMP used an IED against the warriors during the standoff and Bison armoured personnel carriers provided and driven by the Canadian Forces.
Wolverine wrote to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould requesting the inquiry.
Wilson-Raybould told a university audience in Vancouver recently that the federal government’s focus is currently on the inquiry into murdered and missing Indigenous women.
“He wanted to get the story out, he wanted the demand for the national inquiry,” said Manuel. “He educated himself about constitutional law, Indigenous law, complex issues of colonization and the impacts we are facing and how Canada has assumed authority and jurisdiction over our territories and he exposed that, that is why he called for the Gustafsen Lake inquiry to expose this and he wants to continue this fight with his last wishes and prayers.”
And, until the end, he was a going concern for the RCMP.
Two RCMP officers visited Wolverine on Feb. 26 following protests against a modern day treaty vote by four Secwepemc communities. RCMP Sgt. Frank Paul led the visit to discuss a letter Wolverine sent to the Mounties alleging officers were violating Secwepemc sovereignty by intervening in protests against the treaty, according to a statement released on Feb. 27 by the Ts’Peten Defenders.
Manuel said Wolverine was a war hero. She said a call has been issued for warriors to wear their battle fatigues for his funeral ceremony.
“He never talked about anything else other than the revolutionary mind. He had a real, radical way of thinking,” said Manuel. “That’s his dedication and he was committed to the movement.”
Wolverine was also able to find humour amid struggle.
He used to joke about being able to take out an armoured personnel carrier with one shot from the hip, said Manuel.
“He was cracking jokes until the time he left,” she said.
James “OJ” Pitawanakwat faced gunfire with Wolverine during the Gustafsen Lake standoff and saw the Elder as a father figure.
Pitawanakwat won’t be able to offer a final goodbye because he’s living on an Anishinaabe reservation in Michigan. The U.S. granted him political asylum in 2000 after he fled Canada while serving a sentence stemming from a Gustafsen Lake standoff conviction. There is still a warrant out for Pitawanakwat in Canada and Wolverine had called on Wilson-Raybould to give his former comrade-in-arms a pardon.
“I feel sad that I can’t express my condolences to the family and I wish there was a way that I could,” said Pitawanakwat, in a telephone interview Wednesday. “Wolverine was the backbone over there with the nations, we need more people to continue that legacy.”
Pitawanakwat said Wolverine saved his life during a firefight.
“He saved my life out there by re-directing gunfire,” he said. “In the battlefield no one could match his integrity and perseverance and his agility. He was a 65-year-old guy dodging bullets like Rambo.”
The Gustafsen Lake standoff gave Wolverine a global platform that saw him travel to places like the United Nations and to Zapatista territory in Chiapas, Mexico.
Manuel said Wolverine’s name is known from the Pine Ridge Oglala Lakota reservation down to Mapuche territory in Chile.
“People everywhere knew him and even if they never met him in person, he touched their hearts and felt something in his determination and fearlessness,” she said.