The man who killed native protestor Dudley George gave up his attempt to get back his job in the Ontario Provincial Police last week. But those still working for some sort of justice for the first person in Canada to be killed in over a century of aboriginal protest against non-aboriginal rule should not expect success anytime soon.
In the summer of 1995, aboriginal protestors and non-aboriginal supporters made an encampment on Camp Ipperwash, which comprised a former Canadian military base and the nearby Ipperwash Provincial Park in southwest Ontario. The federal government, using the blunt power of the War Measures Act, had evicted the Anishnabe people of the Kettle Point band from the site during the Second World War. The provincial government had not long after established the provincial park on an aboriginal sacred site. But although both these facts would later by admitted, both levels of government had refused for decades to negotiate a return of the property.
In early September, 1995, Ontario Provincial Police began an operation – later estimated to cost over $2.5 million – to clear the protestors out of the park and military base. In the late evening of Sept. 6, over 50 heavily-armed tactical squad officers, supported by military personnel carriers, stormed the encampment. Dudley George, 38, an unarmed protestor, was shot. Denied an ambulance, he was driven to the nearest hospital by his family, where he died. His relatives were arrested.
Coming after the 1990 crisis in the Quebec Mohawk communities of Kanawake and Kanesatake and at the same time as the RCMP assault on the encampment at Gustafsen Lake in British Columbia, the Ipperwash killing nonetheless marked a low point in modern-day conflicts with non-aboriginal authorities.
Despite the efforts of then-Premier Mike Harris, supported by legal teams costing millions in taxpayer funds, and the relative lack of concern from non-aboriginal groups like newspaper chains and anti-Harris organizations, the George family have persisted in a lonely effort to find out why Dudley George was killed. Since his death they have been calling for a public inquiry into the incident.
Ironically, that inquiry has been forestalled by the prosecution of Kenneth Deane, the man who shot Dudley George. Deane, at the time of the shooting a staff sergeant with the OPP, was found guilty of criminal negligience causing death in 1997. During his trial, several compelling facts were unearthed: None of the protestors, despite government statements at the time, were armed; several audio and written communications between the police and their political masters, which could have revealed political interference in the deadly operation, were missing or erased. After being convicted, Deane appealed his firing from the force. This week Deane dropped his appeal the day before it was to be adjudicated. Up until then he collected full pay from the provincial police force, and the cost of his defense lawyers has been covered by the police union.
Premier Mike Harris and his successor, Ernie Eves, have refused to hold a public inquiry until all cases before the courts were complete. But Deane’s move last week will likely not mean a public inquiry will soon convene. The George family, with the support of Liberal native affairs critic Gary Phillips, has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against former Premier Harris and the Ontario government.
Several disclosures from that case and from media investigations into the killing have supported the view that Deane is merely a scapegoat, a foot soldier, and the real blame for the unprovoked attack on the encampment and the death of George lies at the highest reaches of the provincial government. Chief among them are two memos, found separately, which reveal the OPP continuing their policy of non-confrontation with aboriginal protestors, and urging restraint in early September, 1995. In May, Phillips released a resume of a meeting of high-level ministerial staff just hours before George was killed. The handwritten memo shows the OPP was urging a go-slow approach, writing “removal later, when feasible (i.e. injunction.).” Under the Premier’s office is a short order: “removal NOW.” It is likely that Harris, in Sept 1995 a newly-elected Premier and a northerner biased against aboriginal rights, saw the Ipperwash encampment as both a threat and an opportunity: An opportunity to prove his tough-on-crime credentials; and a threat they would become entrenched, generating public sympathy.
But only a public inquiry, laying bare the links between the Premier’s office and the OPP, will reveal the truth. While public inquiries have a long history of being ignored in Canada – especially if they have to deal with aboriginal rights – a George inquiry seems a necessary event to reveal how aboriginal protests are targeted. While the evasions of Ontario’s top politicians can almost be understood, Ontarians and Canadians need to be reminded of the brutal acts committed in their name. Dudley George cannot remain, as the title of a sympathetic investigation of his murder suggests, just “one dead Indian.”