CANADA

Deadly confrontation on an Ontario reserve

The shooting of a native man by police ignites angry protests

TOM FENNELL September 18 1995
CANADA

Deadly confrontation on an Ontario reserve

The shooting of a native man by police ignites angry protests

TOM FENNELL September 18 1995

Deadly confrontation on an Ontario reserve

CANADA

The shooting of a native man by police ignites angry protests

Claudine Bressette came looking for an answer. Last week, her cousin, 38-year-old Anthony (Dudley) George, died in a confrontation with Ontario Provincial Police near an Indian reserve on the windswept shores of Lake Huron in southwestern Ontario. In what has been a hot summer of discontent among native people across Canada over issues ranging from fishing rights to land claims, George and about 30 other natives had occupied Ipperwash Provincial Park on the edge of the reserve. What happened then was sharply disputed. Native leaders, insisting that their members were unarmed, said that police had assaulted one man and then opened fire on the group, killing George and wounding two others. But police maintained that natives bombarded officers with rocks and fired on them from inside a school bus and a car, injuring one police officer. George was killed, they said, when police returned fire. But as Bressette stood in the howling wind near the site of the killing, she clearly did not believe the police. “I think they were unarmed,” said Bressette. “So why did the police shoot them?”

George, a member of the Kettle and Stony Point band, part of the Chippewa nation, died believing that Ipperwash park, 110 acres of pine-covered beach on Lake Huron, is located on the site of a sacred Indian burial ground.

Although the province says there is no basis for that claim, about two dozen natives from the reserve entered the park on Monday and forced a small group of campers and park employees to leave. The OPP responded by sending in two heavily armed tactical squads. That set the stage for a bloody confrontation on Wednesday evening. After George was killed and the two other natives were wounded, the police retreated. And officers, many of them dressed in green battle gear and carrying assault rifles, blocked all roads leading into the area. When Ovide Mercredi, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, arrived the following afternoon, he found both sides dug in. As he had quickly learned while attempting to mediate at the four-week-old standoff between militant natives and RCMP officers at Gustafsen Lake in the interior of British Columbia, there was little room—or even will—to negotiate. And as he did at Gustafsen Lake, Mercredi criticized provincial politicians for failing to take native concerns seriously. “It was not necessary for anyone to die here,” said Mercredi. “[Ontario Premier] Mike Harris has the power to resolve this peacefully.”

But there was little sign that peace was about to break out at either Ipperwash or Gustafsen Lake last week. In British Columbia, more than two dozen armed natives and non-native supporters remained in the tense standoff with the RCMP. Two police officers were shot there in late August, escaping serious injury only because they were wearing anti-flak vests. Last week, the RCMP tightened the circle around the natives when they sent in four army troop carriers bearing more heavily armed police officers. And B.C. Premier Mike Harcourt said the shooting at Ipperwash should convince the protesters at Gustafsen Lake, who also want the authorities to turn over private land that they insist is sacred, to lay down their weapons and end their occupation. “That’s the way these situations end if people don’t see reason and sanity,” Harcourt said in Vancouver. “So I say once again to the illegal occupants at Gustafsen Lake, lay down your automatic weapons and come out peacefully.”

In contrast to the situation at Gustafsen Lake, tension between police and natives near Ipperwash had been running high for years.

In 1942, during the Second World War, the federal government seized a large portion of the Kettle and Stony Point Indian reserve and built a military base on it. Two years ago, when negotiations for the return of Camp Ipperwash seemed to be going nowhere, a number of Indians from the reserve occupied part of it. When that failed to bring results, native militants allegedly firebombed one building and sprayed others with gunfire.

Finally, in July, when the mill tants drove a school bus through a gate into the camp, the military abandoned the base. And even though Ottawa has now agreed to turn the land over to the band, the process is being delayed again by lawsuits ified against the federal govern ment by the band and by some of the protesters who occupied the camp.

Last week, the same group of natives that occupied the military camp seized Ipperwash Provincial Park, which adjoins the military base and the reserve. And when police pulled back last week, the natives were left in control of the park. According to Tom Bressette, chief of the Kettle and Stony Point First Nation, police officers agreed not to move on the demonstrators until further negotiations took place. In return, Bressette promised that the natives inside the park would not harass residents of nearby cottages. But an Ontario regional chief of the Assembly of First Nations, Gordon Peters, said the government is in for a long fight. “This is our land,” said Peters. ‘We will not give it up.”

Before the confrontation with police, the 800-member band had been divided over the decision to occupy the park. And most of the militants belonged to a breakaway splinter group who were not willing to wait for a legal settlement to the ownership question. But George’s death united the feuding groups. As about 400 native people gathered at the recreation centre on the former military base to hear speeches by Mercredi and other chiefs, they were deeply angered.

Some carried eagle feathers and brushed away tears as their leaders urged them to continue their fight. “If one of our people is harmed,” said Bressette, “they harm us all.”

The chiefs also told the crowd that they can expect the support of natives from across the country. In fact, throughout the day, rumors persisted that hundreds of other native people, including spiritual leaders, were on thenway to help guard and heal the community. Few had arrived by week’s end, but the community remained hopeful that support for their cause would spread.

“This will bring us all together,” said Gladys Lunham, a soft-spoken elderly Indian woman, as she listened to the chiefs speak.

Even Mercredi, who is a strong advocate of finding a peaceful solution to the standoffs at Ipperwash and Gustafsen Lake, said that George’s death would not quickly be forgotten. He said both Harris and Harcourt had aggravated the disputes by refusing to negotiate with representatives of the groups involved. Harris last week said he

would not negotiate until the natives left the park. Still, said Mercredi, “they cannot justify the use of force to suppress our people.”

Many residents of the reserve also say they believed that Harris’s election on June 8 signalled the adoption of a new get-tough policy towards natives. Howard Henry, a band member who works in nearby Sarnia, said that until Harris’s election, police had not attempted to intervene. But because the alleged gunfight took place after dark, he said it suggests that the police ambushed the natives. He also said he expected the band to be more militant in the future. In fact, following the shooting more than 150 residents of the community marched on the police roadblocks, and then started fires and blocked roads with burning cars and tires. “We are going to take what belongs to us,” said Henry, “whether the white man likes it or not.”

And as the native leaders ad dressed the band, many of the pro testers who had occupied the park, some dressed in green hunting clothes, listened but did not applaud the leaders, who they believed had not been militant enough. They also strongly denied police statements that they were armed and had shot at a police officer. "We told everyone it would be peaceful," said one teenage protester, adding that he was in the park at the time of the shooting. `We were not armed-and everyone knew it"

The anger expressed at Ipperwash may soon spread across Canada. Fred Plain, an elder with the Assembly of First Nations, travelled to the reserve with Mercredi. He said many younger native people across the country have become increasingly frustrated by the slow pace of negotiating land-claim settlements. He noted that successive governments in Ottawa had expressed sympathy for natives, but so far had failed to resolve the disputes. As a result, he said, an increasing number of young natives are now willing to stand up and fight. Said Plain: “I blame the Prime Minister, because he has never kept a single promise he had made to us.”

Now, that anger appears to be touching even young children, among them nine-year-old Kenny Wolf. As he waited outside the band office for Mercredi to arrive, his face was smudged black with charcoal. And his mock weapon, a cutoff broom handle, rested on his shoulder. His assignment, he said: “I’m here so the war won’t start again.” If “war” does break out again, Ipperwash and Gustafsen Lake may just represent the beginning of a long struggle for Wolf and his generation.

TOM FENNELL at Ipperwash