The Standoff at Ipperwash

In January of 2011, the University of Western Ontario hired John Carson as a Safe Campus Coordinator, a part time job with its Campus Police. Carson was also the highest-ranking Ontario Provincial Police officer on the scene at Ipperwash Provincial Park in 1995, where Ojibwa Dudley George was shot during a standoff that sought to put an end to the Stoney Point First Nations occupation of the park, an act of protest over unsettled land claims. A London community group called The Indignants have protested Carson's new position in charge of campus police. Citing Carson's comments in a London Free Press article where he notes that he “has no regrets,” they are demanding that Carson be removed, stating that “Carson is partially responsible for Dudley George’s death and he should not be rewarded by a university position, especially considering the amount of diversity at Western which includes students of First Nations background. It is an act of racism and is insulting and inhibiting to the student body’s capacity for social justice and anti-oppressive action.” It's worth reviewing the events at Ipperwash Provincial Park to assess their demand.

The tragedy at Ipperwash has deep historical roots. In 1763, after the conclusion of the Seven Year's War between the French and British, the British received Quebec in the Treaty of Paris and issued the Royal Proclamation concerning Aboriginal lands. The Proclamation established an “Indian Territory” beyond the settled colonies along the eastern seabord (the American colonies) and the St. Lawrence. Starting in present day Ontario around the Great Lakes, it extended south from Wisconsin, to Ohio to present day Alabama and Mississippi. According to Crown policy, Aboriginal land was forbidden to settlement unless voluntarily ceded. The Proclamation was ignored by the Americans after their independence in the 1783. A growing population of Loyalists to the British Crown after the American Revolutionary War also began to populate Ontario in violation of the royal edict. After the War of 1812, Aboriginals in central North America lost any influence they once had over the political and military balance between Americans and the British. Their land was subsequently greatly diminished as “Indian Territory” became a title rather than law.

In 1827, the Huron Tract Treaty ceded 2.1 million acres of land to the Crown and the Chippewas relinquished 99% of their traditional territory. As with the “Indian Territory,” they were promised this land would be for them. The Chippewas of southern Ontario were limited to four reserves: Walpole Island, Sarnia, Kettle Point and Stoney Point. They were all considered under one administrative unit, called a Band, until 1860 when Walpole Island was separated. In 1919, the Sarnia Band and the Kettle and Stony Point Band were officially divided into two independent bands. A decade later in 1927, Mackenzie Crawford told the Kettle Point and Stoney Point Indian Agent (the government official who “represents” an Indian band) he wished to buy the beachfront at Kettle Point Reserve. Of 39 Aboriginals eligible to vote on the sale, 27 voted in favour of surrendering the land. A protest was mounted against the vote, and Aboriginal people argued the vote was tainted by bribery and fraud. Regardless, the Department of Indian Affairs went ahead with the sale. A similar offer was made for beachfront property at Stoney Point, and again a surrender was approved by the Council. Finally, in 1936, the province of Ontario paid for a lot on Stoney Point Reserve land that had been previously bought. They established Ipperwash Provincial Park that year.

The seizure of beach front property by private interests at Stoney Point and Kettle Point in the 20s and 30s mirrored a change across Canada towards nature. The rise of concentrated urban population centres and “modernity” - the increasing emphasis North American society placed on the individual and consumption of goods – pushed Canadians and Americans towards preserving nature through the establishment of parks. In nature, urban dwellers could enjoy a world unspoiled by city development. Portrayed as a rejection of the urban environment, nature became a place for summer camps and camping trips as forms of entertainment. For urban Canadians, nature and “the wild” became a place for a break from the city, recreation, and relaxation. It was consumed and bought, like any other good. Entrepreneurs quickly emerged as some offered themselves as guides while others sold land for exclusive beach front property, like at Stoney Point. Establishing Ipperwash Provincial Park was not an explicitly malicious action against the Stoney Point Reserve, but rather a result of larger forces transforming the state's involvement in nature preservation and Canadians' changing conception of it. Perhaps that is why in 1937, a year after Ipperwash Provincial Park was created, when the Kettle and Stony Point Band notified the government of a burial ground in the park and asked it be protected that no action was taken. Canadians did not understand the sacred value of “undeveloped” lands. Land had to be improved and built upon to be “valuable.” The council had agreed to sell their land though, so nothing illegal had been done so far.

This was not the case during the Second World War, when the Department of National Defence established a training camp on Stoney Point Reserve. This time the council rejected the offer. But, despite the guarantee of the 1763 Royal Proclamation and the Huron Tract Treaty of 1827 that both guaranteed the land of the reserve to the Stoney Point people unless voluntarily ceded, the government ignored them and the Reserve was seized under the War Measures Act in 1942. While Stoney Point residents were at work, the government arrived and evicted them from their land, some homes were bulldozed while others were placed on blocks and physically moved. Mrs. Beattie Greenbird complained that “the Band's young men were fighting the war while the government in the process of selling their land.” The Stoney Point residents were forced to move to Kettle Point, where resources and land were not sufficient for the new families. The Order-in-Council that approved of the seizure noted that the land would be returned after the war.

The land was never returned. Camp Ipperwash remained a military based after the Second World War. After decades of legal action, stalled negotiations and pleas, the descendants of the Stoney Point Reserve decided to peacefully occupy the ground around the camp in May, 1993. They planted a peace tree to signify that they would use no weapons to reclaim their land. Two years of occupying the land outside the gate to Camp Ipperwash led nowhere. The military still did not relinquish the land and the government ignored the protestors. They told the occupiers that the military would leave their land by July of 1995, but by the end of that month military personnel and equipment were still at the camp. Again, after letter-writing campaigns and negotiations all failed to achieve any progress, the Aboriginal people at Stoney Point decided to occupy the camp itself, not just outside of it. No other action had attracted the government's action or goodwill and they believed they had few options remaining. After a chaotic invasion of the camp on July 29, 1995, the military peacefully left the camp rather than get involved in a confrontation with the occupiers. The occupiers hoped this would force the government to negotiate with them. They decided if they still couldn't achieve their demands, their next step would be to occupy Ipperwash Provincial Park.

In September, First Nations people entered Ipperwash Provincial Park. They wanted to assert their control over the land that legally belonged to them (the military camp, though the occupiers believed the park belonged to them as well) as well as protect the ignored burial grounds that lay in the park since its creation. Rather than focus on negotiations and communication, the OPP Commander, John Carson, concentrated on securing weapons and armoured vehicles, which the Ipperwash Inquiry later condemned. A press release by Mayor Fred Thomas of the nearby town of Bosanquet further inflamed the situation. Entitled “Reign of Terror Continues,” it called the occupiers “terrorists” and stated that local residents required protection. Mounting political pressure from Ontario Premier Mike Harris pushed Carson to act.

After a tense meeting in Toronto, which began with Premier Harris noting “I want the fucking Indians out of the park,” it was clear the provincial government wanted the occupation to end as quickly as possible. As a result of the government's wishes and a vast amount of faulty intelligence and miscommunications, a team was sent in to clear the park of its Aboriginal occupiers. During the ensuing confrontation between the OPP and the First Nations peoples, the unarmed Dudley George was shot.

All of this information (and much more) is found in the Report of the Ipperwash Inquiry, from the history preceding the occupation, to the events of August and September 1995, to a critical assessment of the failure of the OPP to properly handle the situation. Reading through the 113-page Ipperwash Inquiry makes it clear that the actions of our provincial government and its police force were shameful. The racism at all levels, from the officers on the scene to the Premier, is also outlined in the report. There is no doubt that Carson should have some regrets about his actions at Ipperwash. The report provides a handy list of the regrets Carson should have.

Historically, Canadians have misunderstood Aboriginal peoples. Yet, today we have documents like the Ipperwash Report that concisely and clearly outline misconceptions that have occurred and the resulting tragedy of them. Surely we can do better. At Ipperwash, Aboriginals felt as if they had no other options left to them – and that was true. There were no attempts at negotiations, compromise, or understanding from the other side. There is always an option to open dialogue to avoid escalating confrontations into something violent.

So let's return to the demand of the The Indignants. They are right to be outraged that Carson has “no regrets,” but they should also ask: Are there other options? Is demanding Carson's firing the best way to heal the centuries-old wounds between Canadians and Aboriginal peoples? Both sides distrust one another, because of events like the seizure of Stoney Point in 1942, the occupation of Ipperwash Provincial Park, or the shooting of Dudley George in 1995, and many others. Demanding Carson's removal does not build trust between communities. Like any relationship, trust is built on open communication and an honest discussion between two sides. Don't jump the gun and demand Carson be fired without first opening a dialogue about his hiring and its impact on the campus at Western.