A quarter century after a police sniper killed an Indigenous man fighting to reclaim his ancestral land, the federal government still hasn’t given back the territory. But his relatives say they will keep up the fight.
Anthony “Dudley” George was 38 years old the night he died on Sept. 6, 1995, after Ontario Provincial Police tried to remove people of the Stony Point (Aazhoodena) community, part of Kettle and Stony Point First Nation, who for three days had occupied land near the territory taken from them by the federal government.
His family was one of 18 relocated from Stony Point First Nation — in 1942, after the government expropriated the land to build a military base — to the nearby Kettle Point reserve. Ottawa promised to give back the land, near Sarnia, Ont., once the Second World War ended — a promise it did not keep.
George and others moved back to Stony Point, then known as Camp Ipperwash, in 1993. The dispute simmered until, two years later, after waiting for seasonal campers to leave, several community members occupied nearby Ipperwash Provincial Park on the Labour Day weekend, hoping to spark change.
Dressed in riot gear and heavily armed, the OPP then tried to clear the park with a nighttime raid, killing George, who was unarmed.
“That time was a polarizing time for our community. It’s very important to remember those who have gone before us, and it’s important to respect and honour our warriors,” said Jason Henry, the chief of Kettle and Stony Point First Nation, who was 15 years old in 1995.
He says the feeling in the community at the time was that people in southwestern Ontario, and in much of Canada, stood with the police, who were directed by provincial leaders to get the protesters out of the popular park.
“The trauma of that is long-lasting. The atrocities that have been done to Indigenous people across Canada were already layered and complex. The division in Canada was already ripe. And then this happened,” Henry said.
After George was shot, his brother and sister Carolyn George and Pierre George had to drive him to the hospital because there were no ambulances on standby.
The lack of medical teams on standby was one of several failures of the OPP and the provincial and federal governments, according to the scathing final report of the Ipperwash Inquiry — a long-delayed look at the occupation, raid and aftermath that became known as the Ipperwash Crisis.
“Ipperwash revealed a deep schism in Canada’s relationship with its Aboriginal peoples and was symbolic of a long and sad history of government policy that harmed their long-term interests,” the report concluded.
The officer who shot George apologized years later. The province apologized to Kettle and Stony Point First Nation after the inquiry.
The OPP did not immediately return calls for comment on this story.
WATCH, FROM 1995 | Shooting at Ipperwash Provincial Park:
‘This is home’
In the years since the crisis, about 100 community members have continued to live on the now-closed base, out of about 2,500 who make up the Kettle and Stony Point First Nation.
The site is still owned by the federal government, which has set up a contract with Kettle and Stony Point First Nation to maintain it.
“I feel at home here because this is where I am supposed to be,” said Carolyn, Dudley’s sister. “This is home.”
The Kettle Point part of the community has a school, a health centre, restaurants and proper infrastructure such as water and roads.
But the military’s use of the Aazhoodena territory has created conditions most Canadians would find shocking, Henry said. It is still littered with unexploded ordinances such as grenades and artillery shells.
Every year, people from Kettle and Stony Point are hired to help find and remove the explosives. As of last year, 116 unexploded ordinances have been found, and the Department of National Defence says it will take another 25 years to fully clear and decontaminate the land.
Land will be transferred to the First Nation in parcels as it is cleared, a spokesperson for the Department of National Defence said in an email to CBC News. A few hectares of land have already been cleared, but have not yet been returned, because the agreement is still somewhat new, the spokesperson said.
The buildings in which George’s family and other community members live have not been maintained properly since the 1990s, and the military says they’re too dilapidated to fix.
The homes have running, but not potable, water. People go into a nearby town to fill up jugs to use for cooking and drinking.
Pierre, Dudley’s brother, used to live in the military fire hall, but it didn’t have proper heating. He built a home next door, but it doesn’t have running water.
“That old place, it was freezing in there. Too cold,” Pierre said. “So, I just built this out of wood and scrap myself. I don’t have water. I have one power line going in there for a TV.”
Just last month, the federal government and community leaders met with those who live on the former military base to talk about building better housing and installing infrastructure.
Trauma and moving on
Pierre, 66, still cries when he recalls his brother’s death. He says trauma counselling has helped alleviate the flashbacks of that night and the stress-related pain that made it seem like his insides were being ripped out.
“I guess I just have to keep on keeping on. What else can I do?” Pierre said.
Just inside the gate at Stony Point, there’s a sign he painted for his brother, worn and faded but still legible. It reads: “It was here that my brother’s earthly journey was ended by an OPP bullet.”
He and others in the community are optimistic that talks between the leadership of Kettle and Stony Point and the federal government will finally mean adequate housing is built for residents.
Henry, the Kettle and Stony Point chief, has also overseen an “Additions to Reserve” process, by which the federal and provincial governments are expected to soon return the lands of the now-closed provincial park to the First Nation. Those lands were also part of the Kettle and Stony Point claim. The process does not include the grounds of the former military base.
Large gathering not possible
This Sunday, the George family and community members will each remember Dudley George in their own way.
A large gathering isn’t possible in a community trying to make sure there is no spread of COVID-19, so outsiders aren’t invited. Carolyn says she hopes by next year, larger gatherings will be possible and her brother can be honoured again.
Near where Dudley died, there is a large granite stone in tribute.
Henry says it’s important for his community to share the story of how Dudley died, and what he died for.
“Our connection to the earth is extremely important. It’s paramount,” he said.
“As Indigenous people, we’ve lost so much. We’ve lost culture, identity, language and that is due to the loss of land. It’s important to acknowledge that there are many different kinds of warriors. Some are in the courtroom, some are in the classrooms … and some put their lives on the line to defend the land.
“I think it’s important to acknowledge that Dudley was one of those kinds of warriors: A man willing to put his life on the line to defend what is right.”