What are the lasting lessons from the Ipperwash inquiry?

OPINION: I launched the Ipperwash commission as Ontario’s attorney general. Its urgent recommendations remain relevant today — acting on the first one would be a fitting tribute to Dudley George
By Michael Bryant - Published on Sep 14, 2020
Bernard George (a relative of Dudley George) speaks with inquiry chair Sidney B. Linden on May 28, 2009, at Ipperwash. (Dave Chidley/CP)

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The 2007 Ipperwash report, led by Justice Sidney Linden, contains the most authoritative, thorough consideration of why, when, and how Dudley George died 25 years ago. Back in September 1995, a new government had recently been elected. Journalists and opposition politicians at Queen’s Park (notably, MPPs Gerry Phillips and Howard Hampton) soon began calling for a public inquiry into what had happened, because many feared that the police had acted wrongly and had been wrongly influenced by politicians in power.

The commission produced many dramatic findings and urgent recommendations, all of which are highly relevant today. Just this month, more than 20 people, including Oneida Nation of the Thames journalist Karl Dockstader and Six Nations of the Grand River researcher Courtney Skye, were arrested by the Ontario Provincial Police near Caledonia, where there’s been a demonstration against a private real-estate development on traditional Haudenosaunee lands. One section in the Ipperwash report, titled “Caledonia,” discusses a similar situation that unfolded during the commission’s deliberations. My point here is that the report is a goldmine of wisdom for Canadians considering this issue today, 25 years after George was shot dead by the OPP.

That said, in hindsight, there were also hidden biases at play. Despite Linden’s best efforts, there was something ethnocentric or colonial about how the commission was put together by our government and how it ran, or so it has been suggested to me by local residents.  Nevertheless, it was also true that the George family’s lawyer, along with the chief and council of Kettle and Stony Point First Nation, had called for a provincial public inquiry, so we were not foisting an unwanted government initiative on the community.

I launched the Ipperwash commission as attorney general, then received its recommendations as minister of Aboriginal affairs. The birth of that inquiry has its own history. I brought Order in Council 1163/2003 to cabinet to invoke the special status and powers of a public inquiry into George’s death. The order also named former chief justice Sidney B. Linden as the chief commissioner. The press conference I held in November 2003, after cabinet had approved that OIC, was my first as attorney general. I was barely a month into the job. I was 37 years old and tried in vain to convey gravitas. I was also aware that I had to avoid saying anything that might add fuel to the idea that this public inquiry was a partisan Liberal endeavour intended to seek out skeletons in the Progressive Conservative closet — in opposition, we’d been so critical of PC premier Mike Harris’s presumed interference with the OPP. A journalist levelled precisely that question at me, in even balder terms, at the Queen’s Park media studio that day.

Around that time, the Gomery inquiry was being launched in Ottawa: it was eventually terminated by a judicial review in federal court. That inquiry also involved a new government putting a former first minister on the stand. That first minister, Jean Chrétien, successfully challenged it as a self-serving political exorcism. The eventual undoing of that inquiry through the courts was what we feared would happen with the Ipperwash commission. While all the criminal proceedings had been concluded by the time we launched it, there remained the risk that Harris, or someone else implicated by the inquiry, would do to it what Chrétien eventually did to the Gomery inquiry.

For all those reasons, then-premier Dalton McGuinty and I agreed that we ought to keep the premier’s office at arm’s length on the inquiry terms and the choice of commissioner. If the Liberal premier's office were to mastermind the Ipperwash inquiry, it would look as political as the Progressive Conservative PO calling OPP brass into Queen’s Park to discuss police operations about Ipperwash. The truth is that McGuinty’s office had bigger fish to fry at the time: our first budget, which had to spend much on health care and education without raising taxes. (It didn’t go so well).

During my first weeks as attorney general, I spoke at length with Linden about the inquiry and about his ongoing work as chair of Legal Aid Ontario. Provincial inquiries are not like federal inquiries in terms of how they’re constituted. It’s not unusual for the feds to appoint someone eminent to recommend whether to call an inquiry and what the terms would be. In Ontario, at least, the process was more homespun. The bureaucracy came up with its list; my advisers had their list; and I called around myself. There was no algorithm for choosing a commissioner, nor could one put out a call for applicants. I could not run the names by any of the affected parties, at least directly. Indirectly, calls were made to Indigenous leaders to make sure that the shortlist didn’t include anyone offensive. Our prosecutors also weighed in on whether a prospective commissioner had a reputation for fairness. Again, in hindsight, it was wrong to presume that an Indigenous commissioner would lack objectivity — the working assumption at the time — while a non-Indigenous commissioner would retain it. 

My own circle included a number of Linden disciples: he was former Liberal attorney general Ian Scott’s choice for chief justice, after all. They all thought very highly of “Sid” but mused that he might allow the inquiry to become bigger than it needed to be. That was a fashionable concern back then: the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples had run longer than any in history (five years) and cost $60 million. Around that time, the Somalia inquiry had been shut down due to delays and costs. The Ipperwash Inquiry ended up costing $13 million and took three and a half years from OIC to final report.

And what’s found therein is profoundly important. George was there that night to peacefully protest the theft of Stony Point by the federal Crown. What went wrong, from top to bottom, is fully fleshed out in simple, clear prose, by Linden. I ended up referring to the authoritative account of Chippewas of Kettle and Stony Point First Nations’ history when I became chief negotiator for the First Nation’s land, long after I’d left politics. The $100 million final settlement arrived 80 years after the feds had turned Stony Point into an army camp — and more than 20 years after George’s death. Linden’s policy recommendations about policing and Indigenous peoples were taken seriously by the OPP, although its latest predilection for arrests at Caledonia suggests otherwise.

Unfortunately, its first recommendation has not come to pass. The federal government recently wrote all parties to get all the First Nations, government, and private-sector voices at the same table. Soon after the election, the Doug Ford government had left the tripartite talks that had been taking place with the feds and Six Nations Band Council. But the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, elected band council, and federal and provincial governments have not yet established what Linden recommended: “inter-ministerial ‘blockade’ committees to inform and coordinate governmental responses to Aboriginal occupations and protests when a potential federal interest is engaged.” Ending that omission would be a fitting tribute to the late Anthony O’Brien “Dudley” George.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the year in which journalists and opposition politicians began calling for a public inquiry. TVO.org regrets the error.

Michael Bryant will appear on The Agenda on September 16. Watch the interview live at 8 p.m. and 11 p.m., or stream it on Twitter or Facebook.

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