Ipperwash & The Fight for Aboriginal Rights; A Darker Side of Canadian History

Posted: December 5, 2011 by luck26 in Ipperwash

Brief Overview: Police brutality against group protest is a growing issue for the criminal justice system across Canada. In Ontario, the infamous Ipperwash incident highlighted the ongoing struggle between the First Nations and the Government. The events at Ipperwash were about a dispute over land claim and the Aboriginal citizens engaged in a peaceful protest resulted in the killing of one protester, by the Ontario Provincial Police (Fennel, 1995). Such unfortunate outcome often increases tension between the First Nation, the Government, and the police. Over the past twenty years, incidents involving police brutality have led to a negative perception of the police by groups who demonstrate their dissatisfaction with public policy (de Lint, 2009). Events such as the highly publicize Ipperwash crisis in Ontario led to community allegation of a police state, whereas the political elites interfere in police operations (de Lint, 2009).

Background: The Ipperwash crisis is about an ongoing dispte between the Stony Point Ojibway and the Canadian Government.  The Stony Point Ojibway are a First Nation band who lived in Ipperwash, Ontario.  During the World War 2, the Canadian government wanted built a military base in Ipperwash, regardless of the fact that this land was already occupied by the first nation. At first, the government made an offered to buy the land but the First Nation refused it because the land contained burial ground and was a sacred site for them. Afterward, under the War Measure Act, the government orders the band to clear out Ipperwash so a military base can be built on the site. The government promises to return the land to the first nation when the war was over. When the war finally came to an end, no process was taken in order to return the land and the military was still occupying the site in 1990. For more than 40 years, the tension builds up between the First Nation and the Federal Government. In 1993, the Stony Point First Nation went back to Ipperwash and occupied the site even though it was still use for military purposes. Numerous first nation families were there to retake their land because it had a deep cultural meaning. They did not want to cause any arm or any sort of violence. Unfortunately, the Federal Government did not respect the promises to return the land after the war. He wanted the First Nation to go settle somewhere else, so the military base could stay in Ipperwash Camp.  In September 1995, more First Nation came to occupy Ipperwash and the military left the base. One night the then Prime Minister of Ontario, Mike Harris, order the Ontario Provincial Police to step in and remove the First Nation from the site. As a result of the raid, Dudley George, who was an Ojibway, was shot and died on his way to the hospital. Dudley George was unarmed.
Sentencing & Inquiry: In 1997, the officer who shot Dudley George was found guilty of criminal negligence causing death. Not long after the final verdict, the accused resign from the O.P.P. A public inquiry for the Ipperwash crisis began in 2003, 8 years after the events. In 2007, 12 years after the death of the unarm protester, the inquiry conclude that the O.P.P, the Federal and the Provincial Government are all responsible for the death of Dudley George. The inquiry also found out that the OPP used racist comment and inappropriate use of force. One video from cbc showed one police officer saying “Just a great big fat fuck Indian”.  This conversation was recorded one day before the murder of Dudley George.  It was released during the course of the investigation, in order to provide a better understanding of why the police opened fire on the unarmed protester.  As a result of the inquiry, the Ontario Provincial Government had to return the land to the First Nation as well as money compensation for the Stony Point First Nation members. The inquiry mentioned that that in order to address the issue of policing, more recruit with Aboriginal cultural background are need in the police force. However, the dynamic within the police culture needs to be change in order to ameliorate the relationship between the community and the police. Many groups such as Amnesty International condemn the improper action taken by the Canadian and Ontario Government. First Nation groups from all over America were concerned by this event.

– How the events at Ipperwash fit into the history of Canadian police / First Nations relations-The events at Ipperwash are not isolated. Similar events occurred many times in the past and are against law, since the Government and the police should operate independently. However, the reality makes me believe of the emergence of a police state. The Gustafson Lake Crisis, for istence, is another major event that involved struggle over land claim and confrontation between Natives and Police.  Similar to Ipperwash, this case also involved violence, racism and harsh feeling between the groups. Unfortunate events like this demonstrate that police assumes that protesters are criminals, which is wrong. Police need more strict rules so those who attend such events do not need to fear to be the victim of police brutality. Police greatest concern should be about the rights of the citizens and not the will of the Canadian Government. Therefore, the issue of police brutality as well as criminal injustice toward the First Nation seems to be taken up in an individualistic or “rotten apples” approach. However, it is a much more of a systematic problem embodied in the police culture.  The relation of distrust between the police, the criminal justice agencies and the First Nations is shaped by a long history of racism and colonialism. For instance in recent years, the Starlight tour phenomena is an example of systematic racism toward the Native and cannot be explain with the “Rotten Apple” approach. A Starlight tour occurs during the cold winter period and involves the police taking an Aboriginal person into their car and then abandoning them on the side of the road, far away from the city. The freezing cold weather may ultimately lead to the person’s death. It involves the complicity of more than one officer so it can only be explain with a rotten barrel or even rotten orchard approach.

What impact does the history or “legacy” of police forces in colonial relations have on contemporary relationships between indigenous peoples and the police?  Both the Ipperwash crisis and the starlight tours phenomena involved systematic racism by the police and the Government officials against the Aboriginal people.  Racist behavior seems to take its roots back to the European colonial era. From the past colonial time to present days, Aboriginal people in Canada have been the victim of a criminal justice system which over-represented them in the carceral system. According to Susan Dion (2005) “Canadians «refuse to know» that the racism that fueled colonization was a result of a system which benefits all non-Aboriginal people, not just the European settlers of long ago”.  Therefore, the Canadian Government and the police are the dominant group who use their power to control, shape and even erase any forms of Aboriginal culture and religion. Dion (2005) explain that the police force in Canada are in majority from white European background and are predispose to discriminate against First Nation groups since “the police have consistently manipulated the image of Aboriginal people, constructing meaning to serve their needs at different times and in different situations” (Dion, 2005). Therefore, Aboriginal are label as criminal and this has led them to be arrested and incarcerated at higher rate than white people. When looking at the incarceration rate, First Nation are about 2% of the total population in Canada, however, they comprise 10% of the prison population. The First Nation’s cultural values are misunderstood by the police, which result a relationship of distrust between Aboriginal communities and the law enforcement agencies such as the RCMP. Furthermore, the police tend to have more patrol in areas where cultural values differ from the dominant group. Other areas where the values fit the police officer’s believes are far less patrol and therefore less people are arrested.  Furthermore, white people who commit the very same crime are far less likely to be arrested and charged. As a result, Aboriginal people are over-represented in the Canadian Criminal Justice System since they are discriminate against by the police who enforce the values of the dominant group. Furthermore, according to Rudin (2005), Aboriginal who are asking for police help are often ignore because they are seen as less worthy victims. Similarly, the Government behaved in similar fashion when they ignore the land claimed by the Natives and made them waiting for more than 50 years, which was a central issue at Ipperwash.

Police Misconduct is Embodied in the Police Institution: According to Punch (2011) “even when the rule of law is ostensibly  in place it can be that states representatives faced with an acute treat, resorts to illicit force (Punch: 4) .”  Prior to Dudley George killing, the then Ontario premier Mike Harris issued an order to operate a night time raid in order to remove the protesters from the park.  Furthermore, the event was highly covered by the media all across Canada. As a result, during the events at Ipperwash, the OPP had a tremendous amount of pressure for productivity, from the public and the police organization itself. In order to answer expectation sfrom the public, media and their management, the police are likely to use extra-legal methods in order to solve the issue. In the book “Police Deviance”, the author Maurice Punch mentioned that the use of extra-legal methods is embodied in the police institution and is also an occupational requirement.  It is legal and legitimate for the police to use force in circumstances whereas there are threats to the victim’s life or the officer’s life. However, in case such as Ipperwash, the protester who was killed by the police was not a threat to anyone, neither he had any weapon on his person.  The officer who opened fire did not have any legitimate reason to justify his action. Therefore, the killing of Dudley George at Ipperwash camp was a crude act of police brutality.

Dirty Harry” Problem is a Feature of Police Culture: Maurice Punch, explain that the Dirty Harry phenomena is when the police use extra-legal methods such as violence in order to arrest the criminal. It occurred when the police continue to use extreme force even though the suspect is not a threat. The police who use Dirty Harry methods see themselves as correct officers because bending the rules is essential for achieving their goals. Therefore, the use of extreme force is an occupational requirement for the police. The Police officers who took part of the night raid at Ipperwash did use “Dirty Harry” methods so they can “get the job done”. The unfortunate end result was the homicide of unarm man who was not a treat to anyone safety.

Rotten Apple vs Rotten Orchard: The events at Ipperwash had little to do with one police officer who decides to pull the trigger on a protestant. It is the result of social, institutional, and cultural pressure that pushed the officer to commit the ultimate act. In other words, social pressure has to do with the relationship between the society, the media and the police; institutional pressure has to do with organizational structure; cultural pressure has to do with the police culture, brotherhood and code of silence (Punch, 2009). The police officer who shot and killed the protester was convicted of criminal negligence causing death after the court ruled that the accused officer did not have the “reasonable belief” the protester was armed and dangerous.  As a result of the commission that investigated the police behavior at Ipperwash Park, only two officers were own accountable for their racist comment. One was sent to sensitivity training as disciplinary measure and he later resign from the Ontario Police Force while the other officer who was guilty of criminal negligence was laid off. The commissions address the police wrongdoing as an individual failure, but did not address any issue regarding the institutional failure. In other word, the commission analyzed the Ipperwash incident by maintaining the hypothesis of “bad apple” and disregards anything related with the police institution. According to Punch (2009), there is a cycle to police scandals and reforms. The chain of event begins when the police wrongdoing is enlightened by the media, which draw social and political attention. Then, a commission investigates the events and results in special measures that are believed to remove the issue for good. However, similar events with a similar commissions and results with similar measures reoccurred as time passed. The problem of police misconduct is not address properly by the commission, who still make use of the “bad apple theory”, and unfortunate events such as the death of an unarm civilian is the result of such misconception.

-Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? (Who watches the watchmen?) There is concern about the police and the government transparency and accountability when policing event such as Ipperwash or any other form of protest. According to Punch, “policing, in order to be effective, must be based on consent across the community (Punch, 2009).” He also argued that the concept of accountability is “the formal obligation within a democracy; notion of good governance; of being transparent to the public and other stakeholder on policies and conduct; and of internally generated norms of professional accountability (Punch,  2009). At Ipperwash in 1995, pressure from then Prime Minister Mike Harris government on the police may have urged the officers to remove the protesters. As a result of the government extensive pressure, the police use deadly force even though no one’s life was in jeopardize. Similarly, more recently, the former Prime Minister Jean Chretien was involved in the 1997 Asia Pacific Economic Community conference in University of British Columbia and the protesters were again the victim of police brutality (de lint, 2009).  According to the Ipperwash final inquiry report (p.74), transparency in decision making will enhance police accountability and facilitate communication between the police and the community. In the context of Aboriginal protest over land claim, transparency will address the issue of distrust between the government and the police vis-a-vis Aboriginal communities.

Why the Ipperwash Crisis need to not be forgotten? Following the Ipperwash Crisis, the Canadian Government wanted to decrease the Aboriginal overrepresentation in the Criminal Justice System. For instance, s. 718.2(e) of the Crminal Code implores judges to look at alternatives to incarceration. In the late 1990, the Federal and the Ontario Provincial Government created a justice system specifically for Aboriginal offenders, with a system administered by Aboriginal people. However, the number of First Nation people incarcerated across Canada did not drastically decrease for the past 15 years despite the number of positive programs seeking to help First Nation Offenders.  According to Rudin (2005), “In order for these programs to make a difference, Crown Attorneys must be willing to have matters that would otherwise result in jail sentences referred to these programs.” Therefore, the Crown must accept the pertinence of an Aboriginal justice system that emphasis on rehabilitation and restorative justice instead of relying ultimately on incarceration.

Conclusion: Troughout the Canadian history, Aboriginal occupations and protests shape the relationship between the Natives and the police. Too often, Aboriginal in Canada were left in the dark and rejected by the dominant group. However, the unfortunate Ipperwash event, which cost the life of Dudley George by the O.P.P, fueled the debate about Aboriginal rights in Canada. As a result, there is light of collaboration and mutual respect between Aboriginal communities and the police forces. It is a positive sign of brighter days ahead of us, where discrimination and systematic racism against Natives will become inexistent.



CBC News. (2007). The Ipperwash Inquiry. (http://www.cbc.ca/news/background/ipperwash/)

De Lint, W. Hall, A.(2009). Intelligent Control: Developments in Public Order Policing in Canada. Toronto, CAN: University of Toronto Press.

Dion, S. (2005). Aboriginal People and Stories of Canadian History: Investigating Barriers to Transforming Relationships.” Possibilities and Limitations: Multicultural Programs and Policies in Canada. 34-57. ed. Carl E. James.  Winnipeg: Fernwood Publishing.

Fennel, T. (1995). Deadly Confrontation on an Ontario Reserve. Maclean`s. 108(38). 22-24.

Punch, M. (2009). Police Corruption. Deviance, accountability and reform in policing.  Portland, Or:Willan Publishing.

Punch, M. (2011). Police accountability, firearm, and fatal force. Portland, Or: The Policy Press.

Rudin, J. (2005). Aboriginal Peoples and the Criminal Justice System: A Background Paper Prepared for the Ipperwash Inquiry.  Ipperwash Inquiry Paper-Draft.



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