The Ipperwash Incident: Event and Aftermath

Posted: December 5, 2011 by jsg91 in Uncategorized

Dudley George was the killed by Sergeant Ken Dean of the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) in September, 1995. He died in the midst of a land claims protest that took place at Ipperwash Provincial Park in Ontario. Prior to the death of George, no Aboriginal person had been killed in a land rights dispute since the 19th century. The park was being occupied by the Aboriginals because it was an ancient burial site. The land was taken by the federal government with promise of return in 1942 under the War Measures Act because World War II was happening at the time. In 1995 the Stoney Point Ojibway occupied the park in protest because the promise of return had not been followed through after fifty years. The peaceful protest took a violent turn when an altercation between the protesters, the OPP, the Crowd Management Unit and the Tactical Response Unit occurred at the Sandy Parking area of the park. It was in this altercation that Dudley George was shot from long range by Sergeant Ken Deane. In 1997 Sergeant Deane was convicted of criminal negligence causing death because the judge found that there was no way that the officer could have found “reasonable belief” that George was carrying a weapon in the situation. Sergeant Deane also resigned from his position in 2003. After significant public pressure especially from the Dudley family, an inquiry was launched to look into the events that transpired at Ipperwash. The results of the inquiry unearthed some shocking statements, attitudes, and errors on the part of the OPP and the Provincial Government lead by Then Prime Minister Mike Harris. Audio tapes were presented to the inquiry. In these tapes then Premier Mike Harris was caught expressing his frustration with the Aboriginal protesters at Ipperwash and that he wanted them removed from the park immediately. In voicing his frustration, Harris was also recorded making racist statements. There were similar audio recordings presented to the inquiry in which high ranking officers dealing directly with the Ipperwash protest were caught making racist remarks. The events at Ipperwash brought to light several problems, such as police deviance and police negligence. Also, the events gave insight into the broader issues such as the nature of the relationship between the government and the Aboriginals, as well as how Aboriginal land rights claims should be dealt with.

The first key issue to arise from the events at Ipperwash Provincial Park was the questionable tactics used by the police. The first error made was the hasty dispatching of the Tactical Response Unit(TRU) and the Crowd Management Unit(CMU). The problem with the pre-emptive dispatching of the TRU and CMU to this protest was that it was treated as if it was a violent protest that needed to be handled with such a response. The treatment of the response in such a way seemed to echo the frustrations of then Premier Mike Harris. The dispatching of these units in addition to the OPP already being on the scene seemed to heighten the tension in the area causing things to escalate to the point where an altercation occurred and unfortunately Dudley George was shot and killed. The inquiry stated that the protest was handled as if it was a sports protest because the TRU and CMU are usually dispatched to protests that have a tendency to turn violent. Therefore, the dispatching of the CMU and TRU can be considered as deviance on the behalf of the police because the response aimed to simply remove the protesters from the land and it failed to respect and comprehend the historical and cultural context that drove the protest. Another error was the failure to set up an effective channel of communication with the protesters which has shown be quite effective in protests regarding Aboriginal rights. Inspector John Carson who was an OPP commander at overseeing the events at Ipperwash admitted that that they did not exhaust all options to negotiate with the tribe and band leaders before taking more aggressive action. This statement shows blatant deviance because the statement of this Inspector shows that the OPP policy was not followed. The policy explicitly states that all efforts be made to come to a peaceful resolution unless a situation arises where someone health and safety is at risk. Instead of following official policy, Inspector Carson made efforts to help the Ministry of Natural Resources obtain an injunction so that the police would have “political cover” in the case that force would be used. The method of setting up a line of communication proved to be effective in a similar protest which had to do with Aboriginal fishing rights. In Burnt Church, New Brunswick a dispute took place between Aboriginals and commercial fisherman regarding the times and seasons that the Aboriginals were allowed to fish in. In this case, the police first educated the police officers as much as they could about the nature of the dispute and the historical and cultural context behind it. They then employed the liason policing approach. In this approach the aim is to solve the protest in a peaceful way and divert people from entering the criminal justice system. For example, many weapons were present during the dispute, but the police did not charge the people in the interest of the greater picture which was solving the dispute. In the end both sides mediated to a peaceful solution in Burnt Church. However, the dispute cost the tax payers of New Brunswick $17 million dollars and it took close to three years resolve.

The second key issue to arise from the events at Ipperwash is the treaty rights of Aboriginal people and the government’s obligation to uphold them. The land had significance to the Stoney Point Ojibway occupying it because it was a sacred burial ground. This issue intersects with the history of Canada and its history of colonialism. Also the broader issue of the relationship or lack thereof between the Aboriginals and the State becomes pertinent to the discussion. The Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) much like the OPP failed either to comprehend or respect the historical and cultural importance of this land. “When the injunction was applied for to evict the Aboriginal occupiers, the MNR did not mention that Ipperwash Provincial Park was indeed being claimed as a burial ground”(De Lint, W & Hall, A, 2009, p.226). Actions such as this indicate that the situation was not handled as a serious lands claim by people with legitimate grievances but more like an eviction of people trespassing for no reason. The inquiry suggested that an official land claims be created because one did not exist at the time of this dispute. The Stoney Point Ojibway much like other Aboriginal land claim protestors base their protests on the fact that they have “title” to the land they are occupying, but the issue that arises is that the charter does not refer to “Aboriginal title” in any way. “(Section 35) does not refer to Aboriginal title at all. Instead, it recognizes and affirms existing “Aboriginal and treaty rights.” Aboriginal rights are those possessed by Canadian First Nation people by virtue of their Aboriginality, including but not limited to-rights in land.”(Nadasdy,2002,p.248). Future issues would greatly benefit from the elimination of the legal gray area that currently exists in regards to these issues. Another point of consideration is that the treaty rights may not have been respected by provincial police because they are not well equipped to handle such an issue. In regards to a similar occurrence in Caledonia, Ontario in 2006 OPP Commissioner Fantino said “It has to be a federal response here. These are federal issues that go back to treaties”(De Lint, W & Hall, A, 2009, p.231).Land claims protests are prevalent throughout Canada because Aboriginal treaty rights are protected under our charter and those rights should at the very least be acknowledged if not honoured so that events similar to those at Ipperwash Provincial Park can be avoided in the future.
The third key issue to come out of the Ipperwash crisis is the discussion of whether race played a factor in the actions taken against the protesters which ultimately lead to the death of Dudley George. Systemic racism appears to be prevalent throughout Canada seeing as that Aboriginal people are heavily overrepresented in the criminal justice system in proportion to their population in Canada. It is quite plausible that such attitudes could have influenced the decisions and actions taken at Ipperwash Park. Mike Harris who was Premier of Ontario at the time made a controversial statement in regards to the crisis when he said “I want the fucking Indians out of the park”. This statement is powerful not only because it highlights the racist attitudes of Mike Harris, but because it highlights the racist attitudes of a person in a position of power. These attitudes were not only held within the office of Premier Harris, Stan Korosec who was in charge of the OPP emergency response team was also quoted as saying “We want to amass a fucking army. A real fucking army and do this. Do these fuckers big-time.” This statement is also significant because Korosec is also a person in a position of power and in his statement he clearly diverts from the official OPP policy that guides these land claim situations which emphasizes coming to a peaceful resolution in favour of a more militaristic and violent response. Race could have also played a positive role in this issue but it did not. In acknowledging this issue as a solely Aboriginal issue those officers in charge as well as the Premier Harris should have also acknowledged the legitimacy of the protest as well as the charter rights the Aboriginal people are were and still are entitled to. With attitudes such as those and those held by Harris and Korosec it gives the impression that death or serious injury was an inevitable outcome because the police deviated from the official policy and they were encouraged to do so by the government who disregarded the treaty rights of the Aboriginal people and pursued an injunction. The issue of race in terms of Ipperwash and Aboriginal people involved in the Criminal Justice System in general seems to be embedded within its organisational structure because individualistic explanations cannot effectively explain why events like Ipperwash occurred and continue to occur presently across Canada.

The events at Ipperwash are significant because they expose some deeper issues. The issues between the Aboriginal people of Canada and the state can be traced all the way back to colonialism. Colonialism is when one country takes control over a dependant country, territory or people. “Canada was created through a process of acquiring control over lands occupied by other nations”. For example, in 1878 many treaties were signed between then Prime Minister John A. Macdonald and the Aboriginal people to acquire any Aboriginal land that was in the way of the building of a proposed transcontinental railroad. Treaty disputes rage on today throughout Canada and the one at Ipperwash Provincial Park served as a tragic example of what could happen. These treaty protests have the potential to also affect non-Aboriginals. Though it was not the case at Ipperwash, if a person’s home is on a disputed land they could face the possibility of being displaced of their homes in the case that the government failed to uphold treaty rights. Another issue of note is that the attitudes and actions of the police significantly depart from the basic principles of policing which is something that all citizens should be concerned about even if they are not directly affected. Sir Robert Peel proposed nine basic principles for policing in the 19th century that still apply to policing today. An example of a failed principle in the Ipperwash case would be “police only use force to the extent necessary to secure observance of the law or to restore only when exercise of persuasion, advice and warning is found to be insufficient”. This protest garnered significant media coverage which can have a negative effect. Media coverage can lead to public pressure on the police because the public may believe that the police are not doing dealing with the situation in a timely manner. The public watch shows like COPS where the case is solved within one half hour episode and expect the real life police to operate with the same efficiency.”…Media cops hardly compare to their real-world counterparts. And when the real police do not act like their media portraits, the unrealistic public expectations generate real-world dissatisfaction with law enforcement” (Surette,2011,p.97). The Ontario provincial government may have taken such pre-emptive actions at Ipperwash because of fear of the aforementioned media effect. The events at Ipperwash and the many other prior and ongoing Aboriginal land claims disputes implicate what Maurice Punch refers to as “System Failure” corruption in his text. The system failure in this case would be the racist attitudes of the commanding officers. This is of concern because people in positions of power are making decisions with racial bias and those decisions are followed through by officers attending the scene. The pressure of following the orders of a superior may explain why the police may have used excessive force in handling the situation. This event could also be classified as what he calls “System failure with societal impact”. ”This is when a scandal goes beyond the criminal justice system, sponsoring demands for fundamental reform of the system but also raising demands to change the manner in which the state itself is governed”. In this case the demands lead to the calling of an inquiry which came up with recommendations for change. The main theme behind the recommendations of the inquiry was to establish communication between the Ontario Provincial Police and the Aboriginal people.

There are still ongoing issues in regards to Aboriginal Land Claims disputes today. In 2006 First Nations people took control of a patch of land in Caledonia Ontario claiming it as theirs. This protest was another where a treaty was not upheld and they were trying to block the building of a subdivision on the land. When the occupiers stayed on the land past a court mandated deadline for vacation the OPP was sent in. In this raid it was alleged that OPP officers conducted a raid armed with high power assault rifles and they used gratuitous force “.A spokeswoman for the protesters said one female protester was “beaten by five OPP officers”(De Lint, W & Hall, A, 2009, p.230). This is just one example of the countless ongoing land claims disputes in Canada. The fact that there are still disputes of this nature and reports of police using excessive force even after the tragic events at Ipperwash indicate that there are issues that need to be addressed that are allowing such things to reoccur. One such issue that I believe allows police deviance to occur in these cases is the monetary issue. The Burnt Church crisis is a model example of how to properly deal with Aboriginal treaty rights without the police having to resort to more aggressive tactics. At Burnt Church they used the liaison policing approach to essentially broker a deal between the two sides. However, the reality is that the Burnt Church crisis was very costly and time consuming. The cost is one that most police detachments cannot afford to take on which leads to them having to remove the occupiers with force and in some cases that force has turned out to be excessive or even fatal. Also the fact that the Burnt Church Crisis took a long time would not work in a lot of cases because if a situation gained enough steam from the media then the police would be pressured into handling the situation in a more proactive way rather than from a liaison approach. In relation to the topic of cost and time, I think that the issue of police deviance and accountability would greatly benefit if the recommendations of the long and costly inquiries became more mandatory. As stated earlier, the recommendations followed a theme of communication and reconciliation. Pursuing these goals would not only minimize deviance but improve the relationship with the Aboriginal people of Canada and the state with the police being representatives of the state. The Aboriginal people have faced great adversity and there are many examples throughout history. The amount of Aboriginal people in jail in proportion to their percentage of the total population would be an example of this adversity. This overrepresentation could suggest another form of police deviance known as “tunnel vision” which would be classed a systemic factor. Another example would be the fact that the last residential school did not close its doors until 1996. A residential school was essentially a special boarding school where Aboriginal children were sent to learn to be more “Western” and forget their traditions and culture. These schools were The most disturbing part of this marginalization was that it was regulated by the Canadian government. I also think that addressing the legal grey area that exists in regards to the protection of Aboriginal treaty rights but not “title” would minimize if not erase issue of Aboriginal land claims disputes. The events that transpired at Ipperwash Provincial Park in Ontario as well as the countless other land claims disputes that have been protested and continue to be protest show cases of police deviance and simultaneously shed light on ongoing issues regarding the relationship between the Aboriginal people of Canada and the country itself.

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

The Ipperwash Inquiry (2007). (

Nadasdy, Paul, (2002). “Property” and Aboriginal Land Claims in the Canadian Subarctic: some Theoretical
Considerations. American Anthropologist, New Series, Vol. 104. No1

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

Surette, Ray. (2011). Media, Crime and Criminal Justice: Images Realities and Policies. Belmont,CA: Cengage Learning


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