Saturday, June 02, 2007

Ipperwash Inquiry: A Journalistic Inquiry

On Thursday the findings of the Government of Ontario‘s official Inquiry into the events of the native occupation at Ipperwash Provincial Park during 1995 were released.

Ipperwash Provincial Park is located in southwestern Ontario on the shores of Lake Huron just south of the community of Grand Bend, Ontario. Back in the summer of 1995 tensions were brewing between the Stoney Point Natives and the federal government over a military base. The federal government had been promising to return the military base to native control once the Second World War had ended. However, around fifty years later the Stoney Point Natives were getting antsy. A group of the natives moved into the military base and occupied it. The military, sensing tensions were growing, had smartly moved out of the base smartly beforehand. However, the natives grew even more restless and began eyeing the next door Ipperwash Provincial Park. Labour Day weekend saw the natives move into and occupy the provincial park claiming there were native buriel grounds.
Friday morning the Toronto media published both the usual stories reporting on the inquiry’s findings as well as presenting analysis by their columnists. The Toronto Star‘s Queen’s Park Columnist, Ian Urquhart, blames the Ipperwash Affair almost entirely on then Ontario Premier Mike Harris. Urquhart’s main thesis that: “…[the] pressure from Harris to resolve the matter quickly contributed to the eventual outcome” of the Ipperwash clash. Urquhart goes onto point at that the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP), because of Harris’ pressure to resolve the native occupation of Ipperwash Provincial Park quickly, were thus forced to storm the park and remove the occupying group of natives. This prevented the police from negotiating with the native occupiers like the current provincial Liberal government is doing with the native occupation of Caledonia Ontario.
Ian Urquhart even points out that the Ipperwash Inquiry’s main stinging criticism of Mike Harris by writing: “For good measure, Linden also chooses not to believe Harris’s denial that he ever said, “I want the f—ing Indians out of the park.” Good Measure? Seems Urquhart only adds this little tidbit of information just to throw in some more anti-Mike Harris rhetoric to his column. Basically Urquhart uses this column to rail against the Conservative “law and order approach
On Friday the Toronto Star‘s Friday Editorial is not as scathing as their own columnist Ian Urquhart. The Star’s editorial attempts to answer the question of ‘what went wrong at Ipperwash? The editorial points to the three things as being the reason the whole Ipperwash Provincial Park occupation ended up in a very negative affair:
“…the impatience of former Ontario premier Mike Harris, cultural insensitivity in the Ontario Provincial Police and federal foot-dragging on aboriginal land issues.”

The editorial goes onto outline how each played its part and how the inquiry’s findings can lead to better actions by government in response to similar occupations like the Ipperwash affair. Why is the Star editorial correct?  Usually in explosive situations like the native occupation of Ipperwash Provincial Park there are several factors that lead to confrontation and not just one, as the Editorial outlines.

The first factor was that the newly elected Conservative government of Mike Harris wanted to solve the situation quickly. So the OPP felt the pressure from the provincial government to solve problem.
However, the pressure posed another problem, the commanders at the Ontario Provincial Police didn't have experience or knowledge of the history and cultural background of the native protesters. This pressure meant the police were being called upon to act quickly and, thus, were unable to bring in native historians and other experts to do some background research in order to establish how to best handle the situation. The OPP forced by haste were unable to even negotiate with the native occupiers of the provincial park and really had no other option but to storm the park. Add into the mix rumours of possible firearm possession by the native occupiers, a perfect storm had begun to brew.
But how did the whole situation become so bad? As the the Toronto Star notes the slowness of the federal government in resolving native land claims is the main problem. Had the federal government set up a process of negotiating the land claims of this particular area of the province, perhaps the natives would have seen some form of progress and an occupation would have been unnecessary. Had the federal government kept their word and vacated the military base voluntarily, perhaps the provincial park may never have been occupied. However, because the federal government failed to both set up land claim negotiations and failed to vacate the military base in a timely fashion, the natives of this area of the province became restless.
Over at the Toronto Sun, Queen’s Park Columnist Christina Blizzard believes the OPP are more to blame. Right off the top of her column she points out the Ipperwash Inquiry dismisses any involvement of the Mike Harris government in ending the dispute. Blizzard believes the lack of communication by the OPP and the cultural insensitivity of the whole Ontario Provincial Police were the main reasons for the Ipperwash occupation ending the way it did.
Is Blizzard right? Perhaps there was no pressure from the Harris government felt by those within the OPP who were in charge of the situation at Ipperwash. Perhaps the Commissioner of the OPP felt the pressure and didn't let the political pressure filter down to those in charge of policing the occupation at Ipperwash Provincial Park. On this basis the real factor in the Ipperwash situation were the officers in charge of the policing situation rushed to solve the problem at Ipperwash. The rush to solve the problem meant they decided to solve the problem instead of taking their time to investigate options into how best solve the situation. This ultimately meant the idea of negotiation was never considered.

The hypothesis that the Conservative government didn't interfere in the Ipperwash fiasco is the basis of the Toronto Sun’s Friday Editorial/Point of View. The editorial tries to ensure the all reasons the Ipperwash Inquiry found for the provincial Conservative government under Mike Harris was not blame are laid out. The attempt to show Mike Harris was not pressuring the OPP in the Ipperwash situation by the editorial is in quite the contrast to the Toronto Star’s Ian Urquhart column mentioned above. Urquhart basically only quotes a very minute section of the report on the involvement of Mike Harris. This is in contrast to the Toronto Sun Editorial that provides a whole paragraph excerpt from the inquiry’s report:
“Although Premier Harris was critical of the police, I do not find he interfered with or gave inappropriate directions to the police at Ipperwash … the premier did not inappropriately direct the OPP on its operations … or enter the law enforcement domain of the police. Although one may disagree with his view, it was legitimate for the Premier to take the position that the First Nations people were illegally occupying the park, and that he wanted them out of Ipperwash as soon as possible. He did not give direction on the manner in which the OPP should enforce the law; how, when and what arrests should be made; tactical decisions; or other actions the police should take to end the occupation … it was not inappropriate for the Premier to direct the Ontario government to seek an injunction (against the occupation) as soon as possible.”

With all these conflicting points of view from journalists and editorialists of two Toronto dailies, who is right?

The real answer lies with which source do you believe is correct. Personally, the Ipperwash Incident unraveled in a chronological sequence of events:

1. The federal government, who under the Canadian Constitution, looks after native issues failed in peacefully negotiating a land claim swap with the Stoney Point natives for this area of the province since the early 1900s. Lands seem to change hands between both public and private interests quite a bit in this area without input from the natives of the area

2. The federal government failed to close the Ipperwash Military base and return to the land to the Stoney Point natives following the Second World War. The natives were quite patient for over fifty years. However, near the end of the fifty years the native grew restless and saw no end in sight to the military occupying the military base.

3. The natives moved into occupy the military base. The Canadian military, hearing rumours of a possible confrontation over the military base, smartly moved out of the military base weeks before the occupation.

4. A group of the natives occupying the military base started eyeing the adjacent Ipperwash Provincial Park as another piece of land ripe for a native occupation. After all the Ipperwash Provincial Park had always been considered a site of a former native burial ground. With the occupation of the military base next door, the natives could occupy both the military base and provincial park all at once.

5. The OPP wanted to ensure the situation was quickly brought under control. When the natives had moved into the military base it was one thing. But now the natives had moved into Ipperwash Provincial Park, the optics of the situation showed that the provincial police had lost control of the situation. So the OPP wanted to swiftly move into and at least remove the natives from the provincial park portion of the occupation and leave the federal government to deal with the occupation of the military base.

6. There was some pressure felt from the provincial Conservative government. However, this pressure only came in the form of, as the Toronto Sun Editorial quoted from the Inquiry’s report,”…it was legitimate for the Premier to take the position that the First Nations people were illegally occupying the park, and that he wanted them out of Ipperwash as soon as possible.” Thus, the OPP knew the provincial government was moving towards having the occupation declared illegal anyway and action would need to be taken sooner rather than later. Was the pressure coming from the Premier’s Office ordering the OPP to move in right away? No, the Premier, as the inquiry and Sun columnist Christina Blizzard point out, no direct order was given. But there appears to be some indirect pressure from the provincial government for the OPP to solve the situation.

7. The OPP moved in quickly to quell the situation at the Ipperwash Provincial Park. Rumours of the native occupiers with guns meant that heavily armed OPP officers were used. As the OPP moved into Ipperwash Provincial Park one night, a firearm was thought to be observed. This led to the killing of Stoney Point native Dudley George.

8. The Conservative government denied any responsibility in the killing of Dudley George.

9. The Liberal government is elected in 2003 and starts an official public inquiry into the shooting of Dudley George and the occupation at Ipperwash Provincial Park.

This chain of events seems to meet both the Toronto Star‘s editorial beliefs of more than one factor leading to the situation blowing up at Ipperwash Provincial Park, Ian Urquhart’s belief that then Premier Mike Harris had some involvement, the Toronto Sun’s Editorial of little involvement of Mike Harris and Christina Blizzard’s belief that the OPP were the main bunglers of the whole situation. I have used the two Toronto dailies’ analysis of the situation to inform my own opinion on what happened in the fiasco at Ipperwash Provincial Park that ultimately lead to the death of Dudley George.

If one were to only read one publication and not the other, the reader would not see the conflicting analysis of the other publication as to what might have happened. So, sometimes, it pays to read the analysis of one major daily. This is especially the case on major political issues like the Ipperwash Inquiry where partisan sides tend to come out.

The governments of the future need to learn as much from the situation that erupted at Ipperwash, that future land claim disputes are not handled this way. Then possibly the if a situations like the ones that presented themselves at the Ipperwash are not repeated. This would also prevent another report having to be issued that is very similar to the one issued on Thursday.

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