The Lessons of Ipperwash Revisited

Aug 12, 2021 12:00 PM ET

The Lessons of Ipperwash Revisited

Most Canadians are justifiably proud of what their nation has accomplished in its first 150 years.

Canadians are, by and large, an affable people. They can point to Canada’s tolerant immigration policy and its official government policy of multiculturalism. They can also point to the explicit recognition of Aboriginal rights in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms of 1982.

Canada has owned up to its mistakes with its First Peoples, or at least it seemed so in 2008.

A Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established as part of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement. Before the work of the commission got underway, on June 11, 2008, then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued an apology on behalf of the Canadian government to a special joint session of the House of Commons and the Senate, addressing the Canadian government’s role in the Indian Residential Schools.

“Mr. Speaker,” the Prime Minister began,6″ I stand before you today to offer an apology to former students of Indian residential schools. The treatment of children in Indian residential schools is a sad chapter in our history. . . . Today, we recognize that this policy of assimilation was wrong, has caused great harm, and has no place in our country. . . .

“The government now recognises that the consequences of the Indian residential schools policy were profoundly negative and that this policy has had a lasting and damaging impact on aboriginal culture, heritage and language.”

Mr. Harper’s statement was well-received by the representatives of the First Nations, Inuits, and Metis in attendance. But just a year later the PM expressed a contradictory sentiment at the G20 in Pittsburgh:

“We’re so self-effacing as Canadians that we sometimes forget the assets we do have that other people see. . . . We are one of the most stable regimes in history. . . . We also have no history of colonialism. So we have all of the things that many people admire about the great powers but none of the things that threaten or bother.”

Ipperwash reminds us that a little more self effacement may be called for.

In 1942, the Canadian government seized the burial grounds of the Chippewas of Kettle and Stony Point First Nation to build a military training ground. The tribe consented, with the understanding that their land would be returned to the Chippewas at the end of the war.

The land was not returned. Instead, it became the 56-hectare Ipperwash Provincial Park. The Canadian federal government reneged on its clear promise to the Chippewa people.

Five decades of protests culminated in a peaceful occupation of the park on Labour Day Monday, September 4, 1995. On Wednesday, the Ontario Provincial Police expressed concern that some of the protesters were carrying sticks. That evening, a brawl broke out beyond the park boundaries. And as a busload of protesters started to leave the park, ostensibly to join the brawl, provincial police fired on the bus 5 meters inside park boundaries, killing tribal member Dudley George.

In the trials that resulted, Ontario Provincial Attorney General Charles Harnick testified that Premier Mike Harris had said “I want the fucking Indians out of the park.” The Attorney General’s testimony was found credible despite the fact the Premier’s assistant answered 134 questions with “I don’t recall.”

Dr. Edward Hedican preserved a clear and unbiased history of the incident in his book IPPERWASH: The Tragic Failure of Canada’s Aboriginal Policy. He bore considerable criticism from his academic peers, who insist that class struggle is furtive and under the surface and can only be understood in those terms.

Hedican dares to point out the obvious: There’s nothing furtive about a bullet. And the preservation and growth of Canadian values requires memory of our worst mistakes.

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