In Indigenous reporting, what has changed since Ipperwash?


“…All in all, the Ipperwash crisis was not journalism’s finest hour.”

                                    — Former Ryerson Journalism professor John Miller


Intro by Romayne Smith Fullerton

September 6 is the 17th anniversary of the death of Dudley George — an unarmed First Nations occupier shot and killed by an OPP officer at Ipperwash Provincial Park in Southwestern Ontario. 


“…All in all, the Ipperwash crisis was not journalism’s finest hour.”

                                    — Former Ryerson Journalism professor John Miller


Intro by Romayne Smith Fullerton

September 6 is the 17th anniversary of the death of Dudley George — an unarmed First Nations occupier shot and killed by an OPP officer at Ipperwash Provincial Park in Southwestern Ontario. 

All these years later, it’s important to remember and reconsider what went wrong. As the public inquiry report of 2007 noted, Ipperwash marked a failure of a number of Canadian institutions—journalism included.

John Miller wrote a detailed analysis for the inquiry about how our media covered the crisis. The now-retired Ryerson Journalism professor concluded that overall, Canadian journalists framed the story, not as one about patient people who had a legitimate claim to the land, but rather as “violent lawless First Nation people who were making a fuss” (Miller 8).

Journalists failed to recognize they were actually dealing with another culture. All these years later, I wonder if we would do a better job now.

Covering both sides of a story like Ipperwash is insufficient to fulfill the journalistic obligation to fairness when the reporting ignores cultural assumptions built on a White worldview. What makes this especially troubling is that journalists were not covering the odd customs of a foreign people from a far corner of the world.  They were telling – or actually not telling – the stories of a people who live among them and whose laws, customs, and sovereignty long precede their own on this land.

Truth and justice, the very foundation of journalism’s mission and its ethics, cannot be practiced in an offhand manner when telling stories across cultures. These principles require deliberate application and, as American ethics scholar Edmund Lambeth wrote in Committed Journalism: An Ethics for the Profession, do “not generate like a Platonic spark generated by rubbing two press cards together” (25).

When journalists fail to pursue conscientiously what truth and justice mean for all those they cover, they fail their responsibilities.

Today, Maurice Switzer, director of communications for the Union of Ontario Indians, offers his recollections about Ipperwash.


*   *   *

By Maurice Switzer

I can remember where I was when I heard that Dudley George had been killed much more clearly than I can recall first learning about President John F. Kennedy’s assassination.

The two events are linked in my memory, partly because of the horrific nature of random acts of public violence, but primarily because there were political overtones to both slayings.

While no concrete evidence ever surfaced to support the murky conspiracy theories that surrounded the Kennedy assassination, the reputable human rights agency Amnesty International felt comfortable in characterizing the police shooting of Dudley George as an “extra-judicial execution.”

Both positions  were supported by the reports of exhaustive public inquiries – the President’s Commission on the Assassination of President Kennedy, chaired by U.S. Chief Justice Earl Warren – and the Ipperwash Inquiry conducted by Sidney B. Linden, former Chief Justice of the Ontario Court of Justice, Provincial Division.

The respected jurists each concluded that a lone gunman had committed the crimes under investigation – Lee Harvey Oswald in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963 and Acting O.P.P. Sergeant Kenneth Deane at Ipperwash Provincial Park on Sept. 6, 1995. But Justice Linden heard enough evidence over the course of 25 months to convince him that his report should discuss why Dudley George had died, not just how.

There was no doubting that Ken Deane had pulled the trigger – he was convicted of criminal negligence in Dudley George’s death a decade before Justice Linden released his Ipperwash report.  Justice Linden’s contribution to public awareness was in creating some context for the police killing of an unarmed First Nation protestor in hopes that greater understanding might prevent the likelihood of similar tragedies in the future.  (Had the Warren Commission been given a similar mandate, it might have given a higher profile to recommendations for more stringent gun control in a nation that records over 30,000 firearm-related fatalities each year.)

The Ipperwash Inquiry took evidence from Elders and academics about the Treaty relationship between Canadians and First Nations going back to the Royal Proclamation of 1763, which decreed that the Indian tribes of North America were to be treated as Nations with inviolable rights to their traditional lands. Its hearings in the Forest, Ont. community centre  fast-forwarded through three centuries of broken promises to a contemporary Ontario in which few citizens – including provincial police officers and politicians – knew anything about the sacred agreements forged between the Crown and First Nations to share the land and its resources.

It concluded that misunderstanding about First Nations peoples and their inherent and Treaty rights had spawned racist attitudes that were evident in the highest corridors of political power.

One of the report’s most dramatic findings was that former Premier Mike Harris had berated a meeting of cabinet members and senior police officers about what he saw as the illegal occupation of Ipperwash by a few dozen First Nations citizens, demanding that they “get the fucking Indians out of the park.” This type of incendiary behaviour helped create an environment, the report suggested, that made the subsequent police killing of Dudley George more likely to occur.

What has changed since the fateful night of Sept. 6, 1995?

The fact that the protestors’ cause was just – yes, the federal government had not returned land expropriated in 1942 to create a military training base, and yes, archaeologists have found First Nations burial remains at the former provincial park site – does not erase the reality of Dudley George’s death.  What is important, Justice Linden recognized, is that changes be made in Ontario to minimize the likelihood of such calamities recurring.

Seventeen years after the shooting, Camp Ipperwash is still being occupied by citizens of Kettle and Stony Point First Nation. The federal government has promised to return it to the First Nation,  and the site is currently being combed for the possible presence of unexploded ammunition.

The provincial government closed nearby Ipperwash Provincial Park and promised to return it to the First Nation, but the transfer is bogged down in bureaucratic red tape involving both provincial and federal governments.

Justice Linden’s 100 recommendations included several calling for increased public education about treaties, and there has been some evidence that Ontario’s Ministry of Education has made significant strides in this area. But as long as members of the general public accept mass media reporting as reliable sources of information about First Nations issues, improvements in the classroom can be offset by ignorance in the newsroom.

Longtime journalist and journalism educator John Miller prepared a report for the Ipperwash Inquiry about media coverage dealing with the events surrounding Dudley George’s death. “I’ve done a lot of studies about media coverage about black people, Vietnamese people and the connection with crime, and I know now from looking at Ipperwash that the stereotyping and unconscious racism towards Native people in this country is worse than towards any other group,” he said. “It’s pretty bad towards any other group, but towards Native people it’s dreadful.”

Frankly, a week does not pass without me seeing a flagrant example of racist attitudes towards First Nations being publicly expressed by a politician, police officer, or journalist.

People employed in the first two of those sectors need to understand that Canada can never achieve its full potential as a nation until it finds a way to be truly inclusive of First Peoples, a relationship envisioned by the Treaty-makers.

People employed in the third sector have a responsibility to enhance that understanding.

Dudley George was no John F. Kennedy; family members have described him as somewhat of a practical joker, a cut-up who liked to clown around. Yet if Ontarians don’t get serious about dealing with the issues that ultimately led to his death, I’m willing to bet that his name will still hold currency in this province as long as portraits of dead presidents grace the fronts of American dollar bills.


Further reading:

Maurice Switzer is a citizen of the Mississaugas of Alderville First Nation in southern Ontario. He serves as director of communications for the Union of Ontario Indians and editor of the Anishinabek News. Previously he was director of communications for the Assembly of First Nations, and editor and publisher at five daily newspapers, including the Winnipeg Free Press. He was the first Indigenous publisher of a daily newspaper in Canada.