A media failure? Reporter defends Ipperwash coverage

Peter Edwards

Peter EdwardsI’ve never dreaded an interview as much as the one I had recently with my old friend, Sam George.

The topic was how Sam has been diagnosed with pancreatic and lung cancer and how many people – although not Sam – think he has little time left among us.

That was on my mind a few days later when I took part in a Canadian Journalism Foundation panel discussion at the University of Toronto called, “The Greatest Canadian Media Failure of the Century: Reporting on Aboriginal Issues.”

In my opening remarks, I talked about how I first met Sam early in the morning on Sept. 7, 1995, a few hours after his younger brother Dudley had been shot dead by an Ontario Provincial Police officer in a burial grounds protest at Ipperwash Provincial Park on Lake Huron.

Dudley was originally dismissed as a terrorist and a criminal, but Sam’s persistent questioning brought to light what really happened the night his brother died.

By the time Sam was done telling his story and asking his questions, a court found that Dudley had been unarmed. Top politicians were shown to be liars and scores of recommendations were drafted on how to prevent such a terrible tragedy from ever happening again.

Sam’s search for truth was, by any standards, a success and it began immediately after he received the news of his brother’s death.

That morning when I first met Sam, he had never spoken with a reporter before and one of my first questions was about who he blamed for the tragedy.

“I’m not blaming anyone but I need to know the truth,” he told me in a soft voice.

I told the Canadian Journalism Foundation panel that it was years before I learned what Sam really meant that terrible night. The word truth in Ojibway is Debwewin, and it means something that’s factually correct, but also involves healing.

Debwewin isn’t about anger or accusations or scapegoating or knee-jerk politics, but rather about pulling out the best in people.

Since that first meeting, I have talked with Sam hundreds of times. My interview with him last month was emotional, but I left happy that we’d chatted. Sam still wants to get his story out and he still appreciates it when the mainstream media – or anyone else – listens. He doesn’t want to have another Ipperwash tragedy. He wants people outside his community to understand Debwewin too.

That was the message I hoped to bring to the journalism panel.

I left the panel discussion at The University of Toronto with a feeling of failure. I felt depressed and angry and wondered if I should have bothered to show up in the first place.

I tried to tell Sam’s story, but it clearly made no impression on the first person to stand up and address the panel. He blasted us in the mainstream media for being derelict in our responsibilities. He had clearly read none of the more than 600 articles Harold Levy and I wrote for the Toronto Star, or seen the scores of editorials, columns and political cartoons in the Star pushing for a public inquiry.

He also obviously hadn’t read articles and editorials in The Globe and Mail by Richard Mackie and Kirk Makin, or appreciated how the Globe stayed with the story, despite a $15-million libel suit from former Premier Mike Harris. He also seemed unaware of fine investigative material that aired of CBC-TV’s the fifth estate. He clearly had no interest in any of this. His mind was made up already. We were from the mainstream media and so we must be guilty, no matter what we do or try to do.

Unlike me, Sam is a patient man, and is able to deliver a powerful message gently.

Sam has often told me that he doesn’t allow himself to be goaded into anger. Keeping his cool was something he consciously worked on in his push for a public inquiry, with the help of elders like Thomas White of the tiny Washagamis Bay First Nation in northwestern Ontario.

“If I didn’t, I’d just be another angry person,” Sam told me more than once.

That night at the panel, I didn’t feel like apologizing for being a member of the mainstream media. I still don’t. Truth be told, I’m proud of it and grateful that the Star allowed Harold Levy and I to stay with the story for more than a dozen years, even when we were routinely served with libel notices, including three in one particularly nasty week.

I’m also grateful and surprised that CTV aired a movie based on One Dead Indian, my book on Ipperwash. In doing so, they also went along with Sienna Films’ conviction that all major cast members had to be First Nations.

I blasted the questioner and I still think he deserved it, but as I drove home, I didn’t feel good. My mind shifted to Sam’s elderly cousin Clifford George and how he was also able to motivate people into positive actions with laughter and gentle words, not verbal blasts. During a break at the Ipperwash inquiry, Clifford told me: “I’ve been asked a lot of times, ‘Don’t you hate white people? I can’t hate nobody. … I learned a long time ago if you want to have friends, you’ve got to be one.” Another of his favorite sayings was, “Don’t look down on someone unless you’re going to help him up.”

Midway through the public inquiry, Clifford learned he had cancer too and he didn’t live to see Commissioner Sidney Linden’s final report. As I drove home after the journalism panel, I couldn’t escape feeling that we’re all on borrowed time, and that Sam and Clifford’s achievement in bringing out Debwewin is something that should be honoured and copied during our limited time.

There are plenty more stories like Ipperwash that desperately need to be told. We should be telling them together, rather than simply pointing fingers and being just more angry people.

Watch a video of the Canadian Journalism Foundation panel discussion featuring Peter Edwards, “The Greatest Canadian Media Failure of the Century: Reporting on Aboriginal Issues.”

Peter Edwards is a reporter for The Toronto Star and author of One Dead Indian. He won the first ever Debwewin
Citation for excellence in journalism from the Union of Ontario
Indians for his coverage of the Ipperwash issue. He is also the author of five other books, including
A Mother’s Story: The Fight To Free My Son David (with Joyce Milgaard), which was shortlisted for an Arthur Ellis award.