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A story of stolen land

by Thomas King

Portrait of Thomas King

Thomas King

• In 1942, during World War II, the Government of Canada went looking around for a place to set up a military-training base. Surprise of surprises, they found such a site on the Stoney Point Ojibway reserve in Ontario. Ipperwash.

The government offered the band fifteen dollars an acre for the land. The band refused and the government confiscated the land with the explicit promise to return it after the war. I should mention that wars have provided excellent opportunities for the theft of Indian land. The Stoney Point Ojibway were not the only people to have land confiscated in the interests of a war effort. In 1917, in the dead of winter, the U.S. Army moved the Nisqually out of their homes in Washington State and “condemned” more than two-thirds of the reservation. Then the land was transferred to the U.S. Department of War, which used the gift of 3,300 acres to expand Fort Lewis and construct an artillery range.

Further west on the prairies following World War I, amendments to the Indian Act in 1918 gave Canada’s Department of lndian Affairs the power to lease band land and give it to non-Natives for proper cultivation. “We would be only too glad to have the Indian use this land, if he would,” lamented Arthur Meighen, the Minister of the Interior and Superintendent of Indian Affairs, “But he will not cultivate this land and we want to cultivate it; that is all.”

But back to Ipperwash. The war came and went, as wars will do, yet the land was not returned. Over the years, at various times, the Stoney Point Ojibway protested the original confiscation and in 1996 that protest took on a new life.

In September of that year, about 35 Natives took over the park to call attention to the long- standing land claim. At first, things were reasonably peaceful. And then harsh words were exchanged. An Ontario Provincial Police cruiser had its window smashed. A band councillor had a rock thrown at his car. One story about a woman in a car being attacked with a baseball bat proved to be a fabrication by the police, supposedly for public relations reasons. The pushing and shoving escalated and the confrontation came to a head with police firing on a car and a school bus, wounding two of the Native protestors and killing Dudley George.

I must admit, I know little about Ipperwash. I’ve never been to the park. What I know of the confrontation that led to Dudley George’s death, I know from newspaper and television reports and I have always had a problem trusting those accounts. But I did have an interesting conversation with a government official a year or so after the tragedy. I had gone to Ottawa to give a lecture and on the flight back to Toronto I sat next to a fellow who was actually involved with the Stoney Point Ojibway land claim at Ipperwash. He had heard me speak and wanted to get my opinion on the matter. Now, it’s not every day that I get asked by the government for my opinion. Helen hardly ever asks me for my opinion. So I was flattered.

Ask away, I said. Ipperwash, he agreed, had been part of the Stoney Point Ojibway reserve and it had been taken as part of the war effort and with the war long gone and the military-training base dismantled, the perception, on the part of the Ojibway certainly, was that the land should be returned. However, the official told me, besides the problem of public perception – the government returning land to Indians, no matter what the circumstances, was not a vote-getter –there was the problem of live ordinance. Because the land had been used as a military range, there were unexploded shells and nasty whatnots in the ground, which made some areas dangerous. What are we supposed to do about that, the official wanted to know. How could the government, in good faith, return land that was unsafe to the Ojibway?

I suggested that the government clean up the land and then return it. The government didn’t make the mess, the man told me, the Army did. Now, in my house, if you make a mess, you clean it up. Most of the time.

Okay, I said, have the Army clean it up. They don’t have enough money in their budget to do that. Then put the money in their budget. If we do, they’ll just spend it on things that are higher priorities. It was a pleasant conversation and the more we talked, the more I felt as though I were talking to a bowl of Jell-O. By the time we landed, I realized that I wasn’t being asked how the land could be given back so much as I was being given a briefing on why that wasn’t going to happen.

The real problem, the official told me as we sat next to each other on the plane, is the “cultural recalcitrance” of the Ojibway. The hostile feelings, the takeover of the park, the killing of Dudley George could all have been avoided if the Ojibway had simply sold the land to the government in the first place.

Well, that’s certainly one way to look at it.

Since that conversation, the government of Ontario, in 2007, did announce that it plans to return the 56-hectare park to the Chippewa of Kettle and Stony Point First Nation, though not right away. In May of 2009, a transfer-process agreement was signed stipulating a full transfer of the land within a year. In 2010, legislation was passed to deregulate the park lands, a legal move that was supposed to be the next step in actually returning the land. By May of 2012, nothing more had happened. Though the cleanup of the old military base had begun, the bottom line remains the same. The land still hasn’t been returned.

Excerpted from The Inconvenient Indian by Thomas King (Doubleday Canada). Reprinted with permission.

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