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Sam George stands in front of some of his traditional head dresses in his garage on the Kettle Point reserve near Forest, Ontario May 14, 2007. (GEOFF ROBINS)
Sam George stands in front of some of his traditional head dresses in his garage on the Kettle Point reserve near Forest, Ontario May 14, 2007. (GEOFF ROBINS)

Obituary

Sam George: Relentless in his pursuit of answers Add to ...

Had he been a bitter man, Sam George might have found a way to rationalize a hatred for Chief Superintendent Chris Coles of the Ontario Provincial Police.

Mr. Coles, after all, had helped oversee the OPP crackdown on an aboriginal protest at Ipperwash Provincial Park, in which an officer shot and killed Mr. George's younger brother, Dudley.

For more than a decade after the Sept. 6, 1995 shooting, Sam George was indeed relentless in his pursuit of answers from the OPP and then-premier Mike Harris, who had made it known he wanted a swift end to the protest hours before the fatal shot was fired. Yet throughout his ordeal, Mr. George, who died this morning at age 56, was equally unwavering in the grace he extended to his adversaries, and in his belief they would make right what they'd done wrong.

And so, as Mr. Coles neared the end of his testimony at the Ipperwash Inquiry in 2005, he offered unlikely praise for the man whose persistence had put him, Mr. Harris and a host of top officials on the hot seat.

"Many times I've sat across from Sam George and I've looked in his eyes," the retired officer said at the community centre in Forest, Ont. "I have no brothers, but I believe sincerely in my heart that if I had a brother, Sam George is an example of a brother I would have liked."

Mr. Coles's statement, as much as any during the probe, rang true to Judge Sidney Linden, the inquiry's commissioner, who saw Mr. George in the audience regularly through two years of hearings.

"To me, that really summed it up; it really captured the essence of Sam," Judge Linden said. "He really understood that everybody, whether they agreed with him or not, had to have their opportunity to speak and to testify."

That the inquiry happened at all was a testament to Mr. George's staunch but dignified refusal to accept anything short of a full airing of what led to his brother's death.

Dudley George was among about 30 men, women and children from the Chippewas of Kettle and Stony Point First Nation who occupied the park, on the sandy shores of Lake Huron, on Sept. 4, 1995. They were reclaiming a sacred burial ground on the site, which their ancestors, under pressure, had ceded to local interests, who in turn sold it to the Ontario government in 1936.

Two days into the occupation, Mr. Harris, a rookie Progressive Conservative premier less than three months into his mandate, attended a private meeting with top ministers, advisers and OPP officers. Hours later, a heavily-armed OPP tactical squad marched on the protesters, and Dudley George was shot.

As rumours of political interference swirled in the wake of the shooting, Sam George sued Mr. Harris and other officials in hope that a civil proceeding would yield answers. The premier rebuffed calls for a public inquiry while the suit was before the courts, even though Mr. George offered to drop the suit in return for an inquiry.

It would take eight years and a change of government in 2003, when the Liberals replaced the Conservatives, for an inquiry to be called, and for Sam George to drop the suit. Until then, the civil case ground on, but it did not grind Sam George down.

"I remember during the litigation years when he was cross-examined for a week by a roomful of hostile lawyers," said Murray Klippenstein, lawyer for the George family. "And when we finally closed our books a day or two before Christmas, all of us exhausted, Sam stood up and said to all these lawyers, 'Thank you for working with me over these days, and I wish you and your families a Merry Christmas', in a quiet, respectful voice," Mr. Klippenstein said. "I've never seen anything like it."

John Beaucage, Grand Council Chief of Ontario's Anishinabek Nation, an umbrella group representing 42 Ontario First Nations, said Mr. George was offered a six-figure sum to settle the suit, but declined.

"He only wanted the truth," Mr. Beaucage said, "and after everything was all said and done, the George family got no money out of it, but they did get the truth out of what happened in that park."

The truth, laid out by Judge Linden in his Inquiry report of May, 2007, was that the OPP fired on unarmed protesters that night, and that Mr. Harris had said "I want the fucking Indians out of the park" during the meeting hours earlier, though the commissioner stopped short of a finding of political interference.

The Ontario government has since moved on several of Judge Linden's recommendations, including an agreement signed last week to return the park to the Kettle and Stony Point First Nation, which plans to reopen it for public use.

Throughout the $25-million inquiry, which heard from 139 witnesses, Mr. George "was so fair that it was unreal," Judge Linden said.

Less fair and all too real were the circumstances into which Maynard Donald (Sam) George was born in Sarnia, Ont. on July 1, 1952 - a date then celebrated by Canadians, and quietly lamented by many aboriginals, as Dominion Day.

He was the fifth child among 10 siblings whose parents, Reginald George and Genevieve Rogers, had met in the Canadian military during the Second World War, though they never saw action overseas.

In 1942, that same military had forced 16 families, including Reginald George and his parents, off the Stoney Point Indian Reserve and turned the site into an army training camp. Ottawa's failure to return the land after the war, as promised, fuelled much of the frustration behind the Ipperwash park occupation.

"I learned about the lands with my dad," Mr. George told The Globe in 2007, but the family was more resigned than militant. With 10 children, life was challenging enough, not to mention two house fires and a string of unrelated tragedies that had taken three of Sam's siblings by 1980. Dudley's death was the fourth.

"We were taught and learned how to deal with a lot of things early in life, how to survive early in life," Mr. George said. "We still go through and we're still learning."

After he left school in Grade 10, Mr. George worked on road construction and became a carpenter. Later, he obtained his Grade 12 and retrained as a youth counsellor for the Kettle and Stony Point First Nation - the combined reserve created after the federal takeover of Stoney Point - where he raised a family of his own.

He coached hockey, including a team of non-aboriginal kids, "just because he wanted to help out," Mr. Klippenstein said. "And he never talked about it and it was not a big deal for him."

A spiritual man, Mr. George led a native drumming group and kept a sweat lodge in his yard, which many friends, aboriginal and not, visited in the post-Ipperwash years.

He earned numerous awards, from the Order of Ontario, to the Ontario Federation of Labour's Human Rights Award, to a spot on the Sarnia Mayor's Honour List, though "he never once sought personal fame, glory or money," Mr. Beaucage said.

Mr. George enjoyed tinkering with his pristine, 1970 Chevrolet Malibu, but he had to give up driving last fall when he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, the same disease that killed his father.

Still, he maintained his "wicked quick wit" and even joked about his illness, Mr. Klippenstein said.

It was an illness Mr. George did not foresee two years ago as he sat in his living room at Kettle and Stony Point, the same room where he last saw Dudley alive, and where friends and family kept a vigil in recent days.

"I think he's in a good place now," Sam George said of his brother, "but I still think he's watching over us very, very closely to make sure that things get done that he started to do."

Maynard Donald (Sam) George was born in Sarnia, Ont., on July 1, 1952, and died at his home on the Kettle and Stony Point First Nation on June 3, 2009. He was 56. He is survived by his wife, Veronica, and by two brothers and three sisters, three children and their spouses, and six grandchildren. A traditional native get-together and pre-burial ceremony will be held at his home on Saturday.

 

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