For 25 years Pierre George has lived in the ruins of Camp Ipperwash, a former military base near the place where his brother Dudley was shot and killed by a police sniper on a late summer day in 1995.
Mr. George, his sister Carolyn and about 50 other First Nations people moved into the barracks that year after protesters – descendants of as many as 20 Indigenous families who were forced to leave the land during the Second World War – pressured the remaining army personnel to leave.
Some live in unheated buildings, with leaky roofs and tap water in shades of yellow or brown. Mr. George’s latest home was assembled from pieces of salvaged building material. He moved there from the camp’s old firehall because “it was so cold I might as well be sleeping outside,” he said.
Despite the living conditions, he and the others have stayed to show their commitment to the land of their ancestors and to ensure it remains First Nations territory.
Now, they may finally be getting long-sought proper housing for their community along the southern shore of Lake Huron.
The Department of National Defence (DND), which pays for maintenance and utilities at the site, has told the residents that new housing is finally being planned for them.
DND officials held a meeting with the community on Aug. 18 to announce the plans and ask for input, Mr. George’s son Lakota Mandoka said. Much of the discussion centred on what temporary housing might look like while permanent structures are being designed and built, he said. “A lot of people, including me, are happy just to see some dialogue going on because there’s been a lot of dead air over the years,” said Mr. Mandoka, 27.
Residents “are getting pretty hopeful,” he added, but no one is getting “overly excited,” as they have spent years calling for new housing without results.
DND spokesperson Andrée-Anne Poulin confirmed by e-mail that the Defence Department is working with Indigenous Services Canada and the Chippewas of Kettle and Stony Point First Nation, (CKSPFN), the nearby band that includes descendants of the wartime residents, to set up interim housing. Ms. Poulin said the type of construction has “not been defined yet.”
The military hasn’t put a timeline on construction, either, according to Mr. Mandoka.
The promise of new housing is welcome news for Brad George, Pierre’s cousin, who has lived at Camp Ipperwash for more than five years. He has put a tarp over the roof to cover some of the holes, but used one hole to vent a wood-burning heater he installed after the last working radiator gave up last fall. His toilet works properly, but he only drinks bottled water because the taps run brown. He has rigged up a shower using hoses.
He said he’s fed up with the lack of repairs. Water leaking through the roof almost started an electrical fire in a lighting fixture about two years ago. He sought help from the Kettle Point band office but was told to talk to DND. “A bunch of guys with checklists” came out and made a list of problems, but nothing was done, he said.
DND said any repair work would have been done by the Kettle Point band through a maintenance agreement between the two parties.
Kettle Point’s chief did not respond to inquires from The Globe and Mail.
Information provided by the military shows that, from 2016 to 2018, DND spent about $1.3-million annually for utilities and maintenance of the buildings and grounds, including $750,000 transferred to the Kettle Point band for property maintenance.
Despite the living conditions, Brad George said he isn’t leaving. “I wish the place was healthier to live in, but it’s home. There’s more to this place than just the buildings. There’s the bush back there. We’ve got the beach and the dunes. There’s a lot of beauty here.”
For Pierre George, new housing, even in trailers, will usher in much-needed change. “I hope they’re warm in the winter. I’ve been freezing ever since I got here,” he said.
He said demolishing the old barracks will help him heal from years of post-traumatic stress disorder, which began the night he drove his dying brother to a hospital in Strathroy, about 50 kilometres away, some of it on a flat tire.
The deadly confrontation occurred after the Stoney Point descendants, frustrated that their land had never been returned despite assurances to the contrary, set up an encampment on the army base in 1993. As more occupiers arrived, the military eventually pulled out in the summer of 1995, and the Ontario Provincial Police became more involved. When the occupiers moved into neighbouring Ipperwash Provincial Park on Sept. 4, tensions escalated, leading to the shooting of Dudley George two days later.
As Pierre George and his sister Carolyn arrived at the hospital with a wounded Dudley, the siblings were arrested, accused of attempting to murder their brother and thrown in jail overnight. The arrests were the result of miscommunication between police units that night, according to the findings of the Ipperwash Commission, appointed by the Ontario government.
Mr. George said that day haunts him. “I still live it. I have a pretty sharp memory when it comes to that,” he said, voice shaking. “And we were arrested when we got there.”
“He’ll be happy” to see the buildings torn down, his son said. “It will be nice to move past that.”
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