As the judicial inquiry into the 1995 police shooting of aboriginal protester Dudley George moves into its final phase, the occupation in which he played a leading role quietly continues.
Some 60 aboriginal people live at Camp Ipperwash, in buildings left when the army withdrew in 1995.
They've renamed it Aazhoodena. They've defied two levels of government to reclaim ancestral land seized from the Stoney Point First Nation for use as an army training camp, and taken possession of the provincial park that includes the site of a burial ground.
The breakaway group of Stoney Pointers, some of whom first moved there in 1993, exists in a legal limbo, disowned by the leadership of the band created by the federal government, and still waiting for the return of the property.
"We're ghosts," said Dan Kewageshig, who lives there with his wife and three children. "According to them we don't even exist. We were told that by some [Indian and Northern Affairs Canada and the Department of National Defence]officials that we were ghosts."
The line between the living and the dead is blurred in aboriginal beliefs and, for those who live there, the memory of deceased relatives is constantly recalled.
Eighteen families had their homes bulldozed or moved onto the nearby Kettle Point reserve. Mr. Kewageshig's mother, Pearl, now an occupier, is one of the dispossessed Stoney Pointers who in 1942 returned from a day's work in the field to find her home gone.
The dispute didn't come to widespread public attention until 1995, when some of the group moved into Ipperwash Provincial Park, which is on former reserve land. The band had asked in 1937 that a burial ground be fenced off and respected and the province agreed, but nothing was done. Even the record of the existence of a burial ground was lost in provincial files.
The Stoney Pointers remembered, though, and didn't care for the sight of vacationers at play on a sacred site. On Labour Day, 1995, after the park closed for the season, some of the army camp group moved into the adjacent park. Their demands weren't clear but, within three days, before any negotiations, the Ontario Provincial Police moved in with deadly force and Dudley George was killed Sept. 6, 1995.
More than a decade later, his memory is very much alive. Former Ontario premier Mike Harris is to testify at a judicial inquiry into his death later this month.
Some of those still in the park are portrayed as characters in a television movie, One Dead Indian, that aired Wednesday on CTV. But they shun the spotlight -- only two residents agreed to be interviewed. Kettle and Stony Point Chief Tom Bressette also refused comment.
Despite -- or perhaps because of -- the Ontario government's forceful action, the aboriginals still control the park. A natural resources ministry spokesperson said no change is contemplated until the inquiry is over.
During the summer, the aboriginals use the beach, many living in trailers close to the water. Year-round, the occupiers make daily security patrols of the camp and the park, said Moon George, a cousin of Dudley's.
Vigilance is necessary because of vandalism -- buildings broken into, a trailer burnt out, racial slurs painted on the fence and tire spikes thrown onto a road, he said.
While tensions were high during the crisis, Moon George said he believes that now, relationships with the non-aboriginal community are improving as the inquiry provides a better understanding of what prompted the occupation.
One might expect the dispute, which is rooted in federal inaction, to be an issue in the current election, but that's not something Aazhoodena residents see as an opportunity, Moon George said.
At the nearby Kettle Point reserve, Sam George, Dudley's brother and a band councillor, said he he's not aware of any federal candidate dealing with the matter.
Two candidates in Lambton-Kent-Middlesex -- a riding won by the Liberals by just 164 votes in 2004 -- returned calls Friday. Liberal Jeff Wesley said the army land should be returned to the first nation, and NDP candidate Kevin Blake said the Liberals were derelict for failing to start negotiations until after Dudley George was killed. "It's sad that that had to happen."
In the Forest area neighbouring the disputed land, it's not clear whether locals have been paying much attention to the information coming out of the inquiry.
The weekly Forest Standard does not provide coverage of proceedings. Publisher Dale Hayter said he thinks people are probably "sick of hearing about it."
Three businessmen breakfasting in a restaurant in Northville, just up Highway 21 from Aazhoodena, shook their heads when asked for their views. Just one agreed to talk, asking that he be identified only by his first name, Fred, because "I don't want any repercussions."
Fred rejected the notion that first nations people have special rights because they were here before the Europeans arrived and negotiated treaties: "Why should they have more rights than the rest of us?"
He and his companions believe the army base also includes former farms and Crown land. "I object to [the aboriginals]getting everything," Fred said.
Such a position constitutes "willful blindness," said lawyer Tony Ross, who represents the Aazhoodena group at the inquiry. The evidence that the entire 2,200-acre base is on Stoney Point land, reserved under a 1827 treaty which ceded more than 2 million acres for settlement, is in a paper posted on the Ipperwash inquiry website, he said in an interview.
Moon George expressed regret when told of Fred's fears to speak out under his own name. "It's not what we're about, we've never been about violence," he said. "If people want to check our track record, we've always been passive, we've always told people what our intentions are."