In an unwarranted rush to end an aboriginal protest in 1995, former premier Mike Harris made a vulgar, racist remark and "created the risk of placing political pressure on the police" hours before an officer killed unarmed protester Dudley George, the commissioner of a public inquiry has found.
Later, Mr. Harris misled the Ontario Legislature about a high-level meeting he attended, with Ontario Provincial Police officers present, before the shooting, which gave "the appearance of inappropriate interference in police operations" and thus prompted the $25.6-million inquiry, Judge Sidney Linden found.
However, Mr. Harris "did not inappropriately direct" the OPP action to end the occupation, Judge Linden found, and "there is no evidence to suggest that either the Premier or any official in his government was responsible for Mr. George's death."
Still, Mr. George's family said yesterday they hold Mr. Harris partly responsible for their loss, because his haste, in Judge Linden's words, "closed off options" for a peaceful resolution.
The shooting, on Sept. 6, 1995, came just two days after members of the Kettle and Stony Point First Nation occupied the park to reclaim a sacred burial ground. That night, the OPP, acting on false reports the protesters had guns and had attacked a civilian's car, abandoned its usual strategy of negotiation and sent in a riot squad to confront them.
When a protester, Cecil Bernard George, stepped forward to mediate, police beat him and dragged him away, prompting others to drive a school bus and a car at the police, who responded with gunfire.
Within seconds, Dudley George, 38, was shot dead by a police sniper.
"We wonder if it might be appropriate at this time for Mr. Harris to apologize to my family, or maybe, if Mr. Harris chooses not to, for the government of Ontario to do so," Sam George, Dudley's older brother, said yesterday outside the Forest Community Centre, where the report was released. "Maybe that is not too much to ask."
Moments later inside the community centre, David Ramsay, Minister of Natural Resources and Aboriginal Affairs, obliged.
"We apologize for the events that led to the loss of life and we deeply regret the death of Dudley George," Mr. Ramsay said. "This report and the implementation of its recommendations will serve as a testament to his memory."
At Queen's Park, Premier Dalton McGuinty, who called the inquiry shortly after his Liberal government took office in 2003, said he had spoken earlier yesterday with Sam George. "I want to now say publicly what I said to him privately: On behalf of the people of Ontario, we apologize for the events that led to the loss of life."
John Tory, Leader of the Progressive Conservative Party, said in a statement that he supports the apology and expressed "hope that both that apology and the release of this report will bring a measure of closure to Dudley George's family."
But, in the case of Mr. Harris, an apology was not in the offing. Peter Downard, lawyer for the former premier, said "no apology is required" because Judge Linden was clear that Mr. Harris did not cause Mr. George's death.
"He takes responsibility as a government leader for events that happened on his watch," Mr. Downard said. "He didn't do anything wrong that affected the death of Dudley George."
As for Judge Linden's finding that Mr. Harris indeed said "I want the fucking Indians out of the park" shortly before the shooting - clearly rejecting the former premier's sworn testimony - Mr. Downard dismissed the notion that the premier made the remarks.
"The commissioner chose to accept the evidence of one witness on that point over the evidence of many others. That is one finding of his that we disagree with," he said.
Judge Linden also ruled that Chris Hodgson, former minister of natural resources, made a similar racist comment - "Get the fucking Indians out of my park" - in the hours before the shooting.
While Judge Linden stopped short of stating that Mr. Harris or any official in his government was responsible for Mr. George's death, his finding that the comments were made at all is a "damning indictment," said Julian Falconer, a lawyer for Aboriginal Legal Services of Toronto, an advocacy group with standing at the inquiry.
When Mr. Harris and then-attorney-general Charles Harnick were confronted in the legislature, months after the shooting, with rumours of a high-level meeting and the offensive comments, they offered denials and non-answers, the report says. The denials persisted for years to come, and details of the meeting, which took place in the premier's dining room, were not confirmed until 2001.
"Governments and elected officials must be publicly accountable for their role in important decisions and meetings," Judge Linden wrote. "Unfortunately, both the Attorney General Charles Harnick and Premier Harris misled the Legislature about the 'dining room meeting' with the result that it took a public inquiry for the public to learn the details of this key event."
While Judge Linden's 1,433-page report, which was three years in the making, apportions blame for Ipperwash to the federal and provincial governments, the OPP received the bulk of the criticism for actions leading up to the shooting.
Those actions included "the use of excessive force" in subduing protester Cecil Bernard George, who was bashed unconscious by about 10 officers during the park clash and had no vital signs en route to hospital, and racist comments directed at the park occupiers.
Among his 98 recommendations, the commissioner wrote that the OPP should issue a public apology to Cecil Bernard George and that it "should be delivered in person by the current Commissioner [Julian Fantino] or his delegate."
The OPP yesterday would not say if Mr. Fantino would apologize, but said the OPP "appreciates there has to be a timely response," said Mark Sandler, lawyer for the force.
Two commissioners have previously apologized to the George family and to Sam George, he said.
The OPP also came in for criticism for never having retracted or corrected public statements in the wake of the shooting, which claimed a civilian's car had been beset by bat-wielding protesters in the park on the day of the shooting, and that the native protesters had guns.
In fact, the occupiers had no firearms and the attack on the car was distorted - the vehicle belonged to a native man named Gerald George, and it was struck by a rock thrown by a single protester as others looked on.
Since those claims contributed to the escalation of police action that culminated in the shooting, "the OPP should have corrected the public record at the first available opportunity," Judge Linden found.
Many of the recommendations in the report urge change within the OPP. Mr. Sandler said much of that change has already occurred, or is in process. Everything else, including having independent monitoring of the native response framework, will be considered by a special team convening today.
"It's a very different police force than it was 12 years ago," Mr. Sandler said. "We are applying a very different approach in Caledonia and dealing with aboriginal blockades. I'm not sure the message always comes through."
One of the clearest messages from the inquiry report is that there was no single, clear cause of the bloodshed of Sept. 6, 1995. Nor has there been a resolution to the land dispute at its centre.
"It is impossible to attribute Mr. George's death to a single person, factor, decision or institution," Judge Linden told a packed hall at the community centre, about a 15-minute drive from the shooting scene near the shores of Lake Huron.
Further, "the issues that were at the heart of the Ipperwash occupation remain to this day," he said, referring to the federal government's continuing failure to return land it confiscated for an army base at Ipperwash in 1942 to the Kettle and Stony Point First Nation, as it had promised to do once the Second World War had ended. "This inexcusable delay and long neglect, by successive federal governments, are at the heart of the Ipperwash story."
In his recommendations, Judge Linden called on the federal government to publicly apologize to the band, compensate it for this delay, and assume full responsibility for a cleanup of the site, which is contaminated with unexploded ordnance.
The commissioner also urged establishment of a permanent and impartial Treaty Commission of Ontario to oversee the settling of land and treaty claims, "with the full co-operation of the federal government."
As the dozens of assembled journalists, lawyers, relatives and stakeholders filtered out of the community centre and into the heat, Sam George said the ordeal of the past 12 years, which he spent pushing for answers, could have been avoided had Mr. Harris been forthcoming with the facts immediately after his brother's death.
"It could have all been done within an hour or so," Mr. George said in an interview, in his trademark calm delivery. "I think if somebody would have answered our questions, you know, that things could have been solved at a much earlier time."
Report's key findings
Lack of firearms Dudley George was unarmed, and there were no guns inside the provincial park on Sept. 6, 1995.
Police brutality Cecil Bernard George was excessively beaten by police officers shortly before Dudley George was fatally shot.
Official slurs Both then-premier Mike Harris and Chris Hodgson, then-minister responsible for aboriginal affairs, said in separate meetings on the day Dudley George was killed that they wanted the "fucking Indians" out of the park.
Harris Premier Mike Harris's criticism of police - for not moving more quickly to end the occupation - did not amount to political interference.
Police chaos The OPP's assessment of the risk at the park was incorrect. The operation that night was in chaos, rife with racism within OPP ranks and a needlessly aggressive stance.
Land claims The federal government did not need to retain Camp Ipperwash. It extended years of false hope and broken promises to the original inhabitants and should have handed the land back immediately after the Second World War.