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Protests and Policing: the legacy of Ipperwash

    Protests and Policing: the legacy of Ipperwash

    "I saw police with handguns, shot-guns, machine guns or something like machine guns all pointing right at us. I said to my husband, 'Oh my God, what do we do now?'''-- Rhonda Kunkel and her husband were arrested at gun-point at the site of a land rights protest in the Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory when they arrived to ask about the safety of their son.

    On September 6th, 1995, an Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) sniper shot and fatally wounded an unarmed Indigenous man, Dudley George, after police moved to forcibly end a land rights protest at Ipperwash Provincial Park.

    Fourteen years later, the province returned the land at the heart of this dispute to the Chippewas of Kettle and Stony Point First Nation. In the meantime, a landmark provincial inquiry was held into the factors leading to the confrontation between protestors and police and ways to prevent excessive use of force in the future.

    During the Inquiry, the OPP pointed to a policy framework that it had adopted after the killing of Dudley George. The Framework for Police Preparedness for Aboriginal Critical Incidents states that during land rights protest the OPP will "make every effort prior to understand the issues and to protect the rights of all involved parties..." and will "promote and develop strategies that minimize the use of force to the fullest extent possible."

    The Inquiry report endorsed the Framework, but it went farther.

    Noting that police and politicians are often under intense public pressure to end Aboriginal protests quickly, the Inquiry took up a recommendation from the OPP, calling for the province to adopt a similar "peacekeeping" model as official policy across all relevant departments. The Inquiry report also called on the Province to carry out an independent assessment to determine how effectively the Framework has been adopted into OPP procedures and organizational culture.

    More than five years have passed since the release of the Inquiry report. Despite the provincial government’s pledge to fully implement the Inquiry recommendations, the government has yet to adopt the recommended province-wide policy on Aboriginal protests. Nor has there been an independent assessment of how well the OPP is living up to its own policy framework. Other crucial recommendations on policing, treaty implementation and public education are still unaddressed.

    In 2011, Amnesty International published a detailed case study of how the OPP responded to protests over a longstanding land claim in the Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory near Belleville. On two occasions, in 2007 and 2008, the OPP mobilized hundreds of officers, including its highest level of response, the Tactics and Rescue Unit, commonly known as the sniper squad. This preparation to use lethal force took place despite the fact that no evidence has ever been presented that the protest constituted a serious threat to public safety. In an incident in April 2008, the situation escalated to the point that OPP officers, panicked by a false report that a rifle had been sighted, drew handguns and leveled high powered assault rifles at unarmed activists and bystanders.

    The Ipperwash Inquiry recommendations provide a powerful roadmap for governments and police services across Canada. However. Ontario Provincial Police actions at Tyendinaga call into question how well the lessons of Ipperwash have been learned and integrated into the way police respond to Indigenous land protests.

    Photo: Ipperwash Provincial Park, before the lands were returned to the Chippewas of Kettle and Stony Point First Nation. Photo: Monica Virtue

    Recommended Links

    Chiefs of Ontario 2012 statement on failure to implement key recommendations from the Inquiry

    Ipperwash Inquiry: Submissions, findings and
    recommendations

    Amnesty’s submission to the Ipperwash Inquiry