Canadian Press, FOREST, Ont. — After two years and some 140 witnesses, testimony at an often confrontational and controversial inquiry into the 1995 shooting death of Dudley George at Ipperwash Provincial Park came to an end Wednesday. And while closing arguments are still two months away and final recommendations not expected before the end of the year, experts say the inquiry will likely establish new credibility for the aboriginal claim that started the standoff in the first place.
“I think that there will probably be very strong indications that the land belongs to the aboriginal community,” said Tammy Landau, a professor at Ryerson University’s School of Criminal Justice in Toronto. The standoff in Ipperwash began in 1993 when a group of aboriginals occupied an army camp on a block of land seized by Ottawa under the War Measures Act in 1942. In 1995, they moved to the adjacent Ipperwash Provincial Park, citing the presence of a burial ground.
Under cover of night on Sept. 6, 1995, George was shot and killed by Ontario police Acting Sgt. Kenneth Deane as officers clad in riot gear marched on the occupation.
Deane, who died earlier this year in a car accident, was convicted of criminal negligence in George’s death, but his trial offered only partial closure
to the George family, said Landau, who specializes in aboriginal justice issues.
“It really didn’t allow all the facts (of the standoff) to come out – who owned the land, what were the more broader systemic problems between (police) and the aboriginal community,” Landau said.
“I think for the community, they also want (the inquiry) for their claims to be vindicated and substantiated.”
Many blamed the Ontario government of former premier Mike Harris, who was accused by critics of helping to direct the police action that led to George’s death. In addition to several former cabinet ministers, the inquiry heard testimony from Harris himself, who denied that he ever exerted any influence over police.
The land, which has never officially been turned over to the First Nations, remains closed to the general public.
Ontario’s current Liberal government has been dealing with a tense and occasionally violent aboriginal land claim dispute in Caledonia, Ont., south of Hamilton, where First Nations members have occupied a housing development site since the end of February, claiming ownership of land they claim is rightly theirs.
Police on the scene have been criticized for inaction, which many observers have attributed to lingering political fears of another Ipperwash-style confrontation.
Sam George said the tense standoff reminded him of the confrontation that claimed his brother Dudley’s more than 10 years ago.
Most of the George family was present Wednesday for the final day of testimony at the Ipperwash inquiry, said family spokesman and lawyer Murray Klippenstein, who added they felt the hearing has done a good job on most issues of bringing out the facts.
“They feel like they’re getting the truth about the death of their brother, the truth about mistakes that were made, the truth about possible political interference,” said Klippenstein. “They think they can start to heal.”
Klippenstein said he believes the inquiry has left a sense among many First Nations people that someone is finally listening to their concerns.
“(There’s) a sense that the powerful people and powerful institutions that usually aren’t accountable to them had a degree of accountability now,” he said.
Justice Sidney Linden, who presided over the inquiry, said the hearings provided an opportunity for witnesses to share their view of events in 1995, some for the first time, but also acknowledged the situation was emotional. “I was always aware of the fact that revisiting events that took place over 10 years ago may re-open wounds and rekindle feelings and tensions,” Linden wrote in a statement.
“But I was always also hopeful, that through this process, the inquiry might leave the communities and individuals affected a little “better” than they were when we began.”
Closing arguments are scheduled to begin Aug. 21, with Linden’s recommendations expected by year’s end, and whatever they are, there’s reason for optimism, Klippenstein said.
“But I think that there’s ground for some hope and there’s grounds for steps
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