A small crowd of about 30 people gathered under a white canopy at the edge of the old army base, once known as Camp Ipperwash. There was coffee, tea, egg salad sandwiches and a table covered in copies of a book titled Our Long Struggle for Home: The Ipperwash Story. This is the community’s book launch, a story the Nishnaabeg of Stoney Point have long wanted to tell. There are warm hugs as people recognize relatives they have gone too long without seeing, and slowly everyone settles into chairs, set out in rows as the event begins.
The canopy offers little protection from the chill wind this October morning. Alabama Bressette, also known as Shining Star Woman, grasps her coat a little tighter around her shoulders. A young woman in her 20s, she is emerging as an important voice for the community. Citizens of Stoney Point see Alabama as a potential future leader. Her generation bears the weight of course-correcting a complicated history.
“We didn’t have much, and I am not just talking about my family. I am talking about all the families here that live this way,” Alabama reads. “We had to heat our homes by wood stoves and go to surrounding communities to get our water… It was normal to run around in the junkyard, it was normal to play in the dilapidated army barracks. This was our fun as children.”
The government seized the last of this community’s land 80 years ago and since has broken every promise and legal obligation to return it. In between, the community has lived in the harshest of conditions and suffered one of the most terrifying acts of state violence in the history of Canada. The whole story of Ipperwash Provincial Park is complicated and entangled in a much longer series of land seizures that can only barely be considered legal. Stoney Point was a reserve, on the shores of Lake Huron, in southern Ontario.
A treaty signed in the 1820s agreed to share a swatch of land larger than Prince Edward Island in exchange for the creation of four reserves for the “exclusive use” of the Nishnaabeg. One was Stoney Point. In the 1920s and 1930s, land speculators and real estate agents began eyeballing the lucrative waterfront property and chipped away pieces of reserve land and sold it. Some land containing a burial ground was resold to the province of Ontario to create Ipperwash Provincial Park. The federal government seized another portion to build a highway.
At that time, families who lived in Stoney Point had farms with horses, chickens, cows and large gardens that kept them fed through the winter. Some worked as artisans, crafting furniture and baskets for sale in nearby towns. Two women worked as medics, using traditional medicine and practising as midwives.
Then, in 1942, Parliament used the extraordinary powers granted by the War Measures Act to seize the rest of the land reserve for an army base. (There was an army base nearby, but it was farther from Lake Huron. Seizing Stoney Point and moving the base onto First Nations land saved the government the inconvenience of installing a water pipe.) They forced the people to move their houses. The army bulldozed homes of those who didn't.
What people are reading
The reserve was supposed to be returned after the war, and in the decades that followed, that promise was repeated and broken many times.
It still hasn’t happened.
Since 2015, the federal government has stated unexploded munitions on the Camp Ipperwash army lands make it unsafe. They are cleaning it up. There is no timeline for when it will be done. They guessed 20 years in 2015. Now, in 2022, they still say 20 years.
But some families disregarded the warnings, moved on to the base in 1993 and continue to live there. Some in old barracks, some in trailers and some in temporary housing provided by the government. The Nishnaabeg have reclaimed Stoney Point, in theory. But they don’t own the lands, they are not a recognized reserve, they don’t have a recognized chief and band council of their own (they are represented by an adjacent reserve in land negotiations) and can’t build anything permanent on the land.
Speaking now at the book launch, Alabama reads some prepared words. She tells the crowd her mother, Claudette George, once apologized to her for the way of life they had in the army camp.
Alabama did not know why her mother was apologizing.
She didn’t know life elsewhere could be any different.
There were no TVs and no internet to beam visions of an easier life.
But Claudette knew they didn’t have to live there. She had grown up outside the community and moved to the base after the Ipperwash reclamation.
It was a choice.
I talk to Claudette about that as we huddle near a fire. The fire was not lit for warmth, that is just a side benefit on a day when chill winds blow off Lake Huron. There is a pot of tobacco beside the fire, where people make offerings to the Creator by saying a prayer and placing a pinch of tobacco in the flames. Sage, cedar, sweetgrass, tobacco and prayer are close to daily life here. And as the community launches its story, it is done in connection to the Creator.
“Being a young, single mom, I wasn't sure if I was going to move here,” Claudette says. “I'm here because of what my mom went through. I'm here for what my brother went through. The people in this community, they’re still traumatized, they still have nightmares about that night.”
Sept. 6, 1995.
It seems Canada has all but forgotten the events that happened at Ipperwash Provincial Park.
It was a long weekend. The park closed for the season. The campers had all gone. On Sept. 4, a small group of people from Stoney Point moved into the park to reclaim the land. Park officials had expected it. In fact, they handed Stoney Point people the keys to the park office as they left. It was peaceful for two days. Then it wasn’t.
The provincial government refused to send in negotiators, saying the reclamation of the park lands was not a Native rights issue but a criminal matter, according to findings of a 2003 inquiry.
Two days later, police moved into the park in the dark of night. They beat Cecil George, an elected Stoney Creek official who happened to be on the scene, with steel batons. His injuries were so severe, doctors were surprised he survived the night. Then police opened fire on the people in the park, wounding a 15-year-old boy and killing 38-year-old Dudley George. None of those fired upon or injured were armed. Later, police would lie about that, and years after, that lie would be caught in the courts and in a judicial inquiry.
Despite the court cases and the inquiry, few outsiders have ever heard from the people of Stoney Point, in their own words, about what happened or why it was so important to have their land returned.
Until an unlikely visitor showed up.
Heather Menzies is an award-winning writer and an adjunct professor at Carleton University’s School of Indigenous and Canadian Studies. A non-Indigenous person, Menzies was examining her own family history when she found an uncomfortable connection to Stoney Point. Both sides of her father's family had settled on 100-acre lots of land supposedly “ceded and surrendered” by the Nishnaabeg in the 1827 Huron Tract treaty.
“When I learned, in the course of the belated catch-up reading of Indigenous history I'd been doing, that for many Indigenous peoples, land treaties were about sharing land and that the relationships around this were ongoing. With a responsibility to maintain the treaty relationship passed down from generation to generation, I felt implicated, finally, in Canada's colonial history,” says Menzies. “So I showed up, on a hot July day in 2018, wanting to learn what my responsibility might be to a badly broken treaty relationship.”
As it turned out, many families living at Stoney Point had always hoped someone would tell their story. And here was Menzies.
What followed was an incredible project. Menzies recorded testimony from every member of Stoney Point who wished to participate. She made a conscious decision to step back as the author and take on the role of a helper instead. Citizens of Stoney Point actively participated in the writing, editing and fact-checking of Our Struggle for Home. The result is the behind-the-scenes, never-heard-before story of Stoney Point, told in a communal voice, where memories and anecdotes are threaded into one fluid narrative. The authorship is credited to the people of Stoney Point or, in their language, Aazhoodenaang Enjibaajig.
Back at the book launch, Kevin Simon unpacks copies of Our Long Struggle for Home and lays them out on the table. Simon was only 18 years old the night police moved in. He found himself in a melee with police in full riot gear hitting him with steel batons as he tried to fight them off with a stick. As traumatizing as that memory must be, he calls the book “the start of a healing process.” He shyly signs copies of the book, reminding everyone that he is just one author and the work of pulling the book together is an achievement for the whole community.
Carolyn George, Dudley’s sister, hopes the book will help people understand their side of the story and “have a little empathy for us.”
On the night of the police raid, Carolyn and her brother Pierre drove Dudley to the hospital. That is on her mind now. She talks about that long drive. How when they arrived at the hospital, police left Dudley bleeding in the back of the car while they cuffed and arrested Carolyn and Pierre. They were charged with “attempted murder” even though neither had been at the site of the raid. They came only after police had withdrawn, after hearing Dudley had been shot. In fact, Carolyn had been cooking food in her nearby home when the police moved in.
Despite what must be incredible trauma, Carolyn tells that story matter-of-factly. She is given to mixing traumatic retelling with a sort of gallows humour. Somehow when she laughs, it is warm, loud and genuine.
Carolyn recalls that after her arrest, she found a small piece of cedar stuck in her blouse. She thinks it got stuck there when police tackled her to the ground. Cedar is one of four sacred medicines, used in prayer. Finding cedar at that moment has sustained Carolyn throughout the years.
“Even if we're not getting anywhere fast, when that cedar was there in that jail cell that night, it told me that things were going to be OK no matter if they didn't look good right now. In the end, things were going to be OK because the Creator was there with us. So, keep the faith…” Then, after a pause, Carolyn gives her trademark laugh and adds, “Even if getting to OK is taking a loooong, loooong time.”
Alabama, daughter of Claudette, is Carolyn’s granddaughter and Dudley’s great-niece. Now, Alabama understands her mother's apology for her choice to live at Stoney Point. She understands why it was important to be part of the movement to hold on to their land, even if it was a harder life. It’s become even clearer to her as the community rallied to write their story.
“Now that I am older, I do realize what my mom was trying to explain to me. That to a Canadian citizen, this is not normal,” she says. “This is not what a Canadian citizen endures in their lifetime.”
Our Long Struggle for Home: The Ipperwash Story, by members of the Aazhoodenaang Enjibaajig Nation, is available on Amazon.
I am so very grateful for
I am so very grateful for this story, Ms Pugliese. We create such unbalance (in ourselves and in our society) when we only know the aggressor's side of a story. I'll be ordering the book, and wish the Nishnaabeg community at Stoney Point well in every way.
I barely remember the details
I barely remember the details of the Ipperwash "incident". It is just another outrage in the sorry colonial supremacist history of Canada. Not as well known as Wounded Knee or other US outrages like the Trail of tears, or the expulsion of the Navajo people from their ancestral lands. Not as well known as as the murders of Almighty Voice nor the killings in the Northwest rebellion but all too often repeated in bigger or lesser ways - even to the current days.
North West Mounted Police were involved in many of the brutalities, and the establishment of this quasi military body closely followed the pattern established by the British Empire wherever its colonies landed around the globe. Local resistance by the original tribes in India, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, in Africa, was confronted by "pop up" quasi military units led by British officers that often recruited neighboring oppositional warriors to punish the rebellious tribes. Such loyalty was regularly rewarded by the British fomenting revenge killings from the previously victimized tribe. The Belgians were not the only colonial power to wage war against Africans, The British also employed enslavement and inter tribal warfare to lethally destabilize the native populations.
Canada's indigenous populations were sold a load of garbage about how their Treaties, signed by the Monarch would guarantee their rights under the treaties. The Indian Affairs ministry lied, cheated, stole. and ignored Native rights and treaties.. Worse, they are continuing their obstruction in the face of negotiated Reconciliation. promises. It seems that "colonialism" can never be ended, nor can reparations be made - as long as white supremacists continue to govern this stolen land.