Talbot: Lessons from one in the room and one long gone

I had never attended a lecture quite like this.

I sat down in Dan and Mary Lou Smoke’s ‘Indigenous issues in the media’ class last week, expecting to hear one man – Toronto Star ­reporter Peter Edwards – talk about his book, One Dead Indian: The Premier, the Police and the Ipperwash Crisis.

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TALBOT

Instead, I heard two men speak: Edwards and the late Sam George, the brother of Dudley George, an unarmed protester who was shot and killed in September 1995, when police opened fire on natives occupying land in Ipperwash Provincial Park.

I was there to hear a lecture I thought would address residual systemic problems plaguing our Native communities, issues the government perpetually fails to address. However indirectly, this was what I got.

And yes, I heard a deceased man speak last week.

Maybe it’s because the two men spent so much time together – Edwards writing his book, joining Sam on his journey to find bebwewin, an Ojibwe word for “healing truth” – in hopes of finding out what really happened to his brother so a similar incident wouldn’t happen again. Edwards was on a similar hunt and even spent time with Sam’s spiritual elder. The two men became the best of friends, Dan Smoke said, and were so close, Edwards was a pallbearer at Sam’s funeral in 2009. The two men were undoubtedly close and I felt both were present that day.

Edwards, 55, is a Western University grad who has worked as a crime reporter with the Star for more than 25 years. Having reported on organized crime and miscarriage of justice topics like David Milgaard and the Ipperwash Crisis, Edwards has also written 10 books on such subjects and is working on his 11th.

All this, I knew about him, so forgive me for expecting to hear a justifiably harsh account of a terrible injustice from someone I thought would be a hardened individual.

But Edwards wasn’t angry. He was soft-spoken in everything he said. And everything he said, resonated with the memory and voice of Sam.

His book, One Dead Indian, was deliberately titled, not with intent to offend, but with a desire to highlight the inattention and ignorance that plagued the Ipperwash Crisis for years. It is a book that at its core was, just like Sam, looking for bebwewin.

It took almost a decade for an inquiry to be called into the case, even after it was proven the occupiers from the Stoney Point band had not been armed and they were, in fact, trying to reclaim a sacred burial ground on land the government stripped from them and promised to return after the Second World War.

But Edwards, by way of Sam, expressed no anger toward. He said in his criticism of the circumstances, he meant no disrespect to the officer who shot and killed Dudley George. In certain circumstances, Edwards said, you don’t have to be decent. But you should be decent.

Sam was just an ordinary guy who did the right thing over and over again, asking the same questions, not letting anyone diminish him. Edwards said he thought the story he was working on would be sad and short-lived. He credits Sam for the outcome, achieved not with aggression but with relentlessness. While Sam endlessly searched for the truth, Edwards was writing it. The media would eventually use his book as evidence supporting the need of an inquiry.

Edwards’ lecture, though serious and poignant, elicited laughter in the classroom – an approach Sam left with him.

Much like Sam, who went everywhere he could, telling his brother’s story and searching for the truth, so too does Edwards travel now, re-telling the Ipperwash story, his memories of and lessons from Sam. Sam brought everyone together, Edwards said, something he is doing still.

“I basically just try to pass on things I saw and learned from Sam. The last time I spoke with him, six days before his death, he spoke of how he didn’t want the Ipperwash story to be forgotten so I welcome any opportunity I can to keep it alive,” he said.