LAMBTON SHORES, ONT. – The brother of a native protester shot dead by an OPP sniper 20 years ago was engulfed in flames Sunday during a flare-up between native factions as they marked the return of a disputed former federal military camp.
While Pierre George’s serious burns weren’t life-threatening, they’re a reminder that smouldering tensions at Ipperwash, which errupted in violence in September 1995 when native protesters clashed with a heavily-armed OPP force, haven’t washed away.
In-fighting between different factions within the local native community still simmers.
One witness said George’s injury was a small shock on a day where there were some signs of native unity.
“The picture of Pierre on fire is going to be the headline and it looks like trauma but really there was some good stuff that happened today,” said Mark Lindsay, a white homeowner who’s had a front-row seat to the infighting between native groups over two decades.
Sixty-one-year-old George — brother of Dudley George, who was fatally shot by an OPP officer in the 1995 standoff — was injured when he accidentally set himself ablaze while pouring gasoline on a fire set by the protesters to get the attention of people marching to celebrate the return of Camp Ipperwash.
The federal government appropriated land for the camp for the Second World War effort in 1942 and never returned it, until now, part of a more than $90-million settlement with the Chippewas of Kettle and Stony Point First Nation, a band whose members ratified the deal last week.
George and a group of band members inside the former army camp gates had laid out railway ties and set them on fire to stop other members of the band taking part in the Going Home Walk from entering the camp in a celebration of the deal.
Witnesses say a gas can kicked into the fire somehow was knocked back toward George, igniting his shirt. The garment was torn off before he was doused with water and taken to hospital by ambulance.
George was at the entrance to the traditional Stony Point territory, some of whose members who are openly angry at Chief Tom Bressette for the deal with Ottawa that would see people from both factions within the band receive money.
The deal includes $20 million to compensate all band members, while the other $70 million is earmarked for a fund to be overseen by trustees for future development on the Stony Point territory.
The Stony Pointers don’t agree that some of the money should go to Kettle Point members of their combined community.
Moments before he was burned, George — who doesn’t agree with the deal, and wants the federal government to listen to the Stony Pointers — told reporters: “I want to get their attention.”
Members of the march hadn’t arrived at the time of the dramatics.
Lindsay, who says he supports the natives, said he watched in horror as George caught fire.
The incident lasted only seconds before George was walking around and taken away for treatment.
Lindsay said once George was taken away. some of the marchers aprroached the gates, but were rebuffed.
Only when one of the Stony Point elders, who was removed and resettled 70 years ago, was brought to the gates, did tensions subside.
All the marchers except Bressette were allowed into the camp, to cheers, Lindsay said.
The chief was “taking a lot of verbal abuse,” Lindsay said.
One of the first among the marchers to enter was Barbara Jonson George.
“I feel good,” said the 83-year-old, who recalled being taken away, along with her family and their home, when she came home from school one day and the federal government moved in on the land.
Earlier this weekend, Bressette had said now that negotiations process are done, the First Nation can focus on healing and strengthening community relations.
The Kettle and Stony Point band includes two different traditional first nations, and their respective land bases. Critics of the deal say it won’t end the schisms between them.
Band manager Lorraine George said the native settlement deal was overwhelmingly ratified in voting last week.
Some Stony Pointers have argued the agreement doesn’t return the land to its rightful heirs, and the money isn’t enough.
“My understanding is Kettle Point wants to remove these people from (the former military camp) so they can do all their developmental stuff,” said Theresa George-Britton, who was at the camp gates.
“This land needs to go back to the people who need to go back to the reserve,” she said, noting her late father Robert George Jr. was among those removed from the land at age 10.
“My dad fought all his life to give this land back to the people,” she said.
Lindsay said there is still “a lot of bad blood” between the two factions.
“The truth is coming out that there is still major tumoil between the two and we’re caught in the crosssfire here,” he said.
“We have to get the infighting finished and get everybody working together moving forward in the same direction.”
Band members live along Lake Huron, northeast of Sarnia.
The officer who shot Dudley George in 1995 was convicted of criminal negligence causing death. An inquiry found the government of former Ontario premier Mike Harris, Ottawa and the OPP all bore responsibility for the events that led to George’s death.
In his final report in 2007, Ipperwash inquiry commissioner Sidney Linden called for the disputed land to be returned immediately to the Stony Point First Nation, along with compensation.