Earlier this month, The University of Regina (U of R) rejected calls to cancel a talk by George Elliott Clarke, a University of Toronto English professor and former parliamentary poet laureate of Canada, over his friendship with Steven Brown, the killer of a 28-year-old First Nations woman named Pamela Jean George.
The Woodrow Lloyd talk, titled “‘Truth and Reconciliation’ versus ‘the Murdered and Missing’: Examining Indigenous Experiences of (In) Justice in Four Saskatchewan Poets,” was scheduled for January 23. It was supposed to be a part of the current efforts to advance the process of Canadian reconciliation that involves rebuilding and renewing the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians.
According to CBC News, U of R had no intention of cancelling or censoring the lecture, maintaining the issue was a freedom of speech. In a public statement, Richard Kleer, the university’s dean of the Faculty of Arts, said that “denying someone a speaking platform, or censoring their message, simply because they have had a working relationship with a convicted criminal goes against everything a university should stand for.”
He further acknowledged that an institution should be dedicated to encouraging “open, civil, and robust discussion [around] controversial issues.”
In an earlier statement, Clarke said that he also doesn’t have an issue with reciting a poem written by Brown, then known as Kummerfield, if it fits into the context of the lecture.
The statements by both U of R and Clark received major criticism from members of the public, especially those within the Indigenous communities of Saskatchewan and other Indigenous communities throughout the country.
According to Danis Goulet, an award-winning Toronto-based Cree/Métis filmmaker, the possibility of this lecture has caused members of the Indigenous communities, more specifically women, to re-experience old wounds.
In her open letter to the school, Goulet stated that the murder of Pamela Jean George was “a painful awakening to Indigenous women in that community and beyond, making them realize that their bodies were to be ‘used, discarded, and killed.’”
She later argued that the university, which is home to the First Nations Univ ersity, should know better.
“They are one of the key institutions in Saskatchewan. They should be well aware of the legacy of anti-Indigenous racism on the prairies,” continued Goulet in the open letter.
According to James Daschuk, a U of R professor and the author of Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation and the Loss of Aboriginal Life, the existing racial divide in Saskatchewan predates the formation of the province.
In the past, the region’s alarming racial divide has been evidenced by events including the hanging of the late Métis political leader, Louis Riel, and the case of Gerard Stanley, who was acquitted for the murder of Colten Boushie—all of which had the same racial underpinnings as George’s case.
Pamela Jean George was killed on April 18, 1995.
On a drizzly night, Steven Kummerfield and Alex Ternowetsky, then university students, lured her from an inner street in Regina and took her to the outskirts of the city, where they raped and beat her to death. The following morning, a passing motorist found her body.
George was a Saulteaux and single parent to two children, who also occasionally worked in the sex trade industry for an income.
On December 20, 1996, Kummerfield and Ternowetsky were acquitted of first degree murder and convicted of the lesser offense of manslaughter. That day, the judge, Ted Malone, was reported to have told the jurors that George “indeed was a prostitute” who may have consented to sex with the two young men.
On January 7, 1997, Kummerfield and Ternowetsky were both sentenced to six and a half years with no parole.
How did Clarke’s initial statement of possibly including Kummerfield’s poetry in his talk impact the Indigenous community at the University of Toronto Mississauga (UTM) campus and the Indigenous community in Mississauga as a whole?
To answer this question, we interviewed Maria Hupfield, a Canadian artist and UTM assistant professor of Indigenous Digital Arts and Performance:
The Medium: The situation is quite complicated. What are your thoughts on it?
Maria Hupfield: There’s so many layers to it that can make it seem complicated, [but] it’s a very clear case when we come down to it.
For me, as a new professor, there are some things that really stand out. One is that this crime happened 25 years ago by a 19-year-old who was an alumnus of the University of Regina. So, there’s a lot of local specificity.
This has a lot of impact on me because we’re looking at someone who is the age of students. And there’s a lot of responsibility about our role as academics, and how we are raising a generation of scholars—and the privilege that comes from that. Being in university is a privilege.
[We have] a responsibility [to talk] about the way that race, and privilege play out in institutions and in academia. It’s a bigger conversation that can happen. So that to me has a lot of bearing because the person whose poems George Elliott was going to read was not only a convict, but also an alumnus of that program. So, there’s all of this that’s the responsibility of the University of Regina to deal with.
The other thing for me is that Steven Brown would have been a student when I was a student. I think that we have to come to a point where we’re being real, and it’s not just about careers. There’s responsibility with community. And if we’re looking at reconciliation and working with the community, then we have to acknowledge that there’s work that needs to happen within institutions to help frame conversations so that we’re not re-traumatizing people. We’re only now getting at a place where there are resources, and that relationship of trust can be developed.
One of the things that strikes me about this is that George Elliott Clarke is someone who is biracial. So he’s a minority, but minorities are not interchangeable. I’m curious about why—if we want a poet, why are we also not looking to a woman, especially if we’re talking about missing and murdered women.
Maybe we need to look at a native woman poet, especially someone who is locally based. It raises a lot of questions around the decision that was made.
TM: How do you feel about what happened?
MH: If we’re looking at social justice, even in Clarke’s attempt to create a space for conversation, he is still making this about men and careers. And that is not the space to have that conversation. The conversation that needs to happen in this case is around Indigenous women.
If we’re talking about privilege and whose voice gets to be heard, then maybe it’s not the men.
There may be another point in here about toxic masculinity. In this space, having two poets who are male, I think, is inappropriate, especially when we’re looking at murder and missing women. You often hear the quote, “Nothing about us without us.” For instance, you can’t talk about water without having water. Similarly, how can you talk about missing and murdered women without having someone to represent them?
We can’t widely enter into these conversations. We need to move forward responsibly.
TM: There’s clearly a lot of history that has played a role in the kinds of responses we’ve seen within the Indigenous communities. Can you tell me more about how the community as a whole has been impacted?
MH: One of the things that makes this very clear to me is when you read the court case and find out the facts, here’s a 19-year-old and his friend. They pick up a woman. It doesn’t matter who she is and what her background is. And without her consent, they force her to have oral relations with them, and then they precede to beat her for forty-five minutes to an hour, until she’s dead. And then they leave her in the ditch. And then they go to court for that. And rather than being convicted of first degree murder, they’re convicted of manslaughter. So this is the injustice.
George Elliott’s case does not hold up, saying that Brown has paid his dues for his crime as a young person. That is not the case. We see someone who has been let off on a lighter sentence because of the racism.
After having served only half of his sentence, Kummerfield was released in November 2000. He now resides in Mexico City and continues to be recognized as a poet. Clarke, who only learned of Kummerfield’s crime four months ago, apologized to the public and to George’s family for the statements he made when speaking with CBC News.
On January 3, in a statement released through his literary agent, Clarke asked the University of Regina to cancel his appearance. Since the incidence, U of R has reached out to the Indigenous community and has expressed an interest in hearing their concerns in an effort to “perhaps begin a healing process.”