Two successive Progressive Conservative governments lasted 2,949 days without calling a public judicial inquiry into the killing of First Nation activist Dudley George, despite allegations that prominent members of their party-former premier Mike Harris in particular-shared some of the blame in the events that led to Dudley's death.
Newly elected Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty waited less than 1,000 minutes to set an inquiry in motion. On Oct. 3, barely 12 hours after his party was swept into office after eight years of Tory rule, the Liberal leader announced that an inquiry would be held. It was just what the George family had bet on hearing.
There was a confusing development on Oct. 2, election day in Ontario, when it was announced that the family had settled its $7 million wrongful death civil action against the Ontario Provincial Police and dropped its lawsuit against Mike Harris and others. It was just days away from heading to trial.
Inquiries by Windspeaker revealed that a high stakes gamble was being considered in the days leading up to the Ontario election. An offer by the defendants to settle the lawsuit for cash had been made several weeks before, but rejected. As the family and their lawyer watched the polls, it became clear that the Tories would lose their hold on power for the first time since the fatal Sept. 6, 1995 shooting of Dudley George at Ipperwash Provincial Park. And that, ironically, would cause difficulties.
The Liberals had repeatedly committed to calling an inquiry into the shooting should they form the next government. That would have presented a problem for the George family, as they would have been faced with funding a battle on two fronts, an inquiry and in the court. That left two options--drop the lawsuit and be forced to pay the defendants' legal costs, estimated at several million dollars, or accept the offer to settle and bet on the Liberals keeping their promise to call an inquiry.
George family lawyer Murray Klippenstein rose early on election day, checked all the daily newspapers in the Toronto area and noted that not one writer in any of them was holding out hope for a Tory re-election, so early that day the call was made to accept the settlement offer.
The gamble paid off. Barely 15 minutes after the polls closed, the CBC Television News' election desk was calling it a Liberal majority government. In one of his first press conferences after victory was assured, Premier-elect McGuinty made the inquiry official.
Harris, who is being touted as the man who will lead a new federal party that will merge the Progressive Conservative and Canadian Alliance parties, got to the media first after the settlement and claimed that the dropped lawsuit was his vindication.
Klippenstein begs to differ.
"I'm aware that Mr. Harris claims that the settlement at trial somehow exonerates him, but nothing could be further from the truth," the lawyer said. "The plaintiffs have agreed not to ask for any money. That's all [the agreement to drop the lawsuit] says. Mr. Harris may want people to think that dropping the claim in favor of a public inquiry instead vindicates him, but all it does is say that he will face questioning in a public inquiry."
Sam George, the brother of Dudley who has been the principal plaintiff in the lawsuit, bristled at the suggestion that Harris has been cleared of any wrongdoing.
"He may have put out a press release indicating that we finally had come to the decision that he wasn't involved, but that was not true because he is going to go through the public inquiry now as well. I wouldn't be celebrating too soon," George said.
"Mike Harris' government always refused to call an inquiry. They forced us into the only option available to get at the truth and that was to start the civil lawsuit in the courts. They knew very well that it has always been our priority to have a public inquiry, not litigation. What's happened in the last eight years and everything e've been through with motions, cross-motions and all, we did take a pounding but we went through it. When that window of opportunity [the inquiry] opened.
We took it."
Sam George admitted that Harris beat them to the media once the settlement offer was accepted. He further admitted that many people were concerned the family had sold out after many years of fighting against heavy odds.
"Everything went a little premature. We were planning on making a statement today," he said on Oct. 3. "I just wanted to give [Windspeaker] a call and let you know what was going on before you heard otherwise. And let you know people hear these kinds of things and if they have no idea what kind of legal expenses we have built up, people will be thinking we're getting lots of cash here when it's not really a whole lot."
In fact, George said, the family agreed to accept $100,000 from the OPP, plus legal costs that have yet to be determined. He recently estimated his own legal bills to be in excess of $1 million.
"There is $100,000 there but there is going to be some legal costs come out of that as well," he said. "That is going to help us pay off some of the debt that we incurred over the last eight years. We've always pledged that this is not a money-making thing. We've always said that after expenses and debts are all paid off we're going to put it towards Aboriginal rights and human rights. We're still holding to that. We always wanted a public inquiry; we had the opportunity to get the public inquiry so we dropped the lawsuit."
George and Klippenstein both sounded immensely relieved that the trial would not go ahead. The lawyer has not been paid in more than two years and the costs of waging this legal battle had been growing as the trial approached. Just the expense involved in issuing summonses to witnesses was costing tens of thousands of dollars.
Now the settlement will provide much needed financial resources and the Crown will bear the brunt of future costs for the inquir.
"We're celebrating. I guess we did what a lot of people didn't think would happen. We did get that public inquiry. It did take a change in government, but it also took eight years to keep it alive.
We're right where we wanted to be eight years ago," said George. "I'm trying to figure out how I should really feel right now. The last few days have been really . . . I've felt a lot of pressure. I was telling my wife I've never felt pressure like that before."
Klippenstein said the settlement money will allow his staff to follow leads they couldn't afford to deal with before. The lawyer noted that many people involved had bet that the family would never get the matter to trial; as the trial approached, he said, witnesses were changing their stories. Few people want to face the possibility that they could be exposed in court as having concealed evidence or having lied about their involvement, he said.
"As we approached trial we noticed that people were increasingly willing to provide more information to us because they saw, correctly, that in fact this was going to happen and the truth would not be denied. So we had witnesses telling us things they claimed to forget before. We had the incident commander at Ipperwash change his sworn testimony from two years before and now indicate that he had been advised that the premier on Sept. 6 was acting as if he thought he could order the police around," he said. "That is pretty significant, to say the least, and the fact that this came up at the last minute before trial as a change to previous evidence, it was an example of how the psychology has been moving towards more disclosure by people.
"I think that now that people know that the government of Mr. McGuinty is fully behind an inquiry, it will be even more apparent to people that it's not very smart to continue the cover-up and we will get even more information. Some people, I think, live in fear for their careers and some people believed that a trial or inquiry woud never happen and the smartest thing would be to shut up and lay low. So one advantage of the George family's determination has been to finally get to the point where people with information will feel more free to give it."
Details are not available as to when or where the inquiry will take place, but there has been talk that Mr. Justice Dennis O'Connor-the man who led the inquiry into the tainted water scandal at Walkerton, Ont. and who criticized the former Mike Harris government for its conduct in that matter-may be asked to lead the George inquiry.
The inquiry will be able to assess blame, but can bring no criminal charges nor can it order financial compensation. Should criminal activity be exposed during the hearings, Klippenstein said it's possible, but not likely, that police could lay criminal charges.
The family plans to use any cash beyond expenses to endow a Canadian version of the Native American Rights Fund, which provides money to fight legal and political battles on behalf of Native people in the United States.
Klippenstein believes the inquiry will have great value for all Canadians.
"The powers-that-be will now see that they can be scrutinized and held accountable for exercises of power they once thought were completely hidden and impenetrable. They are going to see that the actions they take against First Nations can be very problematic if they choose to completely ignore treaty rights, constitutional Aboriginal rights, if they are playing fast and loose with racist opinions. It used to be that that kind of approach when engaged in at the highest levels was rarely reachable by the light of day. Now it partly is and will be more so."