REGINA — A celebrated Canadian poet has cancelled a lecture about Indigenous justice issues at the University of Regina following outrage over his working relationship and friendship with the killer of a local First Nations woman.
George Elliott Clarke was to deliver the Woodrow Lloyd Lecture on Jan 23. The talk was titled ”‘Truth and Reconciliation’ versus ‘the Murdered and Missing’: Examining Indigenous Experiences of (In)Justice in Four Saskatchewan Poets.”
Indigenous leaders and some faculty members urged the university to cancel the lecture because of Clarke’s association with Stephen Brown, who changed his name from Steven Kummerfield.
Brown and his friend Alex Ternowetsky were convicted of manslaughter in the 1995 beating death of Pamela George near the Regina airport. Brown was sentenced to 6 1/2-years and was granted parole in 2000. He now lives in Mexico.
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Clarke, a former parliamentary poet laureate, initially told CBC News he would not pander to “so-called intellectuals” and “may or may not” read a poem by Brown at the lecture.
On Thursday evening, he issued a statement through his literary agent saying he would not be citing Brown’s poetry “because of my sensitivity to the feelings of the survivors of his victim.” He said he found out about Brown’s crime last September and it changed his opinion of him.
Then, on Friday, Clarke said he would withdraw from the lecture all-together.
“I never intended to cause such anguish for the family of Pamela George and the Indigenous community, and for that I am truly sorry,” he said in a statement.
“I am a mixed Black and Indigenous writer and scholar, and my advocacy for justice for Indigenous Peoples and People of Colour in Canada must never be in doubt.”
The university initially said cancelling the lecture would go against its principles.
But on Friday, it admitted its decision brought back painful memories.
“The University of Regina is deeply committed to honouring the treaties, supporting truth and reconciliation, and creating a safe and welcoming campus for Indigenous students, staff and faculty,” it said in a release.
“As a post-secondary institution, the University of Regina is also committed to the principles of free speech, thought and expression.... Balancing these two commitments can, at times, create challenges.”
The university said there would be no replacement speaker and that it is reaching out to members of the Indigenous community.
“The only expectation among the University’s leadership group... is to listen, learn and share in a spirit of co-operation and mutual understanding.”
I never intended to cause such anguish for the family of Pamela George and the Indigenous community, and for that I am truly sorry.George Elliot Clarke
George, a mother of two, was a member of the Zagime Anishinabek, formerly called the Sakimay First Nation, east of Regina.
Her killing and the ensuing trial was a painful time for many Indigenous people in Saskatchewan. Many were appalled by what they saw as soft sentences for the white, well-off offenders. There was also anger at Justice Ted Malone, who reminded jurors in his final instructions that George was a prostitute.
“Pamela George was lured away like prey and then viciously murdered and the lenient sentence that both of her killers received is an ongoing travesty of justice,” Heather Bear, vice-chief of the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations, said in a statement Thursday before Clarke’s talk was cancelled.
“It is still a painful memory. I have met the daughter that these men left without a mother and seen the very real impact this injustice has had on this family.”
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Clarke discussed his conflicted feelings about Brown, whose work he has edited, at a talk at John Cabot University in Rome late last year.
“My friend ended up serving only 3 1/2 years because of a sexist and racist judge who decided that the victim, an Indigenous woman, a sex worker, partly deserved the rape and death at the hands of two young white men,” Clarke told the event, according to a write-up on John Cabot’s website.
“My friend, the accomplice to murder of this woman, is an incredible poet ... He is a fairly kind man, who has paid his debt to society as the saying goes, and so should be left to live his life.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published on Jan. 3, 2020.