George Elliot Clarke Withdraws from MMIWG2S Talk After Public Outcry

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Morgan Ortman

Killer’s poetry will not be read

Each winter, the Faculty of Arts at the University of Regina uses the Woodrow Lloyd Trust Fund to present the Woodrow Lloyd Lecture, which, according to the Faculty of Arts website, “features a nationally or internationally recognized scholar, writer, thinker, and/or activist, who speaks on issues of direct relevance to Saskatchewan.” In 2020, the title of this lecture was to be “‘Truth and Reconciliation’ versus ‘the Murdered and Missing’: Examining Indigenous Experiences of (In)Justice in Four Saskatchewan Poets.” The lecturer was to be George Elliott Clarke,former Canadian parliamentary poet laureate, and the talk was set for January 23–until the university and the public learned of his working relationship with Steven Brown, formerly Steven Kummerfield, who killed Pamela George in Regina in 1995. After a period of objections that reopened many wounds, Clarke ultimately withdrew from the lecture, effectively cancelling it on Jan. 3.

Pamela George, an Indigenous woman from the Sakimay First Nation, lived in Regina and was a 28-year-old single mother of two when Kummerfield/Brown and his accomplice, Alex Ternowetsky, took her life. George supported her children in part with sex work, work that is unprotected and gravely precarious. This lack of protection and precarity for sex workers created the conditions that allowed Kummerfield and Ternowetsky  to lure George into a vehicle in April of 1995 before sexually assaulting and killing her.

In 1995 Kummerfield/Brown pled not guilty to first-degree murder at his trial and was ultimately charged not with murder, but with manslaughter. As the grandson of a former NDP cabinet minister and a white settler, Kummerfield/Brown had institutional power over his victim which still sits in the minds and hearts of Indigenous people who witnessed this case as a racist injustice. Kummerfield/Brown was sentenced to six and a half years  in prison, of which he only served three. He was released in 2000 on full parole, changed his name to , and moved to Mexico, where he began his poetry career.

Clarke, a man of mixed Black and Metis ancestry, has edited Kummerfield/Brown’’s poetry, and it has been featured on a parliamentary website. He says that he did not know about Kummerfield/Brown’s crime when they began their friendship, and acknowledged in an interview with CBC that the trial was overseen by a “racist judge” who unjustly excused Brown and his accomplice. He also said that Brown has “paid his debt to society” and “so should be left to live his life.” However, the seriousness of Brown’s crime, the injustice of his short sentence, and the fact that crimes like his continue to be an epidemic on Treaty 4 territory leaves these sentiments ringing hollow for many.

Since the CBC interview, there was public outcry from university faculty and students, as well as those outside the University concerned about the seriousness of this lecture’s implications for Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women, Girls and Two-Spirit People. This outcry underscores, in the words of the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FSIN), a lack of “empathy” and “so-called commitment to reconciliation” among university administrators. Because Elders were not consulted when making this decision, said FSIN, and because Clarke said in an interview that he “may or may not” read Brown/Kummerfield’s poetry at the lecture, going forward with the talk would have been highly disrespectful. The Federation directly addressed the University of Regina and “demanded” that the talk be cancelled. Many others, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, were in agreement: an online petition from Indigenous advocacy group Idle No More that was launched to cancel the talk received thousands of signatures in its first hour from Treaty 4 territory and beyond.

Despite all this, the university administration stood by its decision to invite Clarke, presenting the invitation as an example of “open, civil discussion of controversial issues,” in the words of Faculty of Arts Dean Richard Kleer. Misty Longman, Manager of the ta-tawâw Student Centre on campus (formerly the Aboriginal Students’ Centre), revealed in a public statement that “[the Student Centre] approached the [Woodrow Lloyd] lecture committee chair and addressed multiple concerns” after learning that Clarke was working with Kummerfield/Brown. In fact, some members of the committee at the Faculty of Arts resigned when the concerns were met with a doubling down of Clarke’s invitation. Kleer said on behalf of the university’s administration that “as a matter of principle” they would not remove someone’s platform because of their association with Kummerfield/Brown.

The primary contention between the university and all those who supported Idle No More’s petition, now that Clarke has stepped down from the lecture, is the university’s commitment to “free speech” and the way such speech can actually harm students on campus. Misty Longman said to CBC that this incident has shown the way the University, a colonial institution, has principles of academic freedom that can be “parallel” to the process of Indigenization. “That’s the hard part…they don’t align and sometimes you just have to pick one over the other. And in this instance it would have been nice if we had picked Indigenization.”

While it came only after much strenuous work from Indigenous students and student advocates, the university’s students and faculty have successfully rallied against an event that would have disrespected the wishes of activists at Idle No More, of the FSIN, and of Chelsea George, Pamela George’s daughter. Chelsea George also spoke to CBC and said that regardless of Clarke’s and the university’s perceived distance of Kummerfield/Brown from his crime, “[i]t will never change the perspective of the families, from any of us.”

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