A group representing seven Ontario First Nations is outraged by the nomination of former premier Mike Harris to the Order of Ontario, calling it an “insult,” a “slap in the face” and a “step back in reconciliation.”
The controversial former premier was on a list of 47 people nominated to receive Ontario’s highest honour for individual excellence and achievement, released by the province on New Year’s Day.
Harris served as premier of Ontario from 1995 to 2002 and oversaw some of the most tumultuous events in the province’s recent history, including the Walkerton tainted water scandal in 2000 and the fatal shooting of Indigenous protester Dudley George at Ipperwash in 1995.
On Monday, Joel Abram, the Grand Chief of the Association of Iroquois and Allied Indians (AIAI) said he was surprised and upset to learn the former premier got the nod for Ontario’s highest honour.
“I had some expletives that I won’t get into, but I was like, ‘Was this real?
“You have to have blinders on to think this is a good Premier, a good person that is deserving of this sort of recognition,” he said.
“We think it’s a horrible choice to recognize him.”
Bloodshed at Ipperwash
George was 38 when he was killed by a sniper’s bullet as provincial police moved in on unarmed protesters who were occupying Ipperwash Provincial Park in September 1995.
During the subsequent Ipperwash Inquiry, former attorney general Charles Harnick testified that Mike Harris wanted the protesters removed by police quickly, and he quoted an angry Harris as saying, “I want those fucking Indians out of the park.”
While Harris denied he ever made the statement, former justice Sidney Linden, the commissioner overseeing the Ipperwash Inquiry, wrote in his final report that “it is my view that Michael Harris made the statement.”
Linden also wrote he agreed with the characterization that what Harris reportedly said was racist and that the premier’s insistence on speed rather than caution to diffuse the park’s occupation by the protesters “created an atmosphere that narrowed the scope” of a potential peaceful resolution.
On Monday, a news release from AIAI, which represents Batchewana, Caldwell, Delaware, Hiawatha, Bay of Quinte, Oneida and Wahta First Nations called Harris’s nomination “an insult,” a “slap in the face to Indigenous people” and “a step back in reconciliation.”
The strong choice of words, according to Abram, underscores a simmering anger among many Indigenous people who believe the former premier set the tone for what’s considered a dark chapter of recent Ontario history.
Harris’s words, actions, still a ‘sore spot’
“It’s still a sore spot for many First Nations and we don’t think he was a very good person based on his actions. And while I don’t know him personally, we do know what happened back then was definitely not good,” Abram said.
He said Harris’s nomination came as a surprise to himself and many of his colleagues in Indigenous leadership circles.
“I didn’t receive any communication about that or any hint, so it was quite a shock to most of the leadership that I know,” he said. “I think it was poorly thought out.”
The Office of the Lieutenant Governor of Ontario, which is responsible for the award, did not respond to a request for comment from CBC News on Monday.
The award is based on nominations from the public and must include a description of the potential recipient’s achievements and two signed testimonials from two people, not including the nominator.
The nominations are then vetted by an advisory council, which includes the Ontario’s chief justice, Speaker of the Legislative Assembly, secretary of the cabinet and up to six additional members of the Order of Ontario appointed to the council by the premier.
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