New Decade, Old Wounds

IndigNation | by Bev Cardinal

miyo-manitowi-kîsikânisik 2020… pêyâhtakeýimowin. Welcome to 2020, and peace to everyone! As we begin this millennium’s third decade, I continue to believe there’s much to look forward to as we seek to improve and strengthen relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. Yes, optimism mostly prevails for this self-described “Pollyanna”!

Unfortunately, my naive optimism was obliterated mere days into 2020. I bet you can guess why.

A January Shitstorm

Just as my holiday coma subsided, a convicted murderer and a celebrated poet teamed up to inflame a still-festering Saskatchewan wound.

What happened was the folks at the so-called “indigenized” University Of Regina thought it would be a terrific idea to invite notable poet and playwright George Elliott Clarke to present the annual Woodrow Lloyd Lecture. And it should have been: Clarke’s topic, ‘Truth and Reconciliation’ versus ‘the Murdered and Missing’: Examining Indigenous Experiences of (In)Justice in Four Saskatchewan Poets, sounded dandy.

One tiny problem: one of the “Saskatchewan poets” was Steven Kummerfield, who, along with accomplice Alex Ternowetsky, went to jail for raping and murdering single mother Pamela George in 1995.

It was a case that showed just how racist and sexist Saskatchewan can be and still is.

For gentle readers who don’t know (or have conveniently forgotten) the events sparking this outrage, simply google “Steven Kummerfield”. His “antics” are most accurately and powerfully described in Sherene Razack’s “Gendered Racial Violence and Spatialized Justice: The Murder of Pamela George”, but, in brief, the pair got drunk and drove around Regina looking for an Indigenous sex worker to attack.

There was no doubt about their guilt — they shamelessly admitted their crime to a friend.

I challenge you to think about the fact Kummerfield and Ternowetsky were widely defended at the time as “just boys being boys.” The judge even told the jury to consider that George was a prostitute, as if that makes her assault and murder more acceptable.

The sentence itself was a joke: less than seven years. Kummerfield was paroled in three and a half.

The Legacy

That brings us to the present. Clarke, it turns out, is a mentor to Kummerfield (who changed his last name to Brown and moved to Mexico after prison). When faced with shock and anger at the inclusion of Kummerfield’s poetry in his lecture, Clarke suggested the murder wasn’t even relevant — “kind of immaterial”, he said.

“Immaterial?” How do you plan to read something at an ostensible reconciliation event written by a guy who literally beat an Indigenous woman to death in the city you’re speaking in and call the context “immaterial”?

Fuck’s sake, people! Do you all have collective amnesia?

Clarke eventually cancelled his appearance and the U of R cancelled this year’s lecture, but now every racist in the province has slimed-up social media with disingenuous and highly ironic defences of poets’ rights to free speech. All in all, an appalling way to kick off 2020.

But there’s a gift here too. My son, an amazing observer of human nature, posted the following on social media. I think it’s pretty good:

“In 1995, it felt like all Indigenous people were Pamela George. 25 years later, the excruciating pain remains. Her killers should not be celebrated in any way. Just the existence of this event at the University indirectly promoted a murderer. But this has also shed new light on an important story. I’ll always remember Pamela George and remain horrified by how she was treated by these men and judicial system that decimated her humanity. The only good that can come from this is that we still remember her; she is not forgotten.”

Miigwetch/Marci!