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Clifford George: Second World War Veteran, Korean Conflict Veteran, and Indigenous Land Defender

By: Miles Morrisseau

Miles Morrisseau

Contributing Writer

Miles Morrisseau is a Métis writer, journalist and multimedia producer from the Métis Homeland in Manitoba. He began his career as a writer/broadcaster for CBC Radio in Winnipeg. He produced documentaries on Sunday Morning, CBC radio’s flagship documentary program. As a national native affairs broadcaster, he covered the Mohawk Gambling War in Akwesasne, the Death of the Meech Lake Accord and was one of only mainstream journalists who had access behind the barricades during the Oka Crisis, entering on one of a handful of boats that smuggled in food and medicine. He was Editor-in-Chief of Nativebeat, the Beat of a Different Drum, which was chosen best Native American Monthly by the Native American Journalists Association (NAJA). He was Editor-in-Chief of Aboriginal Voices Magazine and Indian Country Today. He produced Buffalo Tracks with Evan Adams for APTN. As program manager for NCI-FM, Manitoba’s Indigenous Radio Network, he helped launch Streetz FM the first radio station by and for Indigenous youth in Winnipeg, MB. He has six children and seven grandchildren and has been with his partner Shelly Bressette for over 35 years. He lives in Grand Rapids, Manitoba on one of the last pieces of Métis land still in the hands of Métis people.

Note from the Author:

Unless otherwise noted, all quotes are taken directly from testimonials made during the Ipperwash Inquiry.

Cenotaph at Kettle and Stoney Point First Nation. Image courtesy of Miles Morrisseau.

The midwife hurried on foot along the eight-kilometre trail through the thick Carolinian forest from Kettle Point to Stony Point in late winter 1920.  Lena Lunham delivered babies for families in both Anishinaabe communities and had already delivered a baby in Kettle Point that morning. Before this day was over she would bring into the world a future Second World War and Korean Conflict veteran, and Indigenous Land Defender.

The late Clifford George shared the story of his first day on Stony Point during testimony to the Ipperwash Inquiry on April 20, 2004, and recalled the midwife who delivered him. “She was a great lady, a great medical lady,” George stated with admiration. “She was a midwife for just about everybody. When I was born, she had delivered another young woman in Kettle Point first and she walked through the Bush to Stony Point and she got there in time to bring me into this world.”

During the long-delayed inquiry into the 1995 OPP raid on a peaceful land occupation and subsequent shooting death of land defender Dudley George, Clifford was among several other elders who provided accounts regarding life on Stony Point before it was taken by Canada during the Second World War.

George described a community that had the best of both worlds – living off the ample resources provided by lush forest filled with deer and a variety of small game animals and birds, as well as the bounty of Lake Huron. “We had everything in that reservation for our needs,” he said. In the spring, morels appeared, followed by strawberries, raspberries, and thimbleberries. Various plants and herbs were the source of the communities’ medicines. Clifford George’s father, William, and another Stony Point resident, Robert George, were carpenters. They collected cedar to build furniture, tables, and various kinds of chairs. As Clifford George said, the reserve land basically provided all of their necessities – it was “ideal for just about anything… through the different seasons.”

He believed the land was given to the people with everything they needed. “The creator put us there on account of all the essentials that we needed on the reserve itself; the medicines and all that, the woodlots and everything that goes with it. So we have a very strong conviction about all of that that they were spiritually given to us many years ago.”

The community was self-sufficient to such an extent that George did not have to attend one of Canada’s notorious residential schools. He went to a one room schoolhouse on Stony Point. According to the Inquiry final report his teacher, Liz McKinnon, taught grades 1 to 8. She had 40 acres on the reserve next to his grandparents’ property. Mr. George’s education ended at the age of 14 after he completed 8th grade.”  

At that time, the laws limiting the freedoms and basic human rights of First Nations people were extensive and strictly enforced. The Indian Act, which had been entrenched in the Canadian Constitution since 1876, gave powers to Indian Agents over every part of life on reserve and even controlled access in and out of the communities. Some First Nations had a pass system that allowed mostly First Nations men to be off reserve. It was a system that was later borrowed by the South African apartheid regime, and that is reflected in other regimes built on racial segregation and oppression.

“We were very poor but we managed, we were self-sufficient here, self-supporting completely, because at that time there was no welfare, no nothing like that here,” he said. “So we used our initiatives, and what facilities we had, mostly from this land here. We had everything good here, you know, good relationship, good relationship with the next reserve…my grandmother owned a great big farm, a very successful farm here, at one time…” shared George in the August 1994, documentary Dividing Lines, which was produced by students at Fanshawe College in London, Ontario.

The people of Kettle and Stony Point First Nation also had a long and proud military tradition. The service of their ancestors protected not only their territory but southwestern Ontario and the yet to be independent Canada during the War of 1812.

“American leaders were confident: ‘the acquisition of Canada this year will be a mere matter of marching’ boasted former President Thomas Jefferson. Reality proved different. In 1812, the outnumbered British, Canadian and Aboriginal fighters won a series of critical battles that stopped the Americans in their tracks,” wrote P. Whitney Lackenbauer in A Commemorative History of Aboriginal People in the Canadian Military.

Aazhoodena: A History of Stoney Point by Aazhoodena and The George Family Group relates this narrative: “The Stony Point People’s ancestors descended from Potawatomi and Chippewa who allied with the British during the War of 1812. As such they took part in various battles and made a lone stand against the Americans when the British fled the battle of Moraviantown on October 5th, 1813. It was on this battlefield that Tecumseh, Shawnee Chief and their leader, died.”

The War of 1812 more clearly defined the boundaries between the barely 40-year-old United States and British North America. Movements across the border became more difficult and the Americans’ genocidal war on Indigenous people, and the horrific forced migrations such as Trail of Tears and the Pottawatomi Trail of Death and the manifestation of Indian Removal Act of 1830.

Many First Nations maintained their historical connections to family and territory despite the emerging powers around them and the creation of what they call “The Medicine Line” (referring to the Canadian-US border). The historical and economic significance of trade and travel across traditional territories by Indigenous Peoples as a benefit for all nations had been recognized in the Jay Treaty of 1794.

Their commitment to defend the lands of the ancestors was also not determined by the border. Four members of the tiny communities of Kettle and Stony Point First Nation volunteered to serve in First World War. Three volunteered to serve in the Canadian Army and one joined up on the American side.

The idyllic life that the young Clifford George knew changed dramatically in 1939 when he lost his mother and war broke out once again. Times became increasingly difficult, as he related:

 “After my mother died in 1939, my aunt Violet got me a job at the basket factory in Forest where she had worked for many years. I was 19 years old. I worked for $0.15 cents an hour, 10 hours a day, six days a week. That’s $9 a week I made, and half of that went for rent. When the war came, I was thinking about enlisting but my aunt felt responsible for me and she didn’t want me to. So one day in April 1941, we went to work as usual. I waited until she went upstairs, then I took off Uptown with these three other guys. We had it arranged to meet this army vehicle which came from London. Three days later, I was in the army. My aunt cried, but of course by then it was too late.”

George trained at Victoria Park in London would serve as a Gunner with the Canadian Army. By August 1941, the troops were training overseas in England. “By then there were three of us from Kettle point and Stony Point. My brother Ken [and] Tom George joined after I did and they put us boys together in the same gun outfit. We trained together and then fought together on the South Coast of England from Dover to Portsmouth, all the different gun sites along there. Not long after, there was a headline in the paper here, George boys shoot down their first enemy aircraft.”

As the war neared its end, in the winter of 1945, George and members of his platoon were captured in a small Italian town and marched to a POW camp near the German border.

“We’re in this place by a river, a little two-story house. I had just come off duty and had my boots untied. They came in the back way and surprised us. They disconnected the phone lines, then shot up the stairs with a bazooka. There were seventeen of us taken out of that house tied together with a rope and made to walk through the pitch-black night in deep mud. Because my shoes were still untied, I lost them the first few steps I took. We were made to cross the river, which was very cold – well, this was February – and I went up to my neck, so you can imagine how miserable it was.”

Veterans of the Kettle and Stony Point First Nation (KSPFN): Personal Recollections of Veterans and Their Families

After stopping briefly in a farmhouse to dry before a fire, the men were marched another 250 miles to a hangar which housed over a thousand captive Allied troops. “That camp they put us in was an old airplane hangar until they could take us to Germany,” George recalled. “There are about 1,200 of us altogether – Poles, Indians, Africans, Americans, besides Canadians – a lot of different nationalities.”

Though his captors “adhered to the rules of the Geneva Convention,” the prisoners lived on little and were under constant threat of starvation. “We were given one portion of black bread a day and some soup made from animal guts,” he said. “Sometimes other things were added in to thicken it up, but no meat. That’s what we got every day. By that time in the war, thank God, the Red Cross could send packages to POWs so a few of us would put our food together and make a kind of heavy cake. If it wasn’t for that, some of us probably wouldn’t have made it.”

The war would end in the months to come and George and his comrades were released and sent home.

He had survived battles on the front lines and months of captivity in a Nazi POW camp. But victory had been won and a hero’s welcome would await the returning soldiers. Alas, for First Nations veterans returning home from the war, any sense of victory was short lived. 

Clifford George and his grandmother, Hanna Bressette in 1945 after he returned from the war. Image courtesy of the Ipperwash Inquiry and the Bressette Family.

Their service as brothers in arms was quickly forgotten and they were reduced once again to second class citizens in their homeland. In actuality, it was worse than before. First Nations had to surrender their Indian status in order to serve — a process called enfranchisement. Upon returning home, they learned how much they had truly given up in order to fight for Canada. Denied benefits given to veterans, they were also denied services and supports provided to First Nations. “What happened to these people that weren’t registered as natives [is that] they disappeared,” George testified. “That’s the term they used to use: you don’t belong. I was one of them.”

This double-sided exclusion was true for many Indigenous veterans, including Metis and Inuit. But George and the veterans from Stony Point felt that loss and so much more.

In February 1942, the Department of National Defence had identified the land at Stony Point as a potential training camp.  After the communities of both Kettle and Stony Point voted against appropriation, the government used the powers in the War Measures Act to take the land anyway. By spring, less than a year since the George boys had enthusiastically joined the war effort, putting their lives on the line against the rise of fascism, their families were being forced from their homes by the military their sons were serving. 

George’s grandparents had had a farm with barns, chicken coops, and a two-storey house. “They were all just destroyed,” George told the inquiry. Everything was bulldozed down to the ground and their entire way of life was gone in a matter of hours.

George related how his brother Kenneth returned home medicated and in “bad shape” and “shell shocked” from the horrors of war. He hitchhiked 200 km from Guelph, Ontario, desperate to break away from the madness of war and find the peace and safety of his home. What he found was Kafkaesque. The homes, the farms, the gardens, the school – all gone and replaced with barracks and the machines of war.

“So when he [Kenneth] got there to where his home was, he looked around and found that it was a barracks.  and he couldn’t understand and he lost it again on account of, you know, ‘Where am I now?’ He walked a little ways down the road and he slept in the ditch for the rest of the night because he didn’t know where to go. Didn’t know what to do.” 

George, his siblings, and other Indigenous Second World War Veterans found themselves without a home and no support from the country they served. They found out that the sacrifice they gave was even greater than they imagined. Not only had they lost their home, they were no longer considered “Indian” under The Indian Act. In order to serve in the Canadian Armed Forces they had given up their Indian status without knowing.

Despite the government denying them Indian Status they would still be burdened by the restrictions imposed by the Act.  It would not be until 1951 when revisions to the Indian Act allowed First Nations people minor freedoms (such as entering pool halls), legal rights (such as the right to assembly and to hire lawyers), and human rights (such as the right to practice ceremonies or wear traditional regalia in public).  The more oppressive sections of the Indian Act were amended or removed.

The Korean War is considered Canada’s “Forgotten War” because it had come so soon after the second world war and few Canadians had familial if any history with the country or the region. For the majority of Canadians, the post-war period was a time of celebration. The Canadian economy was booming as one of the economic leaders coming out of World War II. “The Second World War had ended just five short years before, and people didn’t feel the emotional and personal connection with Korea that they had with Europe.  Consequently, far fewer Canadians served in Korea, so it never touched people at home in the same way as the Second World War. For the most part, Canadians preferred to focus on their booming economy,” states Korea: Recalling Canada’s Forgotten War, Canada’s War Museum.

For the men of Kettle and Stony Point as it was for many Indigenous men, life after the war was not a time of prosperity.

“After coming back from the European conflict, I found it hard to get back into civilian life,” George testified. “Tom George and my brother Ken joined up again and so I did too. That was in 1953 just after the Korean War had ended. I was shipped over there in 1954 and served as a peacekeeper. My unit was disbanded over there and I was shipped back in 1955 as part of the 4th regiment Royal Canadian Horse Artillery. I stayed in the service and I was permanently discharged in 1959.”

Veterans of KSPFN

Gunner Ted Thomas, also from Kettle and Stony Point First Nation, recalled keeping track of his relatives as he drove deliveries of supplies and personnel. “I traveled a lot in Korea because I was on the Jeep,” he said. “Junior Jackson was down the road about 6 miles; Edsel Johnson was about 10 miles from us. Cliff George was maybe 1,000 feet from where I was, but we hardly ever saw each other because although we were in the same regiment, we were in different units.” Thomas also noted the impact on the Korean population. “It was an awful place because every building was bombed out. You’d see people wherever you went. When you took your food out you’d see kids peeking from the bushes, always hungry. A lot of those kids had no parents, either – just wandering around.”

Canada sent over 26,000 personnel as UN forces to Korea, including several hundred First Nations and Metis who were mostly veterans of the Second World War.  The Korean Conflict would take 516 Canadian lives, the third largest sacrifice in the international theatre.

In addition to Clifford George, four other veterans served in the Korean conflict: Private Norman Jackson Jr., Gunner Frederick “Ted” Thomas Gunner, Private Edsel Johnson, and Mervyn Lunham, who enlisted as a Private First Class in the United States Army.

The three men on the left served in the Korean War: Ken George (Clifford’s brother), Tom George, and Clifford. The other two men are Bruce George and Reginald George. This image was taken shortly after returning from Korea. Image courtesy of Yvonne Bressette.

When George returned from overseas this time, he knew he would not be going home. In his  recollection, the loss of the family’s home at Stony Point was especially traumatic for the elders.  “Some of them old people who had never drank in their life started drinking. They grew big families and then they ended up drinking. Just to relieve all the problems that they were facing in the deal and they couldn’t handle it. A lot of old people passed away on account of that.”

There was a lot of tension between communities that had long been inter-related and interdependent, as those who had lost their homes were not always welcome. “People were told – but you must accommodate these Stony Point people – which by the way they didn’t want us over there and we didn’t wanna go there,” George shared. “So it was an awful lot of controversy and like I say they didn’t want us there and we didn’t want to go there. It was very difficult. My father used to write to me about that. So it was difficult and yet we’re all interrelated and intermarried, but there is still a difference there. And because the government did that to us.”

In another twist of history that would give M Night Shyamalan pause, it was the First Nations people including many dispossessed of their Stony Point homes who would work as cleaners, cooks, and yard maintenance at the camp. It was the only way they were allowed regular access to their home land, which included remnants of some houses and the original graveyard.

It was only with approval of the Commanding Officer at camp that the George brothers were allowed access to their mother’s grave. “We went there and then it was absolute devastation to see the mess that the gravesite was. We couldn’t even tell where my mother was buried. We just had an idea where she was buried because at that time nobody, not very many people, put a headstone,” the veteran recalled with sadness.

Not only had their way of life been destroyed, but the very army they served, and the soldiers whom they considered brothers, had desecrated this most holy place in their stolen home. “There was a headstone there for some and it was all marked with rifle marks and shells just hung over the posts and stuff like that, blanks of course, you know, where they’re playing soldier.”

He continued; “Good, hardened soldiers crying our eyes out. I told the people there, that’s a shame you know what they’ve done.”

It would be decades before things would change as First Nations were dispossessed, disenfranchised and living in an oppressive system of colonization operating at its peak. From the 1950s and into the 1970s, Canada was one of the world’s leading economies, driven by manufacturing on both sides of the border and access to the seemingly endless supply of natural resources that fed that fire. The Indigenous Peoples whose traditional and treaty lands were being exploited had been pushed aside and silenced.

The Indian Residential School System was running full steam, and First Nations wouldn’t get the vote until July 1, 1960.

In the years after the Canadian government took the land at the Stony Point, the base was used for training cadets during the summer while providing an exclusive pristine beach for senior military and their families. The shores of Lake Huron in southwestern Ontario remains one of the region’s most popular summer destination spots. Grand Bend, with its public beach, is just 20 km down Highway 21 from the Camp. Adjacent to what was called the Military Beach was Ipperwash Beach and the Ipperwash Casino and Dance Hall. From the Roaring Twenties until the casino burned to the ground in 1968, it was a hot spot for locals, tourists from just south of the border, and military personnel looking for some r-n’-r.

The summer of 1991 would be one of the most significant in the history of Indigenous Canadian relations. That June, Elijah Harper, Cree and a member of the Manitoba Legislature, single-handedly killed the Meech Lake Accord, which proposed amendments to the Constitution of Canada. Then, on July 11, Mohawk Warriors stood up to an assault by the Québec provincial police force, the Sureté du Québec, and the Oka Crisis began. The warriors’ stand in Kanehsatake inspired the contemporary land back and sovereignty movements with occupations and blockades across Canada.

On May 6, 1993, a couple of dozen people entered Ipperwash camp, including elders who had lost their homes and people like Clifford George and his descendants, none of whom had a home in their own Native land. Their ranks included Dudley George.

The veteran Clifford George would set up his little trailer on the land that his family had lost half a century ago. He was one of the first who dug in. He knew that in warfare, you don’t give up ground. He was soon joined by the young warrior who would make the ultimate sacrifice to defend this land. “Dudley George also moved to the army camp. In 1993, about a month after the occupation began, Dudley George was given a trailer that had been donated to the council for whomever might need it. Dudley George treasured his new home, telling Clifford George it was the first home he had ever owned. He moved in full-time.”

Clifford George protesting in 1990 against the actions of the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs and their Minister, Tom Siddon. Image courtesy of Shelly Bressette and Nativebeat Archives.

In July, 1993, Dudley George was arrested along with two other land defenders for stopping traffic seeking access to what was called the “military beach” and charging visitors a five-dollar fee. He was placed in the back of an OPP cruiser and taken to the Forest detachment. When he and the two others refused to stay away from the army camp, they were sent to a Sarnia jail. They were released when they agreed to stay away from the entrance to the park on Matheson Drive but no conditions were placed on their return to Camp Ipperwash. 

Negotiations took place over the next couple of years, and throughout Clifford remained steadfast in his determination to never leave his home. Throughout the winter months, only George  and his young protégé Dudley remained at the site. Clifford didn’t want to fight anymore, but this next battle came to his door and during the attack his young comrade was killed by an OPP sergeant.

On September 4, 1995, just as the summer season was winding down, the original occupiers and supporters moved into Ipperwash Provincial Park. The Park was considered to be part of the original territory that had been taken without consent of the people at a time when they had no legal rights. Established in 1936, the park was 142 acres of beachfront property and provided serviced sites for dozens of campsites, as well as access for hundreds of tourists and day-trippers. The park was part of the larger traditional and treaty lands that the Kettle and Stony Point people had fought and died for over a century ago. The First Nations people believed that ancient burial grounds were located within the park.

Events escalated quickly, with an OPP special unit arriving armed with military gear. As was revealed during a subsequent inquiry into the events at Ipperwash, the police officers who opened fire on George’s group carried racist attitudes. During the attack, Dudley George was shot and killed by an officer who knew he was unarmed.

A key moment to fuel the escalation was the belief that a car driven by a non-Indigenous woman was surrender by members of the occupation and beaten with baseball bats.

The car in question was driven by Kettle and Stony Point Band Councillor Gerald George who had written a letter to the editor published in the local newspaper, The Forest Standard in which he criticized the occupier and was reflective of personal animosities and not a threat to the larger public. Nevertheless, it would serve as a call to action before the Ontario Provincial Police raid and as a public relations disinformation tool for months after. “It was more than a year later before Inspector Carson learned that the car driven by Gerald George in the evening of September 6th was damaged by a rock not baseball bats. OPP press releases issued after Dudley George’s death continued to perpetuate this unverified and inaccurate information this time to members of the public.”

On the evening of September 6, fueled by racism that would also be documented in the inquiry and this easily dismissed incidence of rock throwing as a public threat, the OPP stormed the barricades and even with no evidence of weapons the officer began to fire their military style automatic weapons. Acting Sergeant Kenneth Deane finds Dudley George in the site of his night vision and pulls the trigger. At 11:03 pm the shot goes out over the OPP radio, “Shots fired. Shots fired.”

The wound is not fatal but without immediate medical support he would die. The OPP had no intention of providing support and delayed and denied the family members who tried to save him and cancelled the call for an ambulance. Driven on car with blown out wheels to the Strathroy hospital less than 50 kilometres away Dudley George was pronounced dead at 12:20 am.      

In the days that followed, the people at Aazhoodena, the traditional name of the land, held their ground while the provincial government held fast to its position that this was a matter for the police. The standoff continued but as the events of that night and the historical wrongs against the people of Stony Point became apparent, calls for a peaceful resolution and a public inquiry began to build. 

The OPP backed down and pulled out, and negotiations moved from getting the people out of the park to getting the land back to the community. The Ipperwash Inquiry would later reveal racism in the OPP ranks leading up to and following the occupation of the park. Sgt. Deane, who used an assault rifle with a scope to shoot Dudley George, was found guilty of criminal negligence causing death.

“It was bad for us coming home from overseas after thinking that we helped the war out,” Clifford George told the Inquiry.  “I’ll say to myself I found all my enemies when I got home.” The stand at Stony Point would be his final battle but the sacrifice made by all those who returned home led to a victory that continues to unfold every year.

On June 18, 1998, the federal government signed an agreement returning Camp Ipperwash to Kettle and Stony Point.

On October 30, 2005, George passed away peacefully with the knowledge that the land that had been taken from him and his family had finally been returned and that plans were under way to bring his home alive again.

The Final Settlement Agreement was ratified by the Kettle and Stony Point First Nation on September 18, 2015. It included the return of the land, a financial settlement, and a long-term plan to clean up areas used in wargames which had left unexploded grenades, bombs, and various other ordnance.

In the years since, the Pinery Provincial Park has become part of Aazhoodena once again. The clean-up of unexploded ordnance has been ongoing for nearly 10 years, with First Nations from the communities trained by the Canadian Forces as unexploded ordnance technicians. In the last five years, in fact, dozens of permanent homes have been built and more are in the planning stages, along with the necessary infrastructure to sustain the community. Gardens are growing and in the fall the school age children will be bussed to the school on the Kettle and Stony Point First Nation to learn with their cousins down the road. Aazhoodena has become home again.