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Batchewana First Nation leader calls Harris appointment act of 'blatant racism'

Chief Dean Sayers joins growing Indigenous opposition to former premier's Order of Ontario honour
Harris (Crop)
Former Premier Mike Harris. File photo

Batchewana First Nation Chief Dean Sayers wonders what kind of narrative the Ontario Government will create for future generations if Mike Harris is awarded the province’s highest honour. 

The former premier and Nipissing MPP was among the 47 appointments to the Order of Ontario announced Jan. 1. Harris’s appointment was met with criticism from Ontario Regional Chief RoseAnne Archibald earlier this week, and sparked an online petition that has garnered more than 71,000 signatures as of Saturday. 

“What’s driving Premier Ford in his decision to award this honour to Mike Harris, when it’s exceptional individuals who are supposed to receive this honour? They’re supposed to inspire us and represent the very best of Ontario,” said Sayers. “I don’t understand how that could be misread by the premier and the cabinet, and the provincial government.”

“I’m thinking there’s something wrong with the process.”

Indigenous political secretariats - representing a number of First Nations in Ontario - were quick to condemn the province for Harris’ appointment, including the Association of Iroquois and Allied Indians (AIAI), which counts Batchewana First Nation of Ojibways as one of its member nations. 

The AIAI laid out its disdain for Harris’ appointment in a heated news release earlier this week, calling the move a “slap in the face to the Indigenous people in Ontario,” due in part to the role Harris played in the shooting death of Dudley George by Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) during a two-day standoff at Ipperwash Provincial Park in September 1995. 

During a confrontation on the final day, members of the OPP's tactical response unit opened fire on a group of protestors as they attempted to leave the park, killing George in the process.

Sgt. Ken Deane, one of the officers in charge of the sniper team, would later be found guilty of criminal negligence involving death.

“While he [Harris] did not physically pull the trigger of the weapon that took Dudley George’s life, he was instrumental in the actions leading to his death,” reads the Jan. 4 statement from AIAI. “His appointment to the Order needs to be taken back and cancelled, or it will be obvious that racism and demagoguery is alive, well and even celebrated.”

An inquiry into the Ipperwash crisis produced 100 recommendations, but according to Sayers, many of those recommendations have yet to see the light of day. 

“I still refer to those periodically, around how can we repair the relationship between the provincial government and Indigenous people,” said Sayers. “I don’t see us moving that yardstick very far.”

Sayers believes that Harris’ appointment to the Order of Ontario is creating a narrative for the present-day Conservative government, illustrating that colonization is alive and well in 2021. 

“As I look in their ship and see what they’re doing, I sometimes shake my head and I think, ‘what are these people doing?’ Like looking at Trump, blatant racism. Looking at awarding Harris - again, blatant racism,” said Sayers. “How can we really go down the road of reconciliation when there are these outright, blatant instances that completely sand wood against the grain of reconciliation?”

- with files from Canadian Press