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U of T Professor George Elliott Clarke withdraws from Regina lecture amid controversy over relationship with convicted killer

Criticism directed at willingness to read poetry written by the perpetrator of an Indigenous woman’s fatal beating
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Clarke drew controversy for a speaking arrangement at the University of Regina. CC WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
Clarke drew controversy for a speaking arrangement at the University of Regina. CC WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Content warning: article contains mentions of sexual violence.

George Elliott Clarke, Professor of English at the University of Toronto, was at the centre of controversy last week, after public outcry saw him withdrawing from a lecture at the University of Regina (U of R). The backlash revolved around Clarke’s relationship with, and openness to, citing Stephen Brown’s poetry in the now cancelled lecture, which was titled “‘Truth and Reconciliation’ versus ‘the Murdered and Missing’: Examining Indigenous Experiences of (In)Justice in Four Saskatchewan Poets.”

Brown, who changed his name from Steven Kummerfield, was convicted for the 1995 murder of Pamela George, an Indigenous woman from Regina. Clarke has edited poems and books for Brown, and the two have a long-standing relationship.

“A terrible murder, a vicious crime”

Brown and Alex Ternowetsky beat George to death and abandoned her in a ditch just outside Regina. They were both initially charged with first degree murder, but that conviction was reduced to manslaughter. Although Brown was sentenced to serve six-and-a-half years in prison, he was released on parole in 2000, having been behind bars for only three years.

George’s murder trial in 1997 sparked outrage from groups representing women and the Indigenous community. They believe that Brown and Ternowetsky received unjustly lenient sentences because of their racial privilege and affluent background. This speaks to a larger systemic issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada, which includes the targetting of economically vulnerable Indigenous sex workers like George. The judge had instructed the jury to consider George’s occupation as a sex worker in determining whether or not she had consented to sex.

Clarke says he learned about Brown’s past in September 2019 and characterized George’s fatal beating as “a terrible murder, a vicious crime” in an interview with The Varsity. This prompted him to wonder how a person goes from being a murderer to, in his opinion, “a talented poet.”

When Clarke was asked to give the 2020 Woodrow Lloyd Lecture at U of R, he claims that he considered using Brown’s work to analyze these kinds of situations, as well as “in terms of the absence or presence of commentary regarding violence, in particular against Indigenous women and girls.”

“It was never my intent… to celebrate his poetry, condone his crime, exonerate him of his crime. Not at all,” said Clarke.

A community still mourning

When critics learned of that Clarke might read some of Brown’s work, they were quick to call on U of R to cancel the lecture.

Heather Bear, Vice-Chief of the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations, said in a statement to CBC News that she is “disgusted, disheartened and hurt that university officials would consider promoting — even indirectly — this [killer’s] work or even to allow the potential of it to be read aloud publicly within the community that still mourns her death.”

Members of the U of R community were also concerned about the lecture, with one faculty member highlighting that the event may not be carried out in the spirit of reconciliation.

Krista Shore, daughter of Barabara Ann Shore, an Indigenous woman who was murdered in Regina one year after George, also spoke out against Clarke’s lecture. The ambiguity of whether Brown’s poetry would be read was a source of stress for families like hers with direct ties to violence against Indigenous women.

“Why play mind games with people? We’re trying to heal here in Treaty 4 territory… and I don’t think it’s necessary that we bring a killer’s name into light,” she said.

A day before withdrawing from the lecture, Clarke issued an apology to George’s family and stated definitively that he would not read any of Brown’s work.

University response

In the face of public scrutiny, U of R’s Faculty of Arts refused to rescind its invitation to Clarke. In its statement, it claimed that doing so would be an example of censorship, which “goes against everything a university should stand for.”

However, after Clarke’s withdrawal, the university acknowledged that the planned event “brought back painful memories for many in relation to the 1995 killing of Pamela George.”

U of R plans to conduct consultations with Indigenous leaders and community members “to hear people’s concerns and perhaps begin a healing process.”

U of T declined The Varsity’s request for comment.

Claims of cancel culture

At the time, Clarke did not know if he would use Brown’s work in his lecture because he hadn’t finished researching the contents of the talk. However, he maintains that it is his right to “quote whatever [he thinks] is cogent for the sake of [his] argument.” In an interview with The Varsity, Clarke expressed that he felt that his fundamental charter rights of freedom of expression were under attack due to a “campaign of harassment and intimidation.”

He felt that some individuals at U of R had jumped to conclusions about the points he would make and so worked to ensure it would be “impossible for [him] to give this lecture.”

“They are the enemies of free speech, they are the enemies of free thought, they are the enemies of free expression. And the only reason why I cancelled the lecture was because I was being cast as being opposed to anybody receiving due justice for horrendous crimes against Indigenous people.”

However, he later elaborated that another reason for his withdrawal was out of consideration for “Ms. George, her family, survivors, [and] the wider Indigenous community who did not understand and never were told about the campaign of harassment that I had to endure for two months.”

He went on to say that as someone who is partly Indigenous himself, he has never condoned racist violence — and that his lecture would have been supportive of Indigenous empowerment.

Clarke stands by his appreciation of Brown’s work.

“Knowing about his criminal past makes that more difficult now, but I can’t change my mind about what I like about his work. And I don’t think that’s an impossible statement to make, while still saying that I find violence against Indigenous people to be a crime against humanity.”

Where to find sexual violence and harassment support at U of T:

A list of safety resources is available at safety.utoronto.ca

The tri-campus Sexual Violence Prevention & Support Centre’s website is www.svpscentre.utoronto.ca

Individuals can visit the Centre’s website for more information, contact details, and hours of operation. Centre staff can be reached by phone at 416-978-2266.

Locations:

U of T downtown Toronto campus: Gerstein Library, suite B139

U of T Mississauga: Davis Building, room 3094G

U of T Scarborough: Environmental Science and Chemistry Building, EV141

Those who have experienced sexual violence can also call Campus Police to make a report at 416-978-2222 (St. George and U of T Scarborough) or 905-569-4333 (U of T Mississauga)

After-hours support is also available at:

Women’s College Hospital Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence Care Centre (416-323-6040)

Scarborough Grace Sexual Assault Care Centre (416-495-2400)

Trillium Hospital Sexual Assault Care Centre (905-848-7100)