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

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

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)

George Elliott Clarke named Canada’s poet laureate

U of T professor on race, political inspiration, and upcoming initiatives

George Elliott Clarke named Canada’s poet laureate

George Elliott Clarke, University of Toronto professor, has been appointed the new Canadian Parliamentary Poet Laureate.

The acclaimed poet became the seventh person and the first African-Canadian to hold the position in its 14-year history. “This is a great honour, a great privilege,” Clarke told The Varsity. “There are 35 million Canadians and counting; and now, I have a special role… to try to encapsulate the collective dreams and ideals and hopes of 35 million Canadians.”

Clarke adds, “I know we’re not supposed to think of it as… representing the people in some way, but I do.”

The selection was made by a committee, based on the recommendation of parliamentary librarian Sonia L’Heureux and others. A public statement by Geoff Regan, the Speaker of the House of Commons, and George Furrey, the Speaker of the Senate, announced the new poet laureate on January 5.

Previously, the 55-year old Clarke served as Toronto’s poet laureate since his appointment in 2012.  His successor, author Anne Michaels, was announced last December.

According to the Library of Parliament, the role of the parliamentary poet laureate is to “encourage and promote the importance of literature, culture, and language in Canadian society.” The position was created to “draw Canadians’ attention to poetry, both spoken and written, and its role in our lives.”

“George Elliott Clarke has been a true ambassador of the work of Canadian poets,” said Furey in a public statement. “His contribution to Canada’s cultural fabric is exceptional.”

“His talent as poet, playwright, and literary critic is undeniable,” said Regan. “He is an immensely versatile and engaging writer and will bring great honour to the position.”

Biography

From Windsor, Nova Scotia, Clarke is a seventh-generation Canadian of African-American and Mi’kmaq Amerindian heritage. His lineage traces back to a group of Chesapeake Bay slaves, freed by the British during the war of 1812 and sought refuge in Nova Scotia.

Clarke received his bachelors of arts in English from the University of Waterloo in 1984, his master of arts from Dalhousie in 1989, and his PhD from Queen’s University in 1993. He went on to teach English and Canadian studies at Duke University from 1994 to 1999. He was also the visiting Seagrams chair in Canadian studies at McGill from 1998 to 1999.

Clarke worked as a parliamentary aide at the House of Commons for MP and civil rights activist Howard McCurdy from 1987 to 1991. He was also a social worker and legislative researcher at Queen’s Park between 1982 and 1983. He was appointed as the inaugural E.J. Pratt professor of Canadian literature at U of T in 2003, where he taught Canadian and African diasporic literature. 

Poetic Past

Clarke’s work delves into many topics, including race, social justice, and governance. He writes poetry, prose fiction, and opera.

“As a black youth in the 1960s and 1970s in Halifax, I was very aware of lots of movements of various peoples to get more equality and get more justice and that had a huge impact on me,” Clarke said.

He coined the term ‘Africadian’ to refer to black culture from the maritimes. Clarke believes the difference between black culture in Atlantic Canada and the rest of the country is the “long history of distinct settlement” that has brought a culture that is “distinct and unique.”

“So Africadians [or] Black Nova Scotians, had no choice but to grow up or survive as a distinct culture from the rest of Nova Scotia because our communities were positioned outside of larger white villages and towns,” Clarke said. “And that was done on purpose, so that the black populations had to work for cheap wages for white employers in nearby towns.”

In 2002, he was awarded the Governor General’s Award for Poetry for his work Execution Poems. The poems are based around two of Clarke’s ancestors who were executed for murder in 1949.

He has received honorary degrees from Dalhousie, The University of Waterloo, Saint Mary’s University, the University of Windsor, the Royal Military College, and the University of New Brunswick for recognition of his work. Clarke was named the William Lyon Mackenzie King visiting professor of Canadian studies at Harvard University in 2013.

Clarke’s upcoming novel, The Motorcyclist, is based on the diary of Charles Fletcher, a Nova Scotian who went from being a janitor to becoming Harvard’s first black professor. Clarke found Fletcher’s story during his time at Harvard.

From having his poetry as part of the official Magna Carta exhibit, to writing a poem for Toronto City Hall, Clarke said of being Toronto’s poet laureate that “it was a great experience, I truly enjoyed trying to represent the people of Toronto at various events and the poems that I wrote for City Council, that I read to City Council every April, I got to address City Council.”

Race in Canada

One of the recurring themes in Clarke’s poetry is race, extending to experiences of being black in Canada. “Questions of police maltreatment in Canada have a long history, going back decades, even centuries,” Clarke said, noting the police brutality that Indigenous peoples also experience. “The continued activists and scholars who are activists, calling to attention of deficiencies in the justice apparatus of the nation is a good thing.” Students at many North American universities, including U of T have taken to the streets, holding protests on their campuses. Black students and students of colour have been protesting against institutional racism and pressuring university administration to rectify issues such as a lack of diversity training, and for a commitment to employing a diverse faculty.

“Speaking as a professor, anything that makes students feel more comfortable in fulfilling their studies… has to be a good thing,” Clarke said. “If that means more equity training, then possibly that is what it should be.”

In February of last year, Clarke publicly supported for the students of Mount Allison University, who had protested against the racial discrimination they experienced at their campus.

A multicultural Canada

One of Elliott’s heroes is Pierre Elliott Trudeau. Clarke wrote a play in 2007 called Trudeau: Long March/Shining Path, that focused on the personality of the former prime minister.

In a 2010 interview, Clarke referred to “the Trudeau who appeals to me is the person who represents multiculturalism and projects these values to Canada and the world,” adding, “we don’t see diversity as strange or unusual, or dangerous, which partly a legacy of Pierre Trudeau.” Clarke goes on to say that, “if you had the experience of traveling, as he did in 1948 and ’49, deliberately so that you can experience different cultures and different ways human beings have organized themselves to live. You can’t come away with the provincial attitude, that ‘only our way of life is the very best’ and ‘only our way of doing things count as being right and civilized and humane.’”

As the parliamentary poet laureate of Justin Trudeau’s government, Clarke emphasized the importance of Canadians supporting Canada’s multiculturalism. “I think all of us are promoting multiculturalism, including all the opposition parties,” Clarke said. “This prime minister, like all the prime ministers before him, including Mr. Harper, need to respond conditions as they are right now… regardless of the directives of the past or the ideals of the past, the past as a guide, but it cannot let it dictate solutions to current issues. In other words, the current prime minister must be free to conduct government in the best interest of Canadians and voters.”

Canada in Poems

For the next two years as parliamentary poet laureate, Clarke has a line up of initiatives for his tenure. Among his plans is the creation of a database of Canadian poetry in celebration of the 150-year anniversary of the confederation of the country.

“By July 1, 2017, I would like there to be a program to be in place, whereby Canadians will have sent to the Library of Parliament or their respected MPs, lists of poets and poems that they believe represent their particular neighbourhood, city, province,” Clarke said. “Almost any particular poet could be represented by poems in different parts of the country, which I think helps make it a national project, a national treasury of Canadian poetry in both official languages, which is what I’m looking for.”