Case of killer's poetry ignites conversation about Indigenization and academic freedom

The manager of the Indigenous students' centre at the University of Regina says Indigenization should have taken precedence over academic freedom in the case of a poet whose lecture was cancelled after outrage over his connection to the convicted killer of an Indigenous woman.  

Misty Longman is a Saulteaux member of George Gordon First Nation and manager of ta-tawâw Student Centre at the University of Regina. 

She said the lecture by George Elliott Clarke, who said he might read poetry by a man convicted of killing an Indigenous woman in 1995, should have been cancelled earlier. 

"I'm angry that we had to get to this point and it had to erupt and have so many hurt feelings for this to finally be cancelled," said Longman on Friday. 

Clarke had been scheduled to speak about truth and reconciliation as part of the 2020 Woodrow Lloyd Lecture on Jan. 23 but he withdrew from the event on Friday.

Since 2005, he has had a working relationship with Steven Kummerfield, the convicted killer of 28-year-old Pamela George. In 1995 he and Alex Ternowetsky lured George outside the city and beat her to death. They were convicted of manslaughter. 

Kummerfield served half his sentence and was released on full parole in November 2000 and now lives in Mexico City. He has changed his name to Stephen Brown and is a published poet whose work has been edited and published by Clarke, who is a professor of English at the University of Toronto.

Clarke said he only learned of Kummerfield's violent past four months ago, but it was "kind of immaterial" because he may still have chosen to work with him based on an appreciation of his art. He initially said he might read Kummerfield's poetry at the Regina event, adding that he wouldn't pander to "so-called intellectuals" who want to send out a "lynch mob" just because he had a working relationship with a convicted criminal. Later he said he would not read the killer's poetry at the event.

University rejects calls to cancel lecture

When Clarke's connection with Kummerfield was revealed, Longman said a group of her colleagues at the university immediately felt he was a problematic choice of speaker. 

It became so contentious that it triggered resignations and calls for a boycott. 

She said her colleagues rallied together to ask the selection committee to find a different speaker or cancel the lecture. 

Bonnie Allen/CBC

Chelsey George, the daughter of Pamela George, also expressed opposition to the reading of Kummerfield's poetry. 

But the university rejected calls to cancel the event. 

The university's faculty of arts dean, Richard Kleer, said Wednesday the institution seeks to encourage "open, civil and robust discussion on controversial issues" and that may include hosting people who have controversial ideas or associate with controversial individuals.

"The selection committee may have made a different choice had it been aware of the relationship [between Clarke and Kummerfield] in advance, but that point is moot now," Kleer said in an emailed statement to CBC News.

Indigenization and academic freedom can be 'parallel'

Longman said the series of events has shown the university has work to do as an institution to achieve its Indigenization goals. 

Indigenization involves consulting with an Indigenous advisory circle and including Indigenous voices, critiques, scholars and materials in all U of R classes and campus activities.

"I think that's the hard part. I think that sometimes Indigenization and academic freedom are … parallel," she said.

"They don't align and sometimes you have to just pick one over the other. And in this instance it would have been nice if we picked Indigenization and just said this is that time where we break the mould and we pause and we do something different."

CBC

Longman said she believes that did not happen because the university's approach to respecting academic freedom is following the "status quo."

"I know they're bound to their own ethics and they're bound to their own beliefs that are a little different to mine on the staffing side of things but sometimes I think you can dismantle what has been done and you can say, this one time, we're doing it differently in the spirit of truth and reconciliation," she said.

Longman also said the reaction to the lecture could have been different had the university known earlier about the relationship between Clarke and Kummerfield. 

"We didn't have a lot of time by the time we had found out as an institution to do things in a really respectful way as best we could," said Longman. 

The University of Regina said in a statement released Friday it is committed to creating a safe space for Indigenous students as well as defending academic freedom. 

A challenging balance, says U of R

"Universities have a responsibility to support and defend the democratic right to express controversial or unpopular opinions as long as they do not incite hate, discrimination or violence," said the news release.  

"Balancing these two commitments can, at times, create challenges."

It said it recognizes that the decision to have Clarke as a lecturer "was not supported by all communities and  unfortunately brought back painful memories for many in relation to the 1995 killing of Pamela George." 

The university said it is in the process of reaching out to Indigenous leaders, elders and groups in an effort to hear people's concerns and begin a healing process. 

Clarke will not be replaced as speaker at the lecture event.