After years of bringing to light racism, the history of aboriginal peoples, and the lasting effects of residential schools, George Couchie will see his name on the Kiwanis Walk of Fame as the first Indigenous inductee.
“I was surprised and excited,” Couchie said on his initial reaction to his impending induction. “It is a great honour, especially since I am living in Nipissing First Nation and getting honoured by the City of North Bay.”
Couchie spent 33 years gaining policing experience, and 12 years designing and delivering award-winning Native Awareness Training programs.
“I first started policing in 1981 with North Bay city police, and I was there for nine years,” Couchie explained. “I got a call from my community, the Chief and he asked if I would be interested in policing in my community. The OPP then asked me to join them permanently, which I did.”
While working as an officer, Couchie was asked to head down to Ipperwash to act as a liaison between the OPP and band of warriors. The Ipperwash crisis was between the Stoney Point Band and the government of Ontario.
During World War Two, the government of Canada wanted to take reserve land to use as a training base for the military and promised to return the land once the war ended. The Stoney Point Band rejected the offer, but the government took the land under the War Measures Act. In 1995, a group of indigenous protestors broke into the now provincial park after hours to bring to light the decades-old land claims.
During the standoff between the OPP and the band of warriors, an officer shot and killed Dudley George, a protestor.
“I actually sat in the courtroom for 11 weeks and listened to the testimonies,” Couchie explained. “It was truly one of the black marks on the OPP history.”
Certainly, a precarious situation to be in coming down as a police officer, who at the time would have been viewed as an enemy, but as an Indigenous officer, that would seem to be an act of betrayal, but George insists it was the opposite.
“It was the OPP that questioned me as to whose side I was on. It was a community while I was at the courthouse, and I was walking across to the hotel for lunch. People were having a lunch by a big panel truck. They had brought soups and sandwiches and as I walked by one of the guys asked if I wanted a sandwich.”
“One of the George family, Dudley’s brother, asked me where I was from and I told him what I was doing there, and they invited me over to their house for supper. They were so accepting and it made it much easier. But some of the officers were wondering whose side I was picking, but really it wasn’t about picking sides, it was about justice and it was one of the black marks on the OPP’s history.”
That, along with his upbringing in an Indigenous community-led Couchie to want to branch out and raise awareness against racism and create his Native Awareness Training.
“I was asked if I would be interested in teaching Native Awareness to officers, and I was starting my own journey to find out who I was,” Couchie explained. “The OPP brought me down to Orillia for two years where I was teaching full time, 10 in the spring and 10 in the fall.”
“What got me involved was going to Ipperwash and some of the other communities and their own history with the tragedies and traumas in their community and people didn’t really understand those. When I was a kid, I was always embarrassed about being Native, but now I realize I wasn’t embarrassed about who I was, but I was embarrassed about the traumas in our community, the alcoholism, the violence and things like that.”
“I thought it would be a good opportunity, especially in policing to teach those officers working in those communities to have an understanding of the community itself.”
Currently Couchie is doing work with teachers and the hospitals because, as he says it’s people like those that have interactions with the youth of the communities. His goal is to teach about the history and culture and effects of residential schools.
“Now we have a different way of understanding people, before it was ‘they have problems, never mind them’. We are first in line when no one wants to be first, and we are last in line when no one wants to be last. We have the highest rates of suicide and incarceration and the list goes on and on. People want to learn that now and it helps them have a better understanding of what people might be carrying. When people walk through your doors, you might be looking at not one generation of trauma, but three generations.”
The public perception towards Indigenous peoples has certainly come a long way from George’s youth when he was embarrassed by the traumas. They are never going to go away fully, but his work has gone a long way to diminish the effects still felt. Even today, more and more people are proud of their ancestral routes.
“It’s been really good to see those changes. Even in the last couple of years, people have a different perspective. There are a lot of good changes out there,” Couchie explains. “There is still a lot of racism out there. So one way, you think ‘oh my god, we have gotten to this point’ and then you realize ‘maybe we’re not that far yet.’”
“Really it is about education and learning about the history, not just of Indigenous people but of anybody. It’s all about how we treat each other. A couple of years ago I thought racism was disappearing, but then you hear people like the US President talk the way he does, you realize racism isn’t dying. It makes you want to work harder and motivates you more.”
Couchie says he loved his police work, but what he is doing now is more rewarding and more of a passion for himself.
“Nothing against police work, I love it, but this is where you meet people who are excited that you are there, it’s worth it. When we were doing it just for police officers, there was a lot of racism even with the officers while we were trying to teach them. I was just in Ottawa at the senate talking to three senators in their offices and they were excited that I was there.”
Couchie also has released a 10 session program titled “Walking the Path” that teaches about racism, stereotyping, and the history of Aboriginal people and the effects of residential schools. The teachings have been accepted by the Ontario Catholic School Board as part of their curriculum and have been translated into French.
Couchie has also penned a handbook titled “Raised on an Eagle Feather” to educate on Anishinaabe ways. He has also collaborated with Canadore College to create film and documentaries concerning youth drugs and alcohol awareness within Aboriginal cultural context. A second film collaboration of the history and effects from Residential School followed by a third video, Cultural Mindfulness, offers insight into Truth and Reconciliation.
Through all this work, George has been honoured with many awards from local, provincial and national organizations. He was honoured with the Celebration Award for his work with the Special Olympics, a citation from the Commissioner of the Ontario Provincial Police, a national citation for anti-racism initiatives, an Anishinabek Lifetime Achievement Award from the Union of Ontario Indians, the Queens Jubilee Award, a Rotary Paul Harris Award, inducted into the North Bay Human Rights Hall of Fame, inducted into the North Bay Sports Hall of Fame and received the Davedi Club Order of Merit.
He has also received two eagle feathers from the Nipissing First Nation to recognize his work and dedication to the youth. In 2018 George received a honourary doctorate from Nipissing University. George was also the inspiration for the character Jerry Commanda in the TV series Cardinal.
During our discussion, Couchie had mentioned to me that he was worried some in the public might view his receiving of the Walk of Fame as just a token induction as the first Indigenous person to be inducted. After meeting and talking with him, his resume not only warrants the induction but makes it clear that he is very deserving.
“I think that it will be an honour, not just for me but my community, and my grandkids,” Couchie explains. “It’s permanent. When I look at the award, it’s something that is good for me but also for the City. For me, it will be leaving that legacy.”
Week one: Ralph Diegel
Week two: Mort Fellman
Week three: Jack Lockhart
Week four: Murray Leatherdale
Week five: George Couchie