Canadian poet George Elliott Clarke cancels Regina lecture after controversy over convicted killer's poetry

A renowned Canadian poet who had worked with the man convicted of killing an Indigenous woman 25 years ago has cancelled his controversial presentation at an upcoming University of Regina event. The daughter of Regina homicide victim Pamela George says the killer's poems should not be celebrated.

Daughter of slain woman says killer's poetry should not be celebrated

Pamela George was beaten to death by Steven Kummerfield and Alex Ternowetsky outside Regina in April 1995. Kummerfield is now living in Mexico and publishing poetry under a different name. Canadian poet George Elliott Clarke has edited some of Kummerfield's work and initially did not rule out reading it at the Jan. 23 lecture at the University of Regina, which has now been cancelled. (CBC)

A renowned Canadian poet, who had worked with the man convicted of killing an Indigenous woman 25 years ago, has cancelled his controversial presentation at an upcoming University of Regina event. 

George Elliott Clarke said earlier this week that he wasn't ruling out reading the work of Steven Kummerfield, who was convicted of manslaughter in the beating death of Pamela George in 1995.

Clarke had previously edited poetry by Kummerfield, who changed his name to Stephen Brown. Clarke said he learned about Kummerfield's violent past four months ago.

On Thursday, amid calls to cancel the event, Clarke apologized to members of George's family, who opposed the lecture. He said he would not read any of Kummerfield's poetry at the event. On Friday, he cancelled the lecture altogether. 

"I never intended to cause such anguish for the family of Pamela George and the Indigenous community, and for that I am truly sorry," said Clarke in a written statement. The university has also released a statement, which was shared on Twitter by university president Vianne Timmons.

It said the university recognized its decision to bring Clarke to the event 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's in the process of reaching out to Indigenous leaders, representatives, elders and groups to hear people's concerns and "perhaps begin a healing process."

Clarke is an English professor at the University of Toronto and a former parliamentary poet laureate. He said in his statement Friday he withdrew from the presentation with "great sadness."

"I am a mixed Black and Indigenous writer and scholar, and my advocacy for justice for Indigenous Peoples and People of Colour in Canada must never be in doubt," said Clarke's statement, which was emailed to CBC News by his literary agent.

"My purpose in my talk was to discuss the role of poets in dealing with social issues, but that interest has been lost in the current controversy."

He previously told CBC News he cares passionately about violence against Indigenous women and that he is an ally.

George's daughter, Chelsey George, 33, spoke to CBC News on Thursday before Clarke confirmed he would not be reading Kummerfield's poetry at the event, titled "Truth and Reconciliation" Versus "the Murdered and Missing": Examining Indigenous Experiences of (In)Justice in Four Saskatchewan Poets.

Chelsey said it's not fair Kummerfield gets to live a normal life, and even become a published poet, while her mother's life was cut short. 

"You don't know whether he changed or not," said Chelsey George. "It will never change the perspective from the families, from any of us. 

"You did what you did, and you are who you are. You'll always be that person."

Pamela, 28, was killed in 1995 by Kummerfield and Alex Ternowetsky, who lured her outside Regina, beat her to death and then bragged about it. The two were initially charged with first-degree murder but were convicted of manslaughter and both sentenced to 6½ years in prison.

Kummerfield was released on parole in 2000 after serving three years. He now lives in Mexico City. 

In November, Clarke described Kummerfield's crime as unpardonable in a conversation with a university publication, but added that his friend has paid his debt to society.

Before releasing his statement Thursday, Clarke told CBC News that Kummerfield could be seen as both a convicted killer and an appreciated artist.

"I apologize unreservedly to all who were offended by my statement as reported by CBC, particularly to the family of Pamela George," his statement said. 

"She and her family are on my mind and in my heart as I ponder the grievous harm inflicted upon her and them."

As poet laureate for Canada's Parliament, Clarke featured two of Kummerfield's pieces as Poem of the Month on the government's website.

'A complete failure': FSIN

Earlier Thursday, the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations called on the university to cancel Clarke's talk, because of his association with Kummerfield. 

"I am 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," Heather Bear, vice-chief of the Saskatchewan Indigenous advocacy group, said in a statement emailed to CBC News prior to Clarke's statement.

Federation Chief Bobby Cameron said hosting Clarke is insensitive. 

"This is a complete failure on behalf of the university and its board. Where is their so-called commitment to reconciliation? Where is their compassion for the children and family of Pamela George?"

Idle No More organizers have also started a petition urging the university to cancel the event, which quickly gained hundreds of signatures. 

Richard Kleer, dean of the U of R's faculty of arts, said 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 faculty will stand by the invitation and looks forward to hearing Clarke's strong message against violence and racism."

Clarke, left, and Kummerfield, who now goes by the name Stephen Brown, began working together in 2005. (Camelia Linta/Nimbus Publishing, Vallum)

Randy Lundy, an Indigenous poet and former university professor, said given Clarke's long-standing relationship with Kummerfield, inviting him to Regina to discuss truth and reconciliation, or missing and murdered Indigenous people, is a "revictimization of the community here."

Lundy said Clarke's Indigenous background doesn't excuse his "indefensible" position on Kummerfield. 

"As an Indigenous man, I would not presume to speak on behalf of Indigenous women, and I don't think that any of us get a free pass when it comes to difficult issues like this." 

Lundy said he understands academic freedom and freedom of speech, but believes Clarke should be taking the concerns of the community more seriously.

In his Thursday statement, Clarke said: "I do hear the concerns of Indigenous peoples around my lecture and I can reassure all that the purpose of my talk is to look at how poets can be, should be, more responsible and responsive to grave social issues.

"I understand well the trauma of racist violence against Indigenous people and people of colour, and have dedicated much of my writing life to precisely this trauma," he said.

"I deplore all efforts to suggest that I can be in any way complicit with violence against Indigenous people. I have always condemned it; I condemn it now."

'He has responsibilities'

Krista Shore said she was hurt and disappointed when she read Clarke's earlier response to the community's concern. She was 12 when her mother, Barbara Ann Shore, was murdered in 1996.

Clarke's first response to the concerns, she said, seemed "combative towards Indigenous people."

"He may be part Indigenous and have that type of ancestry, but he has responsibilities and a role to play, too," said Shore, who also spoke to CBC News before Clarke issued his statement.

She said visitors like Clarke should consult locals on the land, history and political events before coming to speak. Shore added she is willing to talk to Clarke about respectful protocols and procedures. 

Clarke's earlier refusal to say whether or not he would read poetry by Kummerfield put added stress on the mental health of George's family and families like hers, said Shore.

"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.

"He got off very easy, and that is the sad thing about it all. And a lot of people are still suffering."

Chastity Delorme, an advocate for missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls (MMIWG), said other work should be highlighted instead. 

"We have many, many Indigenous women and Indigenous poets here in Saskatchewan that can be highlighted, like our families of MMIW who use this art therapy as a part of healing in this trauma," said Delorme.

"Their voices definitely need to be heard, and that is the priority."

With files from Bonnie Allen and Janani Whitfield