A Manitoba legislator is calling on Canadians to contact the federal heritage minister to remove two poems, written by the killer of an Indigenous woman, from the Parliamentary Poet Laureate website.
Nahanni Fontaine says in a series of tweets that the inclusion of poems by Stephen Brown, including one about a prostitute, constitutes “blatant disrespect” for Brown’s victim and missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.
The two pieces are among “Poems Selected by George Elliot Clarke” on the website and were posted in 2017 when Clarke was parliamentary poet laureate.
Last week, Clarke cancelled a lecture about Indigenous justice issues at the University of Regina following outrage over his working relationship and friendship with Brown.
Brown, who changed his name from Steven Kummerfield, and his friend Alex Ternowetsky were convicted of manslaughter in the 1995 beating death of Pamela George, a First Nations woman.
A spokesman from Canadian Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault’s office did not immediately provide comment.
But Fontaine is calling for action.
“Canada has a responsibility to ensure that its cultural and heritage-based products reflect art that doesn’t exploit the suffering of our most vulnerable, including Indigenous women,” Fontaine said in an interview on Sunday.
“You cannot actively participate in celebrating an individual who has taken the life of an Indigenous woman. That is the crux of the issue here.”
Brown was sentenced to six-and-a-half years and was granted parole in 2000. He now lives in Mexico.
His poems on the website are titled “Plaza Domingo” and “Alejandra.” The subject of “Alejandra” is a woman referred to as “la pornai,” a type of prostitute in ancient Greece. At one point in the poem, he writes “I follow her.”
Fontaine interprets that to mean the author is stalking the woman.
“Here you’re uplifting on a Canadian parliamentary website a murderer who’s now writing about stalking vulnerable women. It’s unacceptable,” Fontaine said.
Brown and Ternowetsky were originally charged with first-degree murder but were found guilty of the lesser charge of manslaughter.
George’s killing and the ensuing trial was a painful time for many Indigenous people in Saskatchewan, who were appalled by what they saw as soft sentences for the white, well-off offenders. There was also anger at Justice Ted Malone, who reminded jurors in his final instructions that George worked as a prostitute.
Clarke, who is of mixed Black and Indigenous heritage, said he found out about Brown’s crime last September and it changed his opinion of him.
Clarke was to deliver the Woodrow Lloyd Lecture on Jan 23. The talk was titled “‘Truth and Reconciliation’ versus ‘the Murdered and Missing’: Examining Indigenous Experiences of (In)Justice in Four Saskatchewan Poets.”
He initially told CBC News he would not pander to “so-called intellectuals” and “may or may not” read a poem by Brown at the lecture.
On Thursday, he issued a statement saying he would not be citing Brown’s poetry “because of my sensitivity to the feelings of the survivors of his victim.”
Then, on Friday, Clarke said he would withdraw from the lecture.
“I never intended to cause such anguish for the family of Pamela George and the Indigenous community, and for that I am truly sorry,” he said in a statement.