Update: The Ontario Human Rights Commission issued a release on February 5 in which it stated that "the February 2018 deaths of Joey Knapaysweet and Agnes Sutherland highlight the serious and sometimes tragic result of systemic discrimination against First Nations peoples in Northern Ontario" and announced that it had filed an application with the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario "alleging discrimination based on Indigenous ancestry by public service providers in Timmins."
TIMMINS —Nishawbe Aski Nation deputy chief Walter Naveau remembers gathering at the Timmins Native Friendship Centre two years ago with the family and friends of Joey Knapaysweet and Agnes Sutherland. Between February 3 and 4, 2018, Knapaysweet, 21, and Sutherland, 62, both of Fort Albany First Nation, had died in police custody. Both had come from the James Bay coast to Timmins seeking health care. “It was quite sad to see all the people in that big room. The tears and the heartaches and the impact that it was on those sitting there,” says Naveau.
“Why did this happen? It should have never happened,” he adds.
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The deaths of Sutherland and Knapaysweet sent shockwaves through the northern city. Within six weeks, the Ontario Human Rights Commission had called racism “pervasive” in Timmins, which has become a hub for members of the surrounding Cree, Ojibwe, and Oji-Cree communities, who come to access education and health-care services and who, increasingly, rely on the city during seasonal flooding evacuations. While Timmins Police Service’s Special Investigations Unit cleared officers of wrongdoing in both cases, city council, led by then-mayor Steve Black, committed to making sure the tragedy would not be repeated. But two years later, Naveau, as well as other First Nations members and some on the front lines in Timmins, say not enough has been done to address racism in the city of 41,000.
“I haven’t seen much change in the service delivery with all the organizations in town,” says Jason Sereda, the executive director of Living Space, a local shelter. “There still seems to be that pervasive, systemic racism that the human-rights commissioner talked about. We have to have those frank conversations of what it means to be a hub community and the added responsibility we have for that.”
In June 2018, the human-rights commissioner led a leadership forum involving the municipality, area grand chiefs, local Indigenous leaders, police, and health-care and education providers. The focus was systemic racism and filling gaps in services for the local Indigenous population. Around this time, the flags of Mattagami First Nation and Nishawbe Aski Nation were raised at city hall, and, by September of that year, the city had formed an Indigenous advisory committee made up of the mayor, a city councillor, and Indigenous stakeholders. The city renewed a memorandum of understanding with Nishawbe Aski Nation and Mushkegowuk council in January 2019. Through the agreement, the city commits to tackle homelessness, tailor services to Indigenous people, and better accommodate Indigenous communities fleeing floods. Timmins and Mushkegowuk will soon ratify a formal agreement, pending approval from Mushkegowuk and an official vote from the city this month. As yet, there is no plan for implementation.
“All supporting strategies are underway and nothing is parked for future consideration,” Dave Landers, Timmins’s chief administrative officer, told TVO.org via email. “It’s not a light switch we can flick,” says Mayor George Pirie. “We’re not going to change attitudes overnight. This is a long evolving conversation that we have to keep focusing our attention on.”
Although Naveau says he’s encouraged by the direction the city has taken, he’s worried that bureaucracy is slowing down progress. “The mayor, George, his heart is in a good place,” he says. “It’s good in that aspect, when I hear the mayor of Timmins really advocating on behalf of not just Indigenous people, but all people that we are in it together.” But he says he still hears stories of discrimination.
One of the issues that remains involves accessing suitable housing. A disproportionate number of Indigenous people find themselves caught in the city’s shelter system: as of 2015, 37 per cent of the city’s homeless population of 720 was Indigenous, yet, according to the 2016 census, Indigenous people account for only 14 per cent of Timmins’s total population. “These are failures of our society. Not their society: our society,” says Pirie, who notes that funding presents a challenge in terms of improving services and housing options. “Being a key advocate for getting more funding is one of the things that I can do and that I’m happy to do,” he says. “We need the resources on the ground here to help us. Funding is a serious, serious issue when it comes to us helping the Indigenous people to the maximum amount that we can.”
Late last month, the city’s Indigenous-advisory committee recommended that city staff receive cultural-sensitivity training; it’s set to implement a number of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 calls to action throughout 2020. Police will continue with their own Indigenous advisory committee, which formed in 2007; the force has also implemented cultural training for all its officers. Marc Depatie, a Timmins police communications coordinator, says that the training helps them understand the problematic history of the institutions of which they are part. “The fact that when the Sixties Scoop occurred — when [Indigenous] children were brought to residential schools — it was a uniform that brought those persons away from them,” says Depatie. “They’re entitled to mistrust uniforms in general because of what’s happened to them in the past, so it’s a tall order to regain that trust.”
Naveau says that it’s only in the wake of tragedies, such as the deaths of Sutherland and Knapaysweet, that he sees governments act. He wants to sit down with hospital staff and the police, and he’d like to review the municipality’s Indigenous-engagement framework with the city and community stakeholders. He thinks that Nishawbe Aski Nation should consider forming its own committee in Timmins to eliminate racism. “Timmins council can reach out to us, and we can also reach out to the municipality of Timmins,” he says. “We have the tools, the mentality, but we also have the people of a nation — countless, hundreds — that have perished. Let’s use their losses to fill in that chapter where they wouldn’t be [suffering] as much, but rather, we could look to walk forward in a good way.”
This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting northeastern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of Laurentian University.
Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.