Inside the controversy over Thunder Bay’s Indigenous community-patrol group

The Wiindo Debwe Mosewin Patrol monitors the city for people in distress and posts anonymized stories of racism on social media. Critics say it doesn’t value evidence — but the group insists that it’s after a different kind of truth
By Jon Thompson - Published on March 7, 2019
Wiindo Debwe Mosewin Patrol volunteer
A Wiindo Debwe Mosewin volunteer patrols the streets of Thunder Bay. (Jon Thompson)

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THUNDER BAY — “Darryl” could tell you all about the negative interactions he’s had with the Thunder Bay Police Service since he moved to the city from Sudbury in 2016. His girlfriend, his cousin, and most of his friends could tell you about interactions of their own. So could his grandfather, who told him that officers had once driven him out of town and left him on the highway to walk home — something known as a “starlight tour.”

Darryl could tell you, but he won’t tell the police. He never files complaints. As an Indigenous person, he has no expectation that they would take him seriously: the Thunder Bay Police Service and its board, as demonstrated in two recent reports from Ontario’s police-watchdog organizations, are plagued by systemic racism.

Instead, he has been telling his stories to Bear Clan Thunder Bay, now known as the Wiindo Debwe Mosewin Patrol — a group of about 40 volunteers who circuit the streets, waterways, bridges, and woods, looking for people in distress. They don’t demand identification or interrogate him, he says. They offer him hot chocolate, and they listen.

“I just feel more comfortable talking to people who understand the issues,” he says. “Most people are in denial about the whole police situation, but me, personally, I’ve experienced it.”

Depending on who you ask, Bear Clan Thunder Bay either found itself or put itself in the middle of the public conversation sparked by the reports. Local politicians — and the group’s parent organization, based in Winnipeg — have accused it of being anti-police, racially divisive, and alarmist. The Thunder Bay chapter, one of dozens across the country, was stripped of its right to use the Bear Clan name.

But the local group says its work is critical to public safety. On December 4, just days before the reports were released, Bear Clan Thunder Bay indicated on Facebook that local police officers had been taking Indigenous people on starlight tours (a claim that has not been proven in court).

City councillor Aldo Ruberto demanded that the group provide the police with substantiating evidence for its claim, but Bear Clan refused, saying that its priority was to protect its sources’ anonymity while warning the public.

Ruberto complained to Bear Clan’s parent organization in Winnipeg. The parent group told the Thunder Bay chapter to tone down the rhetoric and to avoid publishing information relying on sources outside the organization — but the latter refused to stop posting anonymized stories of racism and violence. James Favel, the parent group’s co-founder and executive director, said that it decided to take action following a February 16 Facebook post in which Bear Clan Thunder Bay advised Indigenous people to stay away from a local hotel at which the United We Roll convoy — an Ottawa-bound caravan of oil-pipeline proponents with connections to Canada’s yellow-vest movement — was staying. (Favel says that he spoke to hotel staff who told him that their guests were well-behaved.)

Four days later, Favel submitted a trademark-infringement complaint to Facebook, and Bear Clan Thunder Bay’s page was removed.

“We don’t try to meddle, but when our name is being dragged down because of the actions of a few, we have to step up,” Favel said. “Our platform is never to be used to incite hatred or division, and that’s what they were doing.”

Favel then established a new Bear Clan Thunder Bay page on Facebook while Ruberto recruited prospective leaders for a reconstituted group.

The councillor expects that the new Bear Clan will have a board of directors, as Winnipeg’s does, and that it would work with “the whole community.” (Wiindo Debwe Mosewin, says group spokesperson Ivory Tuesday, reaches decisions via consensus between the team leaders and receives guidance from its elder.)

Police spokesperson Scott Paradis wrote in an email to TVO.org that “the Thunder Bay Police Service has always been open and willing to engage with and work cooperatively with the Bear Clan if the leadership and volunteers of that organization desire such a partnership … We are actively engaged in making sure we have a strong relationship with the Bear Clan Thunder Bay, and we have been invited by Mr. Favel to discuss what a renewed partnership might entail.”

Ruberto points out that city council funded Bear Clan when it was founded in May 2017 and that the police trained its first wave of volunteers. After new leadership took over in 2018, though, Bear Clan declared that police and politicians were unwelcome at the meetings.

“In this community, there is racism, and there are things to be fearful of — as there are in any community. However, you cannot take hope away from people,” Ruberto says. “What kind of hope are you giving when you say, ‘Be careful every second of your life’ or ‘There’s nothing good happening in our community’? Who trained these people? Who funded them? Who went on walks with them? It was the community.”

The volunteers who’d been working under the banner of Bear Clan Thunder Bay relaunched immediately as the Wiindo Debwe Mosewin (Walking in Truth) Patrol. They insist that their work is not divisive.

“You’d think [the reports] would validate people coming forward with their stories, but it’s not,” says Tuesday. “There’s this huge backlash to denounce the stories and claim they’re not real, but they’re very real experiences. People are commenting on the posts with their first and last names — first-hand accounts. The same stories keep coming around.”

Wiindo Debwe Mosewin, Tuesday says, interacts regularly with those who fear police, human traffickers, and others. It collects their stories by drawing on an Indigenous oral-culture concept known as the “moccasin telegram,” the name of which refers to the runners who once carried messages between communities. The traditional practice involves creating knowledge through story-sharing; in the age of the internet and instant, portable communication, Tuesday says, it has evolved and adapted. The group, for example, records public interactions and takes screen shots of social-media posts.

The approach, Tuesday says, forms the basis of a different kind of truth — one that operates outside legal institutions while protecting individuals. One can support individuals directly while studying anonymous cases, she explains, and identify trends and narratives.

Jennifer Chisholm, a member of Wiindo Debwe Mosewin and an assistant professor at Lakehead University (where she is Tuesday’s thesis supervisor for the latter’s graduate studies in social justice) rejects the notion that speaking out on police brutality, even anonymously, is “divisive.”

“We can’t lose sight that we are working in Thunder Bay, which is a city that has a long-term, demonstrated crisis in policing,” Chisholm says. “It makes sense that someone wouldn’t come forward in a legal system with that evidence, because it’s very unlikely that they would see a positive result based on what we know from our policing system and our legal system.”

Favel doesn’t dispute the cultural value of what Wiindo Debwe Mosewin is doing — but he doesn’t want its members doing it under Bear Clan’s name. He points out that his organization spoke out when Raymond Cormier was found not guilty in the Winnipeg death of Tina Fontaine and when a North Battleford, Saskatchewan, jury acquitted Gerald Stanley in the death of Colten Boushie. He says that he saw evidence of poor policing and injustice in those cases, but he hasn’t seen such evidence for the incidents Wiindo Debwe Mosewin has been publicizing in Thunder Bay.

“I’ve heard stories about issues in [Winnipeg] going back to when I was a child. Bear Clan is not here for that purpose,” he says. “We don’t do this by spreading those sorts of rumours. It’s perfectly acceptable for [Tuesday] to put that on her own page or if they want to put that on Idle No More. Our role in the community is one of reconciliation.”

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting northwestern Ontario. It's brought to you in partnership with Confederation College of Applied Arts and Technology. Views and opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the college.

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