TIMMINS – The city of Timmins finds itself under scrutiny following the opening of two Special Investigation Unit probes into the deaths of two First Nations people and a visit from the chief human rights commissioner.
Due to the importance of maintaining the objectivity of these independent proceedings, I, as the mayor of Timmins and the chair of the Timmins Police Services Board, will not comment on the particulars of either investigation. We must reserve our judgments and comments until all relevant facts are known and the investigations are complete.
However, one fact is undisputed: the deaths of Joey Knapaysweet, 21, and Agnes Sutherland, 62, have left their respective families in mourning. I attended a vigil hosted for Mr. Knapaysweet’s family and can say without a doubt that there is nothing more devastating than parents mourning the loss of their child.
Ontario Human Rights Commissioner Renu Mandhane and her team visited Timmins this month to review relations between First Nations people and others in the community, including government institutions and social service providers. We had a productive conversation about how racism exists within our country and within our community, and more specifically between First Nations people and non-First Nations people. We also had candid discussions about how to create opportunities to work together to improve relations within our community. Overall, I think the visit will lead to some positive changes.
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I don’t deny that racism exists in Timmins — it does in all Canadian cities — but I disagree that racism is “normalized” here, as the chief commissioner was quoted stating in the media. I take exception to the suggestion that I or the majority of Timmins’ residents would tolerate racism as an accepted standard. Such comments distract us from a discussion we should be having now, namely: how do we create a better relationship between First Nations and non-First Nations people — especially in cities that are service centres for health care and much more for the residents of northern Ontario’s First Nations communities?
I do accept that our First Nations residents and visitors may have a different perspective as to the degree of racism within our community and that more work needs to be done as a community with regards to anti-racism strategies. Racism, systemic and otherwise, is a serious issue and it needs more attention.
Although there is more work to do on building relationships between First Nations and non-First Nations people, we have made progress in working together. First Nations people represent a significant population within our city — more than 4,000 people according to the 2016 census, or more than 11 per cent of the population of Timmins. The city has a larger Indigenous population than the vast majority of Canadian reserves. And that figure doesn’t include visitors, who play an important role in our community.
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Timmins hosts a variety of First Nations conferences, assemblies, powwows and sporting events. It is a destination for First Nations people from across the north, who come here for health services, education, shopping or recreation. It is also a highly sought after destination for First Nation communities along the James Bay coast (and the rivers connected to it) who are being evacuated during spring flooding; we are currently making efforts to accommodate people once again this coming season. We strive as a community to work together for the mutual benefit of all involved.
After the events of last month, we have come to a much broader question about racism: where do we go from here? I condemn all forms of racism, and I will ask city council to approve a series of actions going forward, such as the formation of a First Nations advisory committee and training opportunities (open to a variety of community partners and stakeholders) on issues including sensitivity training, cultural training, historical events and treaty rights.
These are not issues we can address alone. I have met with a variety of First Nations leaders from across northern Ontario in recent months and hope we can come together again to make improvements.
There is also a serious need for the provincial and federal governments to get involved. Many of the issues raised in my discussions with First Nations leaders and Chief Commissioner Mandhane involve access to medical services, as well as issues related to the courts and the justice system.
Regional hubs and their service providers should receive additional funding so they can provide the training and services required by First Nations residents across the north. For example, one of the comments from the chief commissioner is that our hospital could be more accommodating in its service provision, languages used and cultural arrangements. That may very well be true, and some changes may be simple to address and can be done internally. However, it will require additional support if larger changes are going to be made to be more accommodating and provide enhanced services. Timmins’ hospital is already in deficit due to insufficient provincial funding, and will require enhanced support to begin tackling the challenges that come with being a regional medical provider.
My hope is that the provincial and federal governments will look at regional hubs that serve First Nations communities, such as Thunder Bay in northwestern Ontario and Timmins in northeastern Ontario, and realize that those levels of government are fiscally responsible for the provision of the services provided there. The provincial and federal governments should take that into consideration when funding applications are made to enhance regional infrastructure.
The solutions to these problems will require an “all hands on deck” approach that involves municipalities, First Nations communities, the province and the federal government. The City of Timmins will not shy away from our role and part in the process. Future generations are counting on us to build a brighter and safer future for all.
Steve Black is the mayor of Timmins, Ontario
Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.