What the death of Braiden Jacob means to Ontario’s First Nations communities

The 17-year-old was at least the 11th Indigenous youth from outside Thunder Bay to die in that city. We asked three First Nations activists and community leaders for their thoughts on this tragedy
By Charnel Anderson, Jon Thompson, H.G. Watson - Published on December 11, 2018
Alvin Fiddler, Ryan McMahon, Cynthia Blackstock
Nishnawbe Aski Nation grand chief Alvin Fiddler, writer and comedian Ryan McMahon, and child-welfare advocate Cindy Blackstock. (Sean Kilpatrick/CP/Ryan McMahon)

THUNDER BAY — A 17-year-old from Webequie First Nation who was in Thunder Bay to access services unavailable in the far north of the province was found dead on Sunday — making him at least the 11th Indigenous youth from outside the city to have been found dead there since 2000.

Braiden Jacob and his family travelled about 540 kilometres to get to Thunder Bay from their remote fly-in community of more than 850 people. He was in the city to receive grief counselling, according to Nishnawbe Aski Nation grand chief Alvin Fiddler. His family last saw Jacob on December 5. On December 6, police declared him missing.

After three days of searching, the Thunder Bay Police Service announced on Sunday afternoon that it had found a body on the golf course in Chapples Park, in the southern part of the city, and was investigating a “sudden death.” That evening, the Jacob family identified the body. A post-mortem examination to determine his cause of death has been tentatively scheduled for December 12.

Jacob’s death comes as the Ontario Independent Police Review Director prepares to release the results of its inquiry into the role of systemic racism in Thunder Bay Police Service investigations of Indigenous missing persons and deaths. The report is scheduled for release on Wednesday.

TVO.org spoke to Indigenous activists and community leaders to get their thoughts on Jacob’s death and the challenges that First Nations youth face in the north.

Alvin Fiddler

Alvin Fiddler declined on Monday to comment on the upcoming OIPRD report — he was focused, he said, on supporting Jacob’s mother and siblings.

He added that NAN stands with the Jacob family and hopes that the police investigation into Braiden’s death will determine how and why he died.

“We’re just making sure the family has the supports they need to make it through the next few days,” Fiddler said. “It will take a while for us to process what this all means — particularly what this means for Thunder Bay and for the north.”

Fiddler noted that Jacob had been just starting out in life but had already suffered “significant loss” in his family and in his Ojibway community of Webequie.

“Unfortunately, it’s a common thing for many of our youth because of the multiple losses and everything that has happened in our territory with suicide and other tragic events,” he added. “There isn’t one family that has been left untouched or unaffected — and that was the case with Braiden’s family as well.”

Ryan McMahon

Ryan McMahon, an Anishinaabe writer and comedian, dedicated a year of his life to reporting and producing a podcast about Thunder Bay. “When that show ended, I was very clear on saying that there are many Thunder Bays inside of Canada,” he explained. “Systemically, what we have created in this country does not work.”

When a young person dies far from home, McMahon said, the effects are felt throughout not just that person’s home community, but also the city in which they died. “The elders will really reflect deeply on the potential of that young person and what they might have been able to contribute,” McMahon said. “And then the younger ones don’t understand that you can't really come to grips with it.”

“You really have to contextualize what it means to be a small community and have someone violently or otherwise taken from you,” he added. “Not just what that means, but how to move forward,” he said, noting that Indigenous people in remote locations will still have to travel to distant cities in order to access such essential services as health care and education.

McMahon believes Canadians have a responsibility to understand the problems with the system. “You definitely, and you damn well better, do more to understand the problem and the disparity and the inequity so that we can fix it.”

Cindy Blackstock

Cindy Blackstock, a child-welfare advocate and a member of Gitxsan First Nation, in northern British Columbia, described Jacob’s death as heartbreaking. “But it is also a failure of adults to accept their responsibility — and a failure of the adults in government, in particular,” she added.

“I think it’s really hard for youth to leave their own communities and go into cities like Thunder Bay to access, particularly, services for trauma,” Blackstock said.

“You’re already traumatized, and then you have the trauma of leaving a place that you know and you grew up in, to get services in a distance place. And in this case, it’s a town that has been fraught with incidents of racism against young people in the past.”

Blackstock says that Jacob should have been able to access the services he needed in his home community of Webequie: “I think that we need to honour the passing of youth like Braiden by addressing the inequalities that were an undercurrent to their tragedies.”

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