What would it take for Thunder Bay to admit it’s in crisis?

ANALYSIS: In a tale of two hashtags, a city determined to portray itself in a positive light is at odds with Indigenous residents’ concerns about systemic racism
By Jon Thompson - Published on July 6, 2017
people throwing roses into a river
Sunshine Winter throws a rose into the water to commemorate the death of her son Josiah Begg, the seventh Indigenous child found dead in a Thunder Bay river since 2000. (Jon Thompson)

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THUNDER BAY – In January, a 34-year-old Anishinaabe woman, Barbara Kentner, was struck by a trailer hitch thrown from a passing vehicle. This week Kentner died from her injuries. But although her story was picked up by the national media, First Nations people facing danger in Thunder Bay is nothing new.

The city’s manager, mayor, police board chair, and one of its members of Parliament have not used the word “crisis” to describe the public’s deepening mistrust in the city’s institutions, preferring to couch it in less evocative terms. However, a growing chorus of residents believe this constitutes a failure of the city to be accountable and confront systemic racism.

Frustration has been building for years. Since 2000, the bodies of seven First Nations kids have been pulled out of Thunder Bay’s rivers— two within 11 days in May. All were from remote communities and were in the city to access services not available at home; most were in Thunder Bay to attend high school.

How their bodies came to be found in the rivers is an open question, one the Thunder Bay Police Service and even a 2016 coroner’s inquest struggled to answer.

When both 14-year-old Josiah Begg of Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug First Nation and 17-year-old Tammy Keeash of North Caribou Lake First Nation were found dead in the Neebing-McIntyre Floodway that flows through the middle of the city, it incited fear and confusion among the public. Police deemed Keeash’s death “consistent with drowning,” while Begg’s family requested their son’s cause of death not be released.

In the aftermath of these deaths, two strikingly different perspectives on life in Thunder Bay have emerged on social media.

#ThisIsThunderBay

Indigenous youth began using the hashtag #ThisIsThunderBay. They posted stories about having had snowballs and food thrown at them from cars; and being shot at and stalked. One woman said she survived an attempted rape. A 19-year-old First Nations woman was riding the bus to a prenatal appointment when she photographed graffiti on the seat in front of her that read, “Indian cocksuckers — throw em in da river.”

Photographer and journalist Brent Wesley wrote “This is Thunder Bay” at the end of a Facebook post in May in which he recounted being a victim of violence in the city 20 years earlier: a group of white youths pushed him into a lake and, in another case, a different group of white youths dangled him over a bridge.

“We’re saying, ‘Thunder Bay isn’t as great of a city as people make it out to be.’ There’s this underbelly of hate and racism here. It’s not such an underbelly anymore — it’s becoming obvious,” Wesley said.

“There’s resistance to talk about that because the balance of power is in favour of mainstream society. Systems are put in place for mainstream society. They were never meant to help Indigenous people because of colonialism and its practices.”

When the Ontario Independent Police Review Director (OIPRD) launched an investigation in November into the Thunder Bay Police Service’s handling of the deaths of First Nations people, including the river deaths, it caused more people — particularly Indigenous residents — to doubt the credibility of the police force.

The OIPRD’s systemic review followed a CBC report that questioned police assertions there’d been no foul play in the death of 41-year-old Stacy DeBungee from Rainy River First Nations. DeBungee’s body was found in the floodway in October 2015 and within 24 hours police declared they had no suspicions that any crime had occurred. Working with a private detective, CBC reporters found people close to the DeBungee case whom police had never questioned, including a couple who had the man’s wallet and had used his debit card after his death.

When the OIPRD added the Keeash and Begg investigations to that review, it confirmed the suspicion of many people that the police had been negligent in their investigations. Thunder Bay residents were unsure what to believe. 

#IChooseTBay

These revelations coincided with a growing sense of crisis fatigue in a city trying to emerge from a generation-long economic downturn. Over the years that the river deaths have been occurring, a generation of mostly upper- and middle-class young people left Thunder Bay to attend school and find work.

two people hiking

Using Facebook to stay in touch, many photographed themselves around the world wearing “I TBay” shirts. Those former residents longed to return to their hometown and make life better for all who live there.

National media reports detailed the traditional forestry industry’s collapse across northwestern Ontario. The area became redefined by images of laid-off workers and deplorable living conditions in the region’s First Nations communities. As the media began to focus increasingly on Indigenous urbanization, coverage of racism in Thunder Bay increased as well.

Members of this generation who were able to return to the city united to try to improve Thunder Bay and its image. City council struck the Civic Pride Committee in 2016. They saw a rebounding small business and entertainment sector, coupled with the region’s ecotourism industry, and made a declaration of how they saw their city: #IChooseTBay.

“We have so much negativity going on, and we have so much more that’s positive. There’s so much more to show within our natural landscapes that are beautiful,” said Damien Gilbert, the brand’s promotional video producer. “We as a community have come together so much in the last 10 years with the restaurants and the arts scene.”

The #IChooseTBay video launched the same week that #ThisIsThunderBay surfaced, coincidentally pitting the narratives against each other.

‘We always seem to harp on the negative things’

Accusations of systemic racism would be hurtful to any community, but their effect is even greater in smaller cities. Admitting a problem exists has consequences for institutional integrity and even business development. The conversation that came to a boil over the past two months has been simmering for years, and the city’s leadership has tried to will its way toward a positive outcome.

Community Economic Development Commission CEO Doug Murray cut to the nerve in his 2015 annual report to city council when he said all the bad publicity was hurting the city’s economy. Murray recounted trying to entice an Indigenous business owner to relocate to Thunder Bay; the owner asked Murray what he thought of racial disharmony in the city, particularly on social media.

“The answer I had to give in a few seconds was — suck in a little air — and I said, ‘Yes, we have racism in Thunder Bay and we’re working on it. The clerk has a department in Thunder Bay that works on it … We need to talk about the positive things that are going on, too. We always seem to harp on the negative things.”

The Aboriginal Liaison Unit in the clerk’s office engaged the independent Thunderstone Pictures a year later to produce a film called The Welcome Project to prepare teenagers from remote First Nations for the culture shock of moving to Thunder Bay for high school. (Their previous collaboration, Walk a Mile, was a well-received primer on regional Indigenous culture and experience.)

The filmmakers set up a speaker’s corner at the Thunder Bay Multicultural Centre over the summer so young people from First Nations communities could share their experiences and offer advice to their peers up north. Unprompted, the youth in those sessions discussed alcohol, the rivers, negative interactions with the police, and racism.

Associate director Ardelle Sagutcheway said the company was frustrated with city hall’s reaction to the final product.

“In this film, we’re pretty honest about our experiences and #ThisIsThunderBay is just scratching the surface,” she said. “When the older adults watched this film, it was very uncomfortable for them, because they only know one side of Thunder Bay and they don’t want to listen to the youth who are speaking their truths.”

The police service tried using Walk a Mile as a cultural sensitivity training video in the fall, but the relationship between the city and the film company dissolved after a facilitator made headlines by accusing officers of being “disruptive and dismissive” during the screening.

Thunderstone Pictures screened it in December and again in June to a public wanting to make sense of the First Nations youths’ experiences and the circumstances surrounding the river deaths.

Crisis management

In February, the city presented its response to 31 municipally relevant recommendations of the 2016 coroner’s inquest, including conducting a river safety audit. Anna Betty Achneepineskum, deputy grand chief of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN), appeared before city council and pointed out that no councillor had attended the inquest, even though council would have to implement its share of recommendations.

Meeting chair and Councillor Shelby Ch’ng broke down in tears as she apologized for her absence from the inquest. Reflecting on that event after Keeash’s and Begg’s bodies were discovered, Ch’ng explained how not having connected with the families at the inquest made her feel as if she were on the wrong side of history.

“There are very few things I have regret for, but when people are hurting, I need to be there to support them. To show them I care,” she said.

“I didn’t do that for the NAN kids at the inquest and at the time — it’s not an excuse — but I was given legal advice a number of times: ‘Do not go. You’re putting everybody at risk if you go.’ At the time, I chose to protect the system instead of following my own intuition and I wasn’t there for those people.”

It became clear that faith in Thunder Bay’s institutions’ ability to serve its Indigenous population was on trial.

a crowd gathering in public space in Thunder Bay

The city administration released a mandated one-year inquest follow-up on June 7. It committed to fulfilling the coroner’s recommendations by September, hoping to ensure the safety of students from the far north living in Thunder Bay. It also launched a hotline to report racism.

“This is change,” said city manager Norm Gale. “Our people are doing tangible things to deal with real problems.”

Some, however, appear to remain invested in the status quo. Mayor Keith Hobbs issued repeated calls to end the finger pointing against police. He insisted national media coverage was deliberately making the city look bad, and he called allegations of systemic police racism “pure bullshit.”

On May 31, the Ontario Civilian Police Commission declared a probe into the police board’s governance of the force. Thunder Bay Police Service Board vice-chair Brian McKinnon issued a statement including the board’s first acknowledgement of systemic racism’s existence since the OIPRD review began, but he did so without taking responsibility or making a commitment to change.  

“Systemic racism is a much broader term than just the relationships between police and Indigenous communities,” McKinnon wrote. “A police service cannot cure systemic racism. We accept we have a role to play.”

Indigenous leaders representing 77 First Nations communities held a press conference at Queen’s Park half an hour later asking the RCMP to take over the Keeash and Begg investigations. They repeatedly used the word “crisis” to describe the situation.

Thunder Bay’s acting police chief, Sylvie Hauth, held a press conference a week later at which she rejected the use of the term “crisis.” It was her first public appearance since her predecessor, J.P. Levesque, was arrested on criminal charges unrelated to the OIPRD’s systemic review.

“If the community sees this as a crisis, that’s their perception,” Hauth said. “I’m not negating the fact that these are challenging times. We have a lot of things on our plate right now, but it’s business as usual.”

Within days, police issued a release condemning “irresponsible” media reporting,  adding the service would no longer comment on the status of the Keeash investigation.

Hauth then refused media interviews when Ontario’s chief coroner, Dirk Huyer, recruited the York Regional Police on June 22 to review and further assist in the Keeash and Begg investigations.

Thunder Bay-Rainy River Liberal MP Don Rusnak followed suit, rejecting the term “crisis” despite his party’s public safety minister, Ralph Goodale, publicly questioning whether Thunder Bay’s institutions were functioning, saying “this kind of angst diminishes the strength of the country.”

Rusnak announced he would host a summit aimed at bringing together First Nations and governments to determine how to enact the inquest’s recommendations.

Eight weeks until school starts

Nishnawbe Aski Nation chiefs held their own emergency education summit in Thunder Bay on July 5.

“Other parties to this inquest are still engaged in denying there is any crisis in Thunder Bay,” said lawyer Meaghan Daniel, as she outlined the institutional responses to the inquest’s recommendations.

Several speakers at the summit referred to parents in remote communities who are so afraid for their children’s safety that they’re considering halting their education to avoid sending them to Thunder Bay in the fall.

NAN Deputy Grand Chief Derek Fox holds the organization’s education portfolio. He recalled an incident earlier this month in which he embraced his son, who will begin high school in September.

“I thought about our parents. I thought about our youth. I thought about the ones who leave home at too young an age who don’t have that ability to hug their parents,” Fox said.

“That’s why I’m here. We have eight weeks [until school starts]. I know in my heart that the status quo results in more lives lost.”

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.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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