Why Thunder Bay residents are hoping surveillance could keep them safer

Surveillance technology may raise privacy concerns — but after several deaths in the Neebing-McIntyre Floodway, many residents now see it as their best option
By Jon Thompson - Published on April 27, 2018
police tape at the edge of a river
People are searching for solutions after First Nations people living in Thunder Bay have expressed safety concerns. (Jon Thompson)

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​THUNDER BAY — Police located a young woman in Toronto last week, four days after she was declared missing in Thunder Bay. She was the second person from North Caribou Lake First Nation to be declared missing in Thunder Bay that week.

First Nations youth made up a disproportionate number of the 891 missing persons cases that the Thunder Bay Police Service responded to in 2017 — a year that propelled the city into the national spotlight as three young people from remote First Nations communities were discovered dead in the Neebing-McIntyre Floodway that flows through the middle of the city.

Two of those youths were last seen on the same day, May 6. Their bodies were found in the river over an 11-day period thereafter, sparking a conversation about racism, policing, and public safety in Thunder Bay — a conversation that is now moving on to practical measures about how to improve safety, including a digital surveillance program that is unprecedented in Ontario that will keep tabs on youth via their smartphones. 

Last September, North Caribou Lake— a First Nation located 500 kilometres northwest of Thunder Bay — signed a unique friendship agreement with Thunder Bay, Fort William First Nation, and the Thunder Bay Police Service, pledging to jointly-support efforts to meet a number of objectives, including anti-racism and public safety measures. That’s when Thunder Bay Councillor Frank Pullia and local IT consultant Angelo Petta approached North Caribou Lake Chief Dinah Kanate with a security solution called geo-fencing, an application that could monitor when students enter and exit “safe” and “non-safe” zones, using the GPS technology embedded in smartphones.

The five-month pilot exercise will conclude at the end of April. It has studied the movements of 10 First Nations students from Windigo First Nations Council communities who are enrolled in Grades 9 and 10 at Thunder Bay’s all-Indigenous high school (Windigo is a tribal council comprised of seven First Nations communities in North Caribou Lake’s vicinity). Students whose families were willing to participate were given smartphones as an incentive, and signed waivers to allow their movements to be digitally monitored.

The origin of the program can be traced in part to reaction to the loss of 17-year-old Tammy Keeash.

Keeash was one of the two youths lost in May 2017. She was from North Caribou Lake, where one-third of the 1,300 members are under the age of 16. Chief Kanate visited Keeash in the summer before her death, having heard rumours the young woman was in trouble. The chief arranged for Keeash to work a few weeks in the band office and saw her make efforts to “grow up” over the following year.  

North Caribou Lake’s members were furious to hear Keeash died in the same river whose name came up repeatedly during a 2016 inquest into the deaths of seven First Nations youth who had died in Thunder Bay since 2000.

“After that happened to Tammy, there was so much anger — even in our own community — [and] hate towards Thunder Bay,” Kanate says. “I started talking about, ‘We’re never going to solve anything if it’s hate on hate, anger on anger. If anything, it’s going to explode. It’s going to get worse. We have to do something else about it.’ ”

Kanate and her council were facing an “uproar” from parents who were apprehensive about sending their children back to the city for school in September. Yet high school students marched to the band office themselves, insisting on continuing their education in Thunder Bay.

It was the need to balance those interests — the safety of young people versus their need for education — that led Kanate to tighten the community’s relations with institutions in the city, which led to North Caribou Lake’s involvement with the E-Safe surveillance project.

The data for the $135,700 program is owned and controlled by Windigo First Nations Council. The data is not being shared with parents in real-time at this phase of the project. But in a future larger-scale rollout of the program, sharing data with parents could be possible in communities that have the communications infrastructure to support it.

Programmers established virtual fences at: the Neebing-McIntyre Floodway; two LCBO outlets; Thunder Bay’s largest shopping plaza, Intercity Mall; the SilverCity movie theatre; Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School (the city’s high school that serves Indigenous students from remote communities where secondary schools aren’t available); and the students’ boarding houses. A teen entering these zones triggers a notification system that gathers data regarding school attendance, curfew adherence, and social activities.

“We wanted to understand our students, what they do during the day, what their behaviours were, their patterns,” says Russell Wesley, Windigo’s education advisor. “If you understand the behaviour of your students, you can predict, generally, what they’re going to do.”

Petta, the IT consultant, believes the project could expand to as many as 50 students and develop more accurate data in the next round of testing. Petta imagines E-Safe could integrate live notifications to the high school, emergency services, and the students’ families.


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In the meantime, Petta says the project’s preliminary results — based on the 10-student pilot — represent a “proof of concept.” He says the data gathered so far illustrate a correlation among school attendance, curfew punctuality, and lifestyle risk. He suspects the data would also correlate with educational outcomes, and he wants to create an information-sharing partnership with the all-Indigenous high school to test that thesis.

Petta envisions offering incentives to attract more students to the program by offering other benefits beyond safety. “Once you cross the geo-fence at school, wouldn’t it be cool to get an automatic notification to come and support your basketball team that’s playing tonight?” he proposed. “Wouldn’t it be nice to get a positive reinforcement notification saying, ‘Congratulations, you did a fantastic job on your test yesterday?’ What about parents getting that same notification that the homework assignment is due?”

Petta has gathered some evidence to show First Nations people from the region are open to geo-fencing as a tool to keep their youth safe in Thunder Bay. He surveyed attendees at the Northern Bands hockey tournament, which annually attracts teams, families, and fans from across the far north to Dryden, 350 kilometres west of Thunder Bay.

Nearly 80 per cent of those who filled out a total of 240 surveys identified as Indigenous, and a similar percentage were parents. The results show 67 per cent of respondents were willing to use a safety app that asked for their location and only 10 per cent would not (a further 23 per cent were uncertain).

The following month, at a public safety open house meeting in Thunder Bay, 75 per cent of attendees said they would be willing to use such an app.

Kanate says those opposing the initiative said it would violate the privacy of young people. To them, she counters: “I would sooner not worry about their [children’s] privacy when it’s their lives on the line.”

Despite the high-profile deaths in Thunder Bay’s waterways, however, respondents ranked the rivers fourth among the city’s areas that raise safety concerns — after the streets in general, school, and Intercity Mall.  Petta observes that his sample group is comfortable with technology — but generally uncomfortable with the safety of its young people while they’re in Thunder Bay.

Petta believes E-Safe might help address parents’ fear of what young people are up to when they’re roaming the city unsupervised. He believes there could eventually be an opportunity to expand geo-fencing and discover more effective correlations between youth safety and patterns of movement.

“Today, it’s all about big data and it’s all about insights,” he says. “If you have data and you can translate that data into insights to make better decisions, shame on us if we’re not taking advantage of that.”

A safe place for all

As some First Nations communities handle student security on an individual level, Thunder Bay has hatched a plan to dramatically increase public surveillance along waterways and urban wooded areas.

A safety audit conducted in response to findings from an inquest into the deaths of Indigenous students in the city concluded that lighting, cameras, and barriers near bridges could decrease risk factors along the Neebing-McIntyre Floodway. Those priorities aligned with requests from Nishnawbe Aski Nation, the political body representing 49 First Nations in the far north.

Despite the privacy hurdles the city would have to address in order to increase surveillance, the Thunder Bay police don’t believe recommendations from the safety audit went far enough.

“We wanted more surveillance of the pathways and waterways,” says communications director Chris Adams. “We’re looking for a better way to respond to critical incidents — people in crisis — and the best way to do that is through 24-hour, seven-day-a-week video surveillance, and using technology that exists today that did not exist 15 years ago.”

In response, the municipal government and Fort William First Nation recently submitted a $10-million proposal to an Infrastructure Canada funding contest called the Smart Cities Challenge. It would expand Thunder Bay’s Eye on the Street network of public security cameras from 13 units in the city’s two downtown cores to an array of 100 to 150 surveillance cameras covering a much wider swath of the municipality.

Cameras along 12 kilometres of urban trails would offer a host of high-tech functions, including encryption, motion detection, infrared vision, and facial recognition technology. The proposal calls for the city to build a “command centre” to oversee the network, where private security investigators watching the cameras could contact police in case of real-time emergency and police could request footage for investigations.  

The city’s central support division manager, Charles Campbell, estimates the camera component alone could cost $2 million.

“We’re trying to expand the ability of people to enjoy a natural environment without fear,” Campbell says. “There’s a lot of cover along the waterways where things happen and there’s no way to respond to them, whether it’s physical threats or people drowning or people having medical issues and they’re not going to be found.”

The technological innovation would go beyond surveillance into shaping the use of public space. It would repurpose the riverbed as a series of hubs for social engagement using so-called “smart poles.” These would double as Wi-Fi hotspots to encourage “positive use” and recreation.

“We’re talking about making the rivers more of an activity node. Can we have more people there, doing things?” says Kerri Marshall, general manager of infrastructure and operations for the city. “There’s a real overlap in what we’re doing here in technology and social innovation.”

She also sees potential for those outlets to play a role in the anticipated expanded E-Safe program for students from the far north.  

Only part of the solution

The surveillance proposals enjoy a high level of support among municipal and First Nations leaders, but there are some who insist that even if the projects are successful, they can only be a part of the solution to preventing deaths and violence in the city.

Thunder Bay Councillor Andrew Foulds was critical of the privacy issues associated with the Eye on the Street program when it was implemented 13 years ago. He remains skeptical of surveillance as a stand-alone approach to public safety while the city faces pervasive problems in poverty, education, mental health, and addictions issues.  

“I believe given the advances in technology, this will add a tool in our toolbox for keeping people safe but I don’t think anybody should be under any illusions: this isn’t a solution to complex social issues. It’s a valuable tool to help deal with — and intervene in — potential crises. And that’s a good thing.”  

Nishnawbe Aski Nation Deputy Grand Chief Anna Betty Achneepineskum specifically requested lights and cameras on the rivers at a deputation to city council in February 2017. She is pleased with the Smart Cities proposal, but also emphasizes the importance of other projects that are underway to improve services for Indigenous people in the city.

“Until students stop dying — until I know each of them is treated as a human being with respect — I’m never going to reach that place where I feel satisfied,” Achneepineskum says. “It’s more than just cameras. It goes beyond the safety of students.”

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.

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

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