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The troubles in Thunder Bay should trouble all Canadians

Perry Bellegarde on the way forward in Thunder Bay, where seven Indigenous children have been found dead since 2000


 
A memorial for Tammy Keeash is seen in Thunder Bay. (Photograph Cole Burston)

A memorial for Tammy Keeash is seen in Thunder Bay. (Photograph Cole Burston)

Perry Bellegarde is the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations.

In the wake of several unexplained student deaths and an attack that took the life of a young Indigenous woman, First Nations chiefs, leaders, educators and parents gathered in a school gymnasium at Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School in Thunder Bay in early July to talk about a subject most Canadians probably prefer not to think about: racism.

In that city, as reported by Maclean’s and other outlets, seven First Nations children far from home seeking an education or medical treatment have instead been found dead in the local river since 2000. They were all teenagers. The loss of life and lack of answers in these cases led to an inquest and 145 recommendations. But relations between First Nations and Thunder Bay police have deteriorated as questions are raised about the force’s willingness and ability to conduct thorough investigations.

First Nations in the region are so concerned about the violence that they have organized a group of volunteers led by a council of mothers and grandmothers to patrol the city after dark. In that school gymnasium, chiefs reported that the tensions in Thunder Bay are affecting Indigenous students, and many parents are reconsidering whether to send their children away from home to attend high school in a city where the loss of young life has made headlines around the world.

MORE: Nancy Macdonald reports on Thunder Bay’s “river of tears”

This is not just Thunder Bay. This is Canada. On July 12, I walked the streets of Winnipeg’s North End with the Bear Clan Patrol, a community group that patrols the streets in an effort to keep their people and neighbourhood safe. That night alone, they cleared more than 150 needles off the streets where children play, handed out snacks and treats to residents, visited with them to build trust, and walked with women and children to make sure they made it home safe. It’s an amazing initiative that depends on tireless volunteers and much-needed government support. The fact that it is needed at all says a great deal.

While Canada prides itself on its diversity and openness, the reality is often very different for Indigenous people. Families suffering from the loss of their children or mothers or sisters have told me there are separate justice systems in this country: one for First Nations people and the other for everyone else. They’ve said that if seven non-Indigenous teenagers were found dead in the same waterway in a neighbourhood in Toronto or Montreal or Halifax, there would be a public outcry and immediate action by caring citizens, police and elected leaders.

MORE: Perry Bellegarde on recognizing Canada’s founding Indigenous people

The words of Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler at a recent special emergency chiefs meeting have stayed with me: Our school gymnasiums shouldn’t be used for funeral services for our children. But in 2017, that is exactly what is happening in Canada. First Nations children are growing up knowing grief and trauma each and every day; pre-teens who have never left the north are being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Children are hurting children. In Wapakeka First Nation in northern Ontario, the population of just over 360 people was recently devastated by the loss of three 12-year-old girls who chose to end their lives in a suicide pact.

Racism. Violence. Suicide. Tensions between police and citizens. These are not First Nations problems: these are Canadian problems. When a trailer hitch hurled out the window of a passing car leaves a 16-year-old girl without a mother—with someone from the car reportedly saying they “got one”—it is a devastating act of hatred. Racism kills. When a young First Nations boy or girl doesn’t live safely, or have proper access to education or even a basic right like clean drinking water, that is a damning indictment and a loss for the country as well as First Nation citizens. As Rainy River First Nations Chief Jim Leonard says, we are in this together. There is only one path forward, and that is to work together to build understanding and, through that, respect for one another.

I have served as a chief. We are elected by our citizens to stand up for our children’s rights, as well as those of future generations. No Canadian would deny a child’s right to a safe and healthy home and to grow up in a society where they are treated with dignity and respect and have the same opportunities as other children.

The way forward is clear. Awareness and education leads to understanding and action. We need forums where First Nations leaders, elders, women and youth can join with teachers, city councillors and other elected officials to not only talk about solutions, but also agree upon them. This must happen now – or, in Thunder Bay’s case, before the next school year begins. The justice and policing communities need to make concerted, sustained efforts at Indigenous hiring, recruitment and retention to overcome the mistrust that can poison a workplace and a community. Understanding can only improve when Indigenous and non-Indigenous people come together and learn about our shared history and different realities, but also see our shared future. Tensions will ease when police and the community in Thunder Bay join together with First Nations leaders to put support systems in place for young students forced by their desire for an education to live far from home.

It starts by acknowledging there is a problem, something that Winnipeg courageously did after Maclean’s named it the most racist city in Canada. In 2016, Mayor Brian Bowman launched an effort toward “building bridges, strengthening relationships and embracing diversity.” There followed a suite of initiatives, including mandatory training for all city staff, outreach to all Winnipeg high schools, public engagement on the subjects of racism, diversity and reconciliation and the impact of the residential schools system.

In contrast, when Statistics Canada reported Thunder Bay had the highest rate of hate crimes in the country last month, the acting chief of police was reported saying that it was “business as usual” for police. Failing to acknowledge the problem must end, and the building of bridges must begin.

And let’s all admit: this has to happen everywhere. Then perhaps we will see a future where our gymnasiums aren’t used for memorials, but for sports, graduations and celebration.


 

The troubles in Thunder Bay should trouble all Canadians

  1. What trouble me is that

    NOTHING EVER GETS DONE!

    • Been like that in Thunder Bay for decades. Complaints have fallen on deaf ears, even to band members.

      The pervs seem to come out of the woodwork. I imagine the casino has helped either.

      Don’t know why we ever allowed (like we had a choice) casinos, seems more grief than benefit.

  2. Anytime I read an article about a person or persons found dead, and if the cause of death was not ruled as a suicide, then it was murder. (Accidents don’t apply)

    In such articles, the writer always states to the readership whom the murderer was that was charged with the crime…if solved, of course.

    In the case of the Thunder Bay 7, are they all unsolved? Are some solved but not all? If so, why did Perry Bellegarde not state who the culprits were?

    Did Perry Bellegarde withhold crucial information to deliberately jaundice the readership’s thinking, of what goes on in Thunder Bay?

    Any decent writer would not have omitted such important details nor simply let his coloured biased opinion mislead & distort the events of what had occured, by using words such as “racism” and “hate” directed at citizens of Thunder Bay.

    And if none are solved but there are “several unexplained student deaths” … then why cloud the readers minds by curving the article to ‘imply’ that it was due to “racism” and “hate”.

    Perry Bellegarde will have a egg-covered face if several student deaths turn out to be not what was acutely implied in this article.

    • I get the impression, reading this piece, that the deaths of the young people in Thunder Bay is being laid at the feet of people there and everywhere else in Canada, either as a failure to care or a failure to help. I read that conditions on native reserves are so dismal that young people are ‘driven’ to foreign places like Winnipeg – where they are confronted by new set of ‘risk factors’. I read that desperation is causing native youth to ‘turn on each other’, or to seek an end to some kind of psychic or physical suffering in suicide. What seems to be missing in all of this, unless there is some genetic predisposition to it all, is what is happening to these children between the time they are born and the time them reach that threat to their existence? Where are their parents? Where are their band councils and elders? Is there not enough autonomy or economy in First Nations? If not, what is needed to make things better – some kind of ‘peace corps’, more police, a military intervention?

      How is letting native young people find their own way in our society, on our mean streets, any more, or less, humane than ‘forcing’ them into residential schools? I’m inclined to think a similar discussion of similar problems prompted the notion of those institutions as a solution.

      Or were native people really happy in those good old days? If they were, why aren’t they moving back to the land instead of toward the bright lights? What is it we’re supposed to do about that, turn out the lights?

  3. Aboriginal culture is not my culture and never will be, I don’t beat drums.

    My culture embraces progress and actively participates in its development and maintenance.

    I think it is unhealthy for any culture to base its identity on wagging its finger at industry while simultaneously depending on its products.

    It’s also unhealthy to play the victim of racism card every time this hypocrisy is exposed.

    Obviously aboriginal youth have a hard time dealing with the hypocrisy inherent in their culture.

    But aboriginal leadership direction is the problem.

  4. It is profoundly unfair and unjust for MacLeans magazine and the native politicians to depict as Thunder Bay and its people as racist in this article.
    The native leaders reflexively racially scapegoat other Canadians for their self inflcted social problems.
    When suicides murders and deaths happen on reserves run and populated solely by aboriginals they blame Canada for lack of funding etc.
    When aboriginal deaths happen off reserve they blame Canadians demand million dollar inquiries with million dollar recommendations.
    Thunder Bay has had an inquiry into aboriginal deaths by the river…although you may not read that in the MacLeans one sided article.
    The native leadership seems to use the overplayed card of racism …or the appearance of it …to create guilt shame and obligation to press for more funds and special racial accomodation for them.
    In a poll taken by the federal government the majority of Canadians felt throwing more money at native demands will not solve anything…and they are weary of the accusations .
    No people ..or individual progresses in life until they see that the person who is mostly responsible for where they are…and where they want to be….can be found …in the mirror.
    The racist scapegoating rhetoric of the chiefs and this article is deeply unfair to Thunder Bay and all Canadians.
    Honestly…how would you feel towards someone who scapegoats their self inflicted problems on you?

  5. Why are we troubled?

    Because we have fake peace of mind.

    We ignore the harm we do because it overwhelms us. This awareness troubles us. Abortion, unfairness, war, greed.

    We become psychopaths seeking false peace of mind, telling ourselves that all manner of cruelty is ok.

    Try welcoming the observance of all your senses and the intelligent introspection of what they are telling you. It’s impossible to do in our society and also experience peace of mind.

    The solution isn’t lying to yourself by listening to the propaganda.

    Yes, thinking of even one injustice is troubling.

  6. The death of hope leads to the death of youth. That it continues to be indigenous youth is, sadly, an old story. But where, Oh Where!, in this article is the acknowledgement of significant indigenous responsibility for traditional errors, indigenous racism, pandemic alcoholism, parential failure and a culture of “apples”.
    Until there is acceptance of involvement, “whitey” alone cannot solve youth suicide. Money alone won’t do it. Government alone can’t do it. YOU must look inside yourself Perry. You shape a good part of the problem.

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