News / Canada

Dealing with racism against indigenous people in Thunder Bay

About 120,000 people call Thunder Bay home. By 2040, it’s estimated that half of the city’s population will be aboriginal.

Thunder Bay Mayor Keith Hobbs knows that to end the racism in his city he has to get a handle on the social ills eroding Thunder Bay.

Torstar News Service

Thunder Bay Mayor Keith Hobbs knows that to end the racism in his city he has to get a handle on the social ills eroding Thunder Bay.

THUNDER BAY—There is an aboriginal woman who is afraid to speak of a vicious sexual assault.

On Dec. 27, 2012, the 36-year-old mother was walking to the corner store when a car pulled up and the men inside threw garbage at her while they called her a “squaw” and a “dirty Indian.”

Two men then dragged her by the hair into the back seat. They took her outside the city limits and raped her, tried to strangle her and then left her for dead.

As she was being assaulted, she was told they were doing it because she was a First Nations woman.

“We know you Indian girls like this,” she was told.

The men also warned her to keep her mouth shut: they had done it before and they would do it again.

The mother of six then did everything she was supposed to. She went to the police with her own mother and gave a statement. And then she could not go any further. She left the police station and, after seeing one of her attackers with his wife and children in a mall, she left town.

Her mother, overwhelmed with grief, spoke to Torstar News Service about the assault but asked for anonymity to protect her daughter and family.

“When I heard her statement, I was in shock. I was feeling like she could have been one of the missing and murdered women,” she said.

Thunder Bay Police conducted a “very thorough investigation” in what they consider a hate crime. So far, no arrests have been made, says Chris Adams, executive officer for Thunder Bay Police Service.

Keith Hobbs, the mayor of Thunder Bay, is aware of the assault on this woman. Hobbs has heard the racist slurs, and cringes at the comments on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube pages.

“Every city — I don’t care where you are in the world — has issues with racism. Don’t be afraid to say you have racism in your city. If you never admit it, you’ll never fix it,” Hobbs says.

Earlier this year, when Maclean’s magazine named Winnipeg the most racist city in Canada, Hobbs sent Mayor Brian Bowman a message.

“I just sent the Winnipeg mayor a letter that said, ‘Welcome to the club. We have the same issues. Saskatoon has them. Vancouver does. So does Toronto. It can’t be just addressed by Mayor Keith Hobbs,” he says.

Getting to the root causes of racism requires understanding and, most of all, education, says Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN) Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler.

“There is racism everywhere. Sometimes it is subtle and sometimes it is front and centre. It comes in different forms. The newer forms are from social media; that is accessible to everyone. It is just different mechanisms for expressing ignorant views and racist comments,” Fiddler says.

Teresa Trudeau, a traditional healing co-ordinator at the Anishnawbe Mushkiki Thunder Bay Aboriginal Health Centre, acted as the assaulted woman’s voice.

“We didn’t lose her ... They threatened her. Told her they would do it again,” says Trudeau.

Trudeau’s office is next to the Anishnawbe Mushkiki healing circle, a room that is a stunning wooden sphere and a sacred place to practice traditional healing.

Trudeau pauses before she shares a traditional Cherokee saying: “If you want to defeat a nation, destroy the women first.”

About 120,000 people call Thunder Bay home. By 2040, it’s estimated that half of the city’s population will be aboriginal.

Only recently have the people who live here started to talk openly about the divisions between them.

Any indigenous person in this city will tell you that they or people they know have been victims of racism: slurs hurled from passing cars, eggs and garbage hurled at them.

Greg Quachegan, a teacher at Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School, was walking with his young daughters when someone yelled, “Bogans,” at them. He has no idea what it means, but it’s a slur aboriginal people hear often.

Thunder Bay aboriginal liaison worker Ann Magiskan has experienced

Torstar

Thunder Bay aboriginal liaison worker Ann Magiskan has experienced "disgusting" racism first hand. The anti-racism programme she is spearheading provides sensitivity training to 2,500 employees.

Ann Magiskan, a Thunder Bay aboriginal liaison worker who is spearheading an anti-racism program, saw a swift attitude change when a potential landlord saw her at the door.

“It is disgusting what happens. When my husband and I walked in, they said, ‘We’ve rented to people like you before.’ When I asked what she meant by that, she didn’t answer,” Magiskan says.

NAN, which represents 49 northern First Nations, filed an Ontario human rights complaint against top police brass in 2012 after a Thunder Bay police officer accidentally sent out a fake press release after a suspect was arrested in the killing of 65-year-old Adam Yellowhead.

The email’s subject line read, “Fresh Mouth Killer Captured!!” Thunder Bay court heard Yellowhead had been drinking mouthwash with his now-convicted killer on the night of his death.

NAN also requested that racism and the Thunder Bay police’s investigations be examined during the inquest into the deaths of seven indigenous high-school students. The students died over a 10-year period. Coroner Dr. David Eden rejected both requests.

Fiddler was stunned. “We need to look at the broader issues, including aspects of racism and the role of the police investigation. I think there are obviously some strong parallels with these cases and cases concerning murdered and missing indigenous women. On the surface, these (investigations) weren’t taken seriously,” he adds.

Earlier this year, Thunder Bay Police launched an investigation of Facebook pages that they characterized as “extreme racism” against First Nations people. One page, called Thunder Bay Dirty, had 4,000 followers.

The original Thunder Bay Dirty Facebook page was shut down in June. “There were a number of community members who attempted to counter this page. We could not establish criminality in it following our investigation based on a number of complaints. As you know, the social media world often walks a very thin line between poor taste, racism and hurtful content,” says Adams of the Thunder Bay police.

In last year’s municipal election, Libertarian city council candidate Tamara Johnson took out a full-page ad in the Chronicle Journal daily that questioned why First Nations people have treaty rights and special status.

“Voters:” Johnson’s ad read; “No group of people are above the laws of Ontario. No group of people can illegally block our roads or railways. No group of people are ‘entitled’ to handouts. No group of people are owed a ‘debt’ by today’s taxpayers. No group of people ‘own’ Crown lands. Crown lands are public lands. Not native lands. We all own these lands. No group of people are ‘special’ and deserve first class ‘Super Citizen’ status.”

“Help me stop this doctrine of entitlement. Above all else, help me stop the ‘gravy train.’”

Clint Harris, the publisher of the newspaper, defended the decision to publish the ad, saying everyone has the right to an opinion, especially during an election.

“Running the ad is not an endorsement of its content,” Harris wrote in an editorial published June 12, 2014. “It is important that candidates are given the opportunity to reveal their ideas to voters.”

Thunder Bay is on the front lines of dealing with the after-effects of Canada’s national tragedy: the residential school system that took nearly 100,000 indigenous children away from their families over a multi-generational period, in order to school the Indian out of them. The fallout has been immense.

Mayor Hobbs knows that to end the racism in his city he has got to get a handle on the social ills eroding Thunder Bay.

“In 1997, when I was Thunder Bay Police association vice-president, we identified that Thunder Bay had the highest rates of alcohol, drug and mental illness in Ontario. Nothing has changed. A big thrust of our strategic plan is to take on these issues, but we get very little support from other areas of government,” he says.

“We can’t do it ourselves.”

Proof of the city’s struggle can be seen in Thunder Bay receiving the burdensome title of murder capital of Canada in 2014.

The Thunder Bay Courthouse where an inquest into the deaths of seven First Nations students who died over a 10-year period is underway. Initial investigations into the deaths were not taken seriously.

Torstar

The Thunder Bay Courthouse where an inquest into the deaths of seven First Nations students who died over a 10-year period is underway. Initial investigations into the deaths were not taken seriously.

There was an “above average” number of homicides reported in the city last year. Out of 11 homicide victims in Thunder Bay in 2014, seven were aboriginal.

Mix in high addiction rates, a lack of treatment and supportive housing programs, and Thunder Bay’s problems are toxic.

The arrest rate for intoxicated persons is 2,608 per 100,000, the highest in Ontario. It is the leading reason for arrest in Thunder Bay, comprising half of all arrests, according to the Thunder Bay Drug Strategy Report of 2011.

Hobbs wants addiction programs and affordable housing, for which the vacancy is less than 1 per cent.

His pleas for help in housing were ignored by the former Conservative government. But now that he has Cabinet minister Hajdu on board, change may be on the horizon.

“People aren’t just sleeping in tents, but under vehicles and in bushes,” he said. “When I did walkabouts as a police officer in my former life, I stepped over people sleeping in open air … We see a lot of people migrate down from the northern communities. Our Shelter House is full every night. We have encampments, aboriginal people living in camps in the bush,” Hobbs says.

Thunder Bay has a 22-bed detox centre but it needs at least 100 beds, he says. “Kenora has 50 beds for a population of 20,000. And we have 22 beds” for a population of 120,000.

Hajdu says the answer isn’t as simple as adding emergency shelter beds, as that only takes people off the streets for a few hours or a couple of days.

“Expanding a detox centre without any next-step plan … is not the solution. We do need a range of affordable housing that ranges from the most supportive, like (offering) a managed alcohol program, to more affordable or public housing for people who don’t need any support: they just need a place to live,” she says.

In the meantime, before any federal infrastructure funding floats down, the city is trying to teach tolerance.

“We are doing something as a city, and I’m proud of that. We have a long way to go but we are doing something,” Hobbs says.

He points to the “Respect. It begins with you and me” campaign slogan for Thunder Bay’s new customer service pilot project, and to the presence of the Guardian Angels.

The Angels is a volunteer-based organization that aims to keep communities safe by patrolling streets and organizing youth groups. There are 130 chapters around the world. Thunder Bay’s chapter is run by Ian Hodgkinson, a Thunder Bay native who is also a professional wrestler known as Vampiro.

Ian Hodgkinson, head of the Thunder Bay Guardian Angels and a professional wrestler who goes by the name of Vampiro, has returned to Thunder Bay on a mission to clean up the streets.

Torstar

Ian Hodgkinson, head of the Thunder Bay Guardian Angels and a professional wrestler who goes by the name of Vampiro, has returned to Thunder Bay on a mission to clean up the streets.

Hobbs invited Hodgkinson to his home and asked him to help.

“Ian is a good guy. He used to be a star wrestler; he was big in Mexico. He started a Guardian Angels chapter in Mexico and he was kidnapped at gunpoint twice,” notes Hobbs, a former Thunder Bay staff sergeant.

“Ian is doing an awesome job. People respect him. They don’t fear him but they respect him. We had 11 homicides in Thunder Bay last year and we’ve only had one this year,” he says.

Magiskan never knows what to expect when she begins a new session.

“I’ll walk into a room and I’ll say, ‘I’m pretty sure that most of you in this room would rather not be here and you are wondering, ‘What the hell am I here for? What do I need this education for? I don’t deal with native people.’”

Then Magiskan will recite the facts: Who were the first peoples in Canada? Who forms the fastest growing demographic in Thunder Bay? Who are the people once relegated to non-person status in our society?

“Honestly, I’ve had people walk out,” she says.

People frequently come from the north to Thunder Bay, looking for work, to go to school or start a new life, she adds.

“It is shocking, really. Are you aboriginal? Strike against you. Female? Strike against you. Young aboriginal man? Strike against you,” she says, shaking her head.

“When you see an alcoholic aboriginal person on the street, you may want to ask yourself, ‘what have they been through?’”

More on Metronews.ca