The Deadly Racism of Thunder Bay
Volunteers are patrolling the streets to prevent violence against Indigenous people— but they can’t do much about the city’s deep-seated prejudice
Volunteers are working to prevent violence against Indigenous people
Marlan Chookomolin, a twenty-five-year-old First Nations man from Thunder Bay, Ontario, was due to begin his studies at Confederation College this past September. His father, Ron, describes Marlan’s ambitions to me: “He will go into journalism,” he says, still using the future tense before he corrects himself. “He was excited. Marlan believed he was the only person who could communicate with Indigenous people under the bridges and in the bushes, because he knew how to talk to them.”
But, on June 25, Marlan Chookomolin was discovered badly beaten on a trail in the north end of Thunder Bay. According to Ron, there was bruising around his son’s neck and evidence of blunt force trauma to the back of his head. With his organs failing, Marlan was put on life support by the hospital that same night so his mother could fly in to see him. He died the next day surrounded by family.
As of this writing, the investigation into Marlan’s death appears to have hit a dead end — an all-too-common trajectory for police investigations of First Nations deaths in Thunder Bay. No arrests have been made, no charges filed, and, eight months later, no decision reached on what happened. It’s this type of inaction that has sparked two unprecedented investigations into the Thunder Bay Police Service (TBPS). The first, launched in November 2016 and led by Ontario’s Office of the Independent Police Review Director (OIPRD), is looking at allegations that systemic racism influenced investigations into the deaths of nearly forty people, most of whom were First Nations. The investigations into these cases have been described as rushed and haphazard by members of the Indigenous community, who point to numerous examples of police declaring the deaths accidental without waiting for an autopsy, pursuing leads, or reaching out to witnesses.
The second investigation is being led by Senator Murray Sinclair. Appointed in July by the Ontario Civilian Police Commission, the former Truth and Reconciliation chief commissioner is studying the effectiveness of tbps ’s civilian oversight body. In a thirty-five-page interim report released in October — in which Sinclair wrote at length about pending recommendations intended to help officers tackle, within their organization, “discrimination against Indigenous people
in the community” — Sinclair confirmed a long-held suspicion among First Nations people that local police aren’t taking Native deaths seriously.
Both these investigations are occurring in the face of evidence that First Nations people seem to be in greater danger in Thunder Bay than anywhere else in Canada. The city of 120,000 led the country in hate crimes against Natives in 2015. And while Thunder Bay accounts for barely 5 percent of the Indigenous population in Ontario, it accounts for roughly 37 percent of the province’s Indigenous murder victims. The city has more than three times as many First Nations murder victims than the entire province of Quebec, which has more than twelve times as many Indigenous people. In raw numbers, more Native people are murdered in Thunder Bay than in any other Canadian city, save Winnipeg.
One of the most shocking killings started with an assault on January 29 last year, when thirty-four-year-old Barbara Kentner, who was walking along the road with her sister, was struck by a trailer hitch thrown from a passing car. “I got one!” is what her sister reported hearing someone shout. Kentner died from her injuries on July 4—the same day as Marlan’s funeral.
Last may, First Nations residents started using the hashtag #Thisisthunderbay to share stories of verbal attacks, racial slurs, police abuse, and physical assaults — some similar to the one that took Kentner’s life. Around the same time, a frustrated city hall countered the bad press with a hashtag of its own, #Ichoosetbay, to encourage boosters to drown out the “negativity.”
The duelling hashtags highlight how official reactions from the city often miss the scale of the crisis. While racism dominates local consciousness — eight out of ten residents worry about it, according to a 2015 survey — the city’s normalization of anti-indigenous prejudice has created a picture of a town that doesn’t believe it has a duty to solve the problem of violence against Natives. For this story, I interviewed city councillors, community volunteers, school board members, and leaders of the city’s anti-racism and diversity groups — many of the people on the front lines helping the city’s neediest citizens. On record, we discussed Indigenous mistrust of city institutions and how to overcome that obstacle. Off mic, I was given
a very different narrative. Thunder Bay, they told me, doesn’t have a First Nations problem — First Nations people do. The real crisis, I was made to understand, is Native-on-native crime. First Nations advocates were belittled as aggressive and pushy, and their work was dismissed as counterproductive.
The irony is impossible to miss: in a city trying to integrate a growing community of immigrants and refugees with considerable civic outreach —Thunder Bay has welcomed dozens of families from countries such as Myanmar and Syria in the past year — First Nations people are treated as outsiders. “The arrival of growing numbers of Aboriginal people in the city has resulted in a double-edged culture shock that is taxing the ability of public and social agencies to respond,” argued a recent editorial in the Chronicle Journal, the local daily. The editorial sympathizes with the city’s “traditional population” which has ended up feeling “inundated.” By “traditional” the paper is, of course, referring to the white population, in contrast to the Indigenous population that has occupied the region for at least 9,000 years.
Pro-police bias pervades local reporting. In October
2016, the Chronicle Journal gave space to an officer who, angry at being called a “systemic racist,” wrote an open letter in which he not only accused a prominent First Nations leader of spreading “half-truths” about his “police family” but served up a number of his own racist tropes. “When will you look at changing a flawed system where band administrators
receive money, and none gets to the grassroots level where it belongs?” he asked. The following summer, the Chronicle Journal took things a step further with an editorial that defended Thunder Bay police and rejected the characterization that the TBPS’S unsolved investigations were mishandled. “While there is clearly something very wrong in connection with the river deaths,” the editors argued, “neither seasoned police investigators nor Ontario’s coroner have so far found criminality. The investigations of police and their board come as a result of complaints which have not been substantiated.”
But while the paper urged readers to soften their criticism of the scandal-ridden police force, they are less careful about Indigenous deaths. National news organizations will often place the discovery of an Indigenous body in the context of Thunder Bay’s tensions with its Indigenous population. Local media, however, have instead used such deaths as an opportunity to pathologize the Indigenous community, treating it as troublesome, even dangerous. When the Chronicle Journal sent a reporter to cover the evening when Marlan was taken off life support, the article was largely an interview with a manager from Landmark Inn, a hotel near where Marlan’s body was found. After claiming that Marlan was “known” to staff, the manager complained about constantly chasing “transients” from the area. “The unfortunate [people] with alcohol and drug abuse [problems] that are frequenting this area need social services,” he said. “We are a business trying to thrive here inthunder Bay.”
On social media, commenters pathologizing First Nations people exhibit an anger that can be virulent and shockingly candid. The Facebook page belonging to Thunder Bay Courthouse-inside Edition, part of a handful of sites that populate an active online ecosystem of anti–first Nations feeling, has close to 17,000 followers. While the page ostensibly reports on court proceedings and publishes court dockets, comments posted by other Facebook users scapegoat and dehumanize First Nations people. The dead youth found in the city’s waterways have been mocked, death threats are made against Natives featured on the page, and followers post anti-indigenous memes. They even cheered Kentner’s death: “Give the boy a medal,” one commenter wrote about the killer. “Ding ding drunk bitch gone,” wrote another.
Marlan’s death didn’t escape notice. The site administrator wrote a post linking him to the Native Syndicate, one of Canada’s largest Native gangs. “You’re hurting their family, their immediate family, their parents,” Marlan’s cousin, Joyce Hunter, replied to the administrator. “The comments you’re making are potentially libelous and defamatory.” Hunter didn’t receive a reply, but her comment was deleted and she was blocked from posting on the page.
The day after I arrive in the city, my Airbnb host offers me a ride across town. Without prompting, she tells me about how her daughter’s views on First Nations people differ from her own. Her daughter, she says, wants to “give the Natives everything,” but to my host, “this is Canada, we should all be equal. They shouldn’t be given so much free stuff. They should have to work like the rest of us.” As a First Nations writer, I’m used to seeing this sentiment in comment threads or in anonymous tweets directed at me. Very rarely is it said to my face.
She drops me off at a shopping mall a few hundred feet away from the NeebingMcintyre Floodway. It’s in this floodway that the body of Dylan Moonias (who was twenty-one) was recovered in early 2017. And it’s on its banks that I’m set to meet the Bear Clan Patrol, a First Nations–led safety and crime prevention group founded in Winnipeg in 1992. It expanded to Thunder Bay last winter in response to the deaths of seven First Nations students between 2000 and 2011. They had been forced to attend school in Thunder Bay because of underfunding in their home communities farther north. Every Friday and Saturday night, volunteers comb areas of the city where people might be at risk of injury or death — along rivers and train tracks, under bridges, and in parks. They often find young people drinking near water and coax them somewhere safer. Other times, they come across passed-out kids and call first responders.
More than twenty people are here on this unseasonably warm October night. The group is mixed, primarily First Nations people but with some non-native participants too. I spot city staff, including a city councillor. We break into groups of five or six and fan out for the next three hours. People honk and shout at us from cars — all supportive. Our group walks past Newfie’s Pub downtown. Smokers surround us, asking about our orange vests. A waitress opens a door to shout, “You guys do an awesome job!” (The reaction isn’t always positive. The day after we went out on patrol, a member of the organization put up a Facebook post referring to threats it sometimes receives while on patrol. “I certainly am not ignorant to think that we’re accepted by 100%, which is fine, but I still fear for the safety of our volunteers, especially our Indigenous females.”)
I talk with Tina, a young Anishinaabe woman who has been with the Bear Clan Patrol since it arrived in Thunder Bay. “It got really bad,” she says, “with all the bodies being found in the water. I know so many people who talk about changing things, but they don’t do anything. I want to make it safer for my niece.” A non-native volunteer falls in with us. He pesters Tina with questions, among them: “Everybody should be equal. There shouldn’t be special privileges given to Aboriginal people. How does that makes you feel?” Tina’s happy tone changes as she replies to him, and eventually, she goes silent. Even among supposed allies, First Nations people are treated like walking racial grievances.
At one point, we run into three First Nations youths who appear to be in their early twenties. The young man doing most of the talking is funny and charming, until the subject turns to Indigenous deaths. “I think it’s cops doing this shit,” he says grimly. The tbps is the subject of numerous online rumours. Some allege that the serial killer many fear is stalking the Native community is actually a cop. Others claim that the police are covering up something sinister and that, as one
First Nations families have often relied on an apathetic police force to investigate a loved one’s death.
online commenter writes, “the mask may drop real soon.” There is no proof of any of this, but taken together, the chatter points to a profoundly broken relationship between First Nations people and the tbps .
“There’s a trust crisis,” Chris Adams admits. He’s the director of communications and technology for the tbps and is the one of the few non-natives I met in Thunder Bay who acknowledge the city’s problem of antiIndigenous racism. The most important focus for Office of the Independent Police Review Director will be to probe the way the police investigated — or didn’t investigate — the deaths of thirty-nine people, most of them Indigenous, from the 1990s to 2016. The TBPS has said that 183 deaths have been investigated in Thunder Bay since January 2017. Based on my reading of press releases and news reports, at least thirteen of those deaths were under suspicious circumstances. The police have ruled only seven of them homicides. Marlan’s is one of the six cases that remain in limbo.
The protracted investigation into Marlan’s death has traumatized the Chookomolin family. It’s been made worse by a lack of communication. On July 21, Ron reached out to the media. “We haven’t received any follow-ups or reports from Thunder Bay police,” he said, speaking to Tbnewswatch. While generally supportive of the tbps , Ron is frustrated. “So where are we at right now with this investigation? Is it a dead end? I believe they’re not pressing hard enough.”
As many parents and family members end up doing, Ron has started his own investigation, one centred around the testimony of Kory Campbell, an ex-girlfriend of Marlan’s. “About five o’clock on Monday, the 26 of June,” Ron says, referring to the day after Marlan’s body was found, “she comes crying to my daughter. ‘I know who did it, I know who did it.’” Ron claims that Campbell told him the name of the young man whom she believed to be the killer, saying that she heard another witness talking about the crime while drinking. Ron took Campbell’s statement to the lead detective on the case but says it was quickly dismissed. “He comes back on June 28,” Ron tells me, “saying people are just talking when they’re drinking.” Two days after the conversation with the detective, Campbell’s body was found in a home on the north side of the city. Two people were arrested for her murder, but the chance for police to gather her full testimony on Marlan’s killer is lost forever. (The TBPS says that it cannot comment on a specific file but takes all leads seriously.)
Back at the TBPS office, I ask about Marlan. Adams is sympathetic but unhelpful. “We reach points in some investigations where it’s not a question of probabilities, it’s more a question of what you can absolutely prove going forward. That’s why some of these things really slow down. It doesn’t mean the case is closed, but we’re just reaching points where the information needed for that final conclusion becomes tougher to get.”
Time and again, First Nations families have watched a seemingly apathetic police force investigate a loved one’s death. It happened with Stacy Debungee, a fortyone-year-old man who was found dead in the Mcintyre River in 2015. Police quickly deemed his death accidental, claiming he had passed out and rolled into the water. But a cbc investigation in 2016 showed that the tbps neglected to interview two key witnesses who admitted to reporters that they were with Debungee the night he drowned, and they used his debit card after his death. It also happened with seventeen-year-old Tammy Keeash. Within five days of her body being found near the floodway, on May 7, Thunder Bay police said the death was “consistent with drowning” and ruled out foul play. However, new revelations by Aboriginal Peoples Television Network — witnesses say Keeash was found face down with her pants around her ankles — throw this conclusion into doubt. In June, the Ontario chief coroner handed over the Keeash investigation to the York Regional Police Force and Nishnawbe-aski Police Service.
As concerned as Adams hopes to appear about the problems facing the TBPS, it’s impossible to look past the agony of families that have been left waiting for answers, as well as the disquieting hints coming out from the ongoing OIPRD investigation. Speaking to the CBC, OIPRD director Gerry Mcneilly was reluctant to share details, saying only: “We’re seeing some patterns that obviously concern me.”
While the causes of the crisis in Thunder Bay — endemic racism, a soaring murder rate, police indifference to First Nations murder victims — seem insurmountable, some are working to improve things. There are the First Nations volunteers who help students relocate to Thunder Bay; coordinate community watch projects such as the Bear Clan Patrol; and run youth groups, many of which operate with little to no financial support from the city. The school board has also recognized its role in acclimatizing First Nations students from remote communities to the radically different, urban environment that can leave many feeling alienated and vulnerable. These supports include culturally relevant programming, such as Indigenous language courses, and graduation coaches who provide individualized help. The school board also sends representatives to remote reserves to show parents how they can be included in their children’s education, even from a distance.
The biggest responsibility, however, remains with police. During my visit, the force introduced its new diversity initiative to hire more First Nations people. Adams described additional efforts, such as mentoring prospective officers. But the TBPS’S poor recruitment record with Native candidates underscores the scale of the challenges. Twice a year, the force issues press releases introducing new officers — yet none of the ones issued in the past three years show recruits who self-identify as First Nations.
The police force, however, is making progress on other fronts. It has a cordial relationship with the Bear Clan Patrol and provides patrol members with training for urban searches. And for each story we hear of an officer who abuses or harasses a First Nations person, there is one of an officer who risks their life to help. At least four times since September 2017, the TBPS has sent out press releases about officers jumping into the waterways to rescue Indigenous people.
Still, “there’s been a division for many years,” Adams says. “It’s come to a head in the past year — we’re talking about it more, and I think we’re facing it more.” Many others in Thunder Bay echo this view. The problems aren’t new, they say. What has changed is that, for the first time — with access to social media and First Nations– centred news outlets — Native people can speak up and tell the country what’s happening to them.
That, after all, was Marlan’s dream: to report on the most overlooked people in Thunder Bay. As an aspiring journalist and a young First Nations man living inside his city’s crisis, how would he have told this story? We’ll never know. Joyce Hunter tells me of his last moments. “We watched his carotid artery on his neck,” she says. “And it was beating fast and regular and strong at first, but then, over half an hour, we watched it slow and slow and slow until it stopped. They announced his official time of death at 10:17 p.m. and everybody started to cry. And then we all touched him, and it was really amazing that his body was already growing cold.”
Above The bodies of several First Nations youth have
been pulled from the Mcintyre River
in Thunder Bay.
Above The Bear Clan Patrol, a community safety group, looks for atrisk individuals in downtown Thunder Bay.