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

The Walrus - - CONTENTS - By Robert Jago

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.

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