MANITOULIN’S BRAWL TO ARMS

The flurry of text mes­sages came sud­denly. ‘Chief, there’s a big fight here.’ ‘Will you come find out what’s go­ing on?’ Linda De­bassige ar­rived to find a school in chaos and a fes­ter­ing prob­lem laid bare

Toronto Star - - FRONT PAGE - JEN­NIFER YANG IDEN­TITY AND IN­EQUAL­ITY RE­PORTER

MANITOULIN IS­LAND, ONT.— Be­fore the brawl, there was a breakup. It was typ­i­cal teenage drama; a boy and girl had parted ways and feel­ings were hurt. Then one per­son ac­cused the other of hav­ing her­pes and soon, ugly ru­mours of an STD out­break were spread­ing through the school and across so­cial me­dia.

Over the next week, ten­sions mounted at Manitoulin Sec­ondary School (MSS) and on Sept. 14, they sud­denly ex­ploded into a mas­sive lunchtime brawl.

Snip­pets of the vi­o­lence were cap­tured in videos shared on Snapchat: boys punch­ing girls and girls punch­ing boys; kids be­ing pushed or thrown to the ground; a teenager vi­o­lently slammed into a parked car.

The clash lasted for an hour, with as many as 50 stu­dents ei­ther gawk­ing at the vi­o­lence or jump­ing into the fray. No­body was se­ri­ously in­jured but the brawl left a slew of crim­i­nal charges in its wake and ex­posed deeper di­vi­sions that lurk be­neath the friendly face of this small is­land com­mu­nity.

Res­i­dents have largely split into two per­spec­tives. For some, this was just a typ­i­cal case of high school melo­drama that spi­ralled out of con­trol. But oth­ers say the fight and its af­ter­math are symp­to­matic of a big­ger prob­lem that can’t be ig­nored: anti-In­dige­nous racism.

Manitoulin Is­land — a scenic com­mu­nity of 13,255 peo­ple lo­cated two hours south­east of Sud­bury — is a wedge of land bi­sect­ing Lake Huron and Geor­gian Bay. It is con­sid­ered a sa­cred place by First Na­tions peo­ple sur­round­ing the Great Lakes.

An 1862 treaty opened Manitoulin to white set­tle­ment, and self-iden­ti­fied Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple now make up 41 per cent of is­landers who re­sponded to the lat­est cen­sus. At MSS, the is­land’s only pub­lic high school, 30 per cent of stu­dents are In­dige­nous.

In the eyes of Manitoulin’s First Na­tions lead­er­ship, there were bla­tant racial over­tones to the brawl and the way it was han­dled by the school and po­lice.

“We push it un­der the rug, all of the neg­a­tive things that have hap­pened here, like the racism and bul­ly­ing. With the fight, it was like hav­ing all of those feel­ings bot­tled up and then ex­plod­ing like a time bomb.” AVERY BYCE MEM­BER OF STU­DENT SE­NATE

They say racism may not have caused the fight but it was the ac­cel­er­ant that ig­nited an or­di­nary teen dis­pute into a racially charged bat­tle royale — one that now de­mands a re­sponse from the peo­ple en­trusted with their chil­dren’s ed­u­ca­tion.

For MSS par­ent Lisa Lank­tree, a white woman with adopted chil­dren from Wasauks­ing First Na­tion, the brawl is a wake-up call — not just for school of­fi­cials but pol­icy-mak­ers ev­ery­where, from the lo­cal Rain­bow District School Board to the On­tario leg­is­la­ture.

She says the brawl un­der­scores the stark need for the up­dated sex-ed and In­dige­nous cur­ricu­lums re­cently can­celled by the provin­cial gov­ern­ment — ed­u­ca­tion that would be par­tic­u­larly im­pact­ful in north­ern schools like MSS, which have lim­ited ac­cess to sex­ual health re­sources and large In­dige­nous pop­u­la­tions.

“The be­gin­ning of the fight started over chil­dren hav­ing a lack of knowl­edge about STDs (sex­u­ally trans­mit­ted dis­eases) and sex and how to have re­la­tion­ships,” Lank­tree said. “But the fur­ther es­ca­la­tion was due to a lack of un­der­stand­ing be­tween two dif­fer­ent cul­tures and race ten­sions.

“For it to go from this lit­tle fight to this ex­plo­sion — it’s like there was so much ten­sion al­ready ex­ist­ing. That es­ca­la­tion is a symp­tom that some­thing needs to be ad­dressed.”

On Sept14, a flurry of text mes­sages sud­denly lit up Linda De­bassige’s phone. “Chief, there’s a big fight here!” “Will you come find out what’s go­ing on?”

De­bassige is the 36-year-old chief of M’Chigeeng First Na­tion and the texts were stream­ing in from stu­dents at MSS, a school lo­cated on a par­cel of land that be­longs to a town­ship called Billings but sits on tra­di­tional M’Chigeeng ter­ri­tory. Alarmed, she im­me­di­ately drove one kilo­me­tre down the road to MSS, where she dis­cov­ered the school in chaos.

Af­ter a few days of in­ves­ti­gat­ing, De­bassige sat down and typed a sharply worded press re­lease. “M’Chigeeng First Na­tion has learned that this sit­u­a­tion orig­i­nated be­tween two non-In­dige­nous stu­dents from Lit­tle Cur­rent and later es­ca­lated to in­volve youth mem­bers of M’Chigeeng and other First Na­tion mem­bers in a very de­mor­al­iz­ing and de­mean­ing way,” she wrote.

“The M’Chigeeng Chief and Coun­cil is con­cerned that this in­ci­dent is an in­di­ca­tor of a deeper, more dis­turb­ing re­al­ity, which is un­der­ly­ing racism that has now reared its ugly head yet again.”

Sev­eral stu­dents who spoke to the Star con­firmed that the ini­tial breakup drama had noth­ing to do with First Na­tions stu­dents. But when ru­mours of a her­pes out­break be­gan to cir­cu­late, fin­gers started point­ing at In­dige­nous kids, es­pe­cially those from M’Chigeeng.

“Peo­ple started say­ing all First Na­tions have her­pes,” ac­cord­ing to De­bassige’s 17-year-old son, Pierre, a Grade 12 stu­dent at MSS. “Like ev­ery­body else, we don’t like be­ing ac­cused of things. And I guess some kids just re­acted wrong.”

One girl said stu­dents started call­ing out the word “her­pes” as they passed her and other M’Chigeeng kids in the hall­way and the sit­u­a­tion was so up­set­ting that she failed a math test. This girl, who was charged af­ter the fight and can’t be named un­der the Youth Crim­i­nal Jus­tice Act, al­leges she re­ported the bul­ly­ing to school staff but “they did noth­ing about it.”

When reached by the Star, both the school prin­ci­pal and district board said they were de­clin­ing in­ter­view re­quests “out of re­spect for the First Na­tions com­mu­ni­ties.” Ac­cord­ing to a spokesper­son, the board is meet­ing with com­mu­ni­ties in the up­com­ing weeks and is “com­mit­ted to work­ing to­geth- er to move for­ward in a pos­i­tive way.”

On the day of the fight, a crowd gath­ered on the “happy trail,” a forested garbage-strewn path near the school where stu­dents like to smoke. Ac­cord­ing to wit­nesses, the teens formed into two rows — one that was mostly In­dige­nous and one that mostly wasn’t — and be­gan hurl­ing racial in­sults like “you dirty In­dian” and “you white trash.”

“A lot of peo­ple were re­fer­ring to it at the time as ‘cow­boys ver­sus In­di­ans,’ ” said Pierre De­bassige. No­body seems to know who threw the first punch but he said the brawl lasted for roughly an hour, sub­sid­ing only when po­lice showed up. One adult who tried to break up the fight, re­port­edly a school staffer, was cap­tured on video shout­ing at a boy who threw a large stick — a scene that out­raged many on so­cial me­dia, where they ac­cused the adult of call­ing the boy “brown trash.”

(The video has been viewed by the Star and while the word “trash” is au­di­ble, he does not ap­pear to say the word “brown” though his ex­act words are dif­fi­cult to hear. School prin­ci­pal Jamie Mo­hamed did not re­spond to emailed ques­tions about this in­ci­dent.)

Con­cerns of racism fur­ther in­ten­si­fied when the On­tario Provin­cial Po­lice an­nounced ini­tial charges, in­clud­ing as­sault and ut­ter­ing threats, against six peo­ple — five youth and a 38year-old woman. Two, in­clud­ing the woman, are re­lated to the girl who al­legedly com­plained to the school about be­ing bul­lied. All are from M’Chigeeng.

“It’s al­ways the First Na­tions kids that get charged,” said one MSS par­ent from M’Chigeeng, who can­not be named be­cause her son, a mi­nor, was charged. “They let this slide for so long and no­body came to help the stu­dents. I just feel like our stu­dents were backed into a cor­ner.”

Speak­ing to the Star on Sept. 20, OPP Const. Marie Ford said the only rea­son th­ese peo­ple were the first to be charged is be­cause other sus­pects — some of them non-In­dige­nous — couldn’t be ar­rested un­til they were lo­cated or con­tacted by po­lice. The OPP has since laid charges against four more youth and a 20-year-old, three of whom live in First Na­tions com­mu­ni­ties and two who come from pre­dom­i­nantly white town­ships. No more charges are an­tic­i­pated, Ford said.

Linda De­bassige is up­set to see mostly In­dige­nous peo­ple charged when on­line videos de­pict plenty of non-In­dige­nous kids en­gaged in the vi­o­lence. The way this was han­dled, she says, is a “bla­tant at­tempt to shift the blame on In­dige­nous peo­ple yet again.” Oth­ers have pushed back against the no­tion that racism played a role in the fight, or per­sists at MSS. “While the pun­dits of so­cial me­dia were quick to spin the in­ci­dent as racially mo­ti­vated, there is lit­tle ev­i­dence from what has so far been re­vealed that this is in fact the case,” said an ed­i­to­rial in the Manitoulin Ex­pos­i­tor.

“Manitoulin Is­land has largely been some­thing of a poster child for rec­on­cil­i­a­tion and good re­la­tions be­tween com­mu­ni­ties,” the ed­i­to­rial later con­tin­ued. “This is some­thing that many Is­landers, par­tic­u­larly those of pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions, have taken great pride in.”

On a re­cent Oc­to­ber day, sev­eral stu­dents who spoke to the Star, some of whom iden­tify as In­dige­nous, agreed the racism an­gle was overblown. Many pointed to friend­ships or ro­man­tic re­la­tion­ships be­tween In­dige­nous and non-In­dige­nous class­mates as proof of racial har­mony amongst the 428 stu­dents who at­tend MSS. One par­ent, who asked not to be named out of fear of re­tal­i­a­tion against her chil­dren, felt the fight was more of a “ter­ri­to­rial” dis­pute be­tween kids from M’Chigeeng and Lit­tle Cur­rent, which is pre­dom­i­nantly white.

But for Pierre De­bassige, chief of the school’s In­dige­nous stu­dent con­fed­er­acy, racism is “alive and well” at MSS. He re­calls how dur­ing his first week of school, a stu­dent com­plained about In­dige­nous peo­ple not pay­ing taxes. When he grew his hair longer, he was teased for look­ing like a “squaw,” an of­fen­sive term for In­dige­nous women.

Avery Byce, a Grade12 stu­dent and mem­ber of the stu­dent se­nate, be­lieves im­por­tant is­sues are be­ing ig­nored.

“We push it un­der the rug, all of the neg­a­tive things that have hap­pened here, like the racism and bul­ly­ing,” says Byce, who has In­dige­nous her­itage. “With the fight, it was like hav­ing all of those feel­ings bot­tled up and then ex­plod­ing like a time bomb.”

Many par­ents from M’Chigeeng say racism is a long­stand­ing prob­lem at MSS, stretch­ing back to when they at­tended the school, which was opened in 1969. Linda De­bassige says she ex­pe­ri­enced it when she at­tended high school and band man­ager Sam Man­i­towabi still re­mem­bers bath­room graf­fiti in the1980s claim­ing “In­di­ans are fags.”

Patsy Noakes, a band mem­ber who lives off the re­serve, says all four of her kids who at­tended MSS ex­pe­ri­enced anti-In­dige­nous dis­crim­i­na­tion.

Her youngest daugh­ter, Neki­iyaa, left the school af­ter a painful in­ci­dent in 2015, when she over­heard a sec­re­tary com­plain­ing about “those damn Na­tive kids.” She says she con­demned the state­ment on Face­book and school of­fi­cials told her they would look into it, but noth­ing ever came of it.

Mean­while, stu­dents started to ha­rass her for com­ing for­ward, even ac­cus­ing her of ly­ing. She even­tu­ally left MSS and en­rolled at Ken­jgewin Teg, a learn­ing in­sti­tute on Manitoulin that em­pha­sizes a First Na­tions ap­proach to ed­u­ca­tion.

“I didn’t feel wel­come at that school no more,” said Neki­iyaa, now 20.

Ad­vo­cates say dropout rates are a per­va­sive prob­lem for First Na­tions kids, es­pe­cially those who live on re­serve. Ac­cord­ing to re­cent Rain­bow school board sta­tis­tics, only 33 per cent of In­dige­nous stu­dents who live on re­serve grad­u­ated from high school in its catch­ment area, com­pared to 72 per cent of stu­dents over­all.

At Ken­jgewin Teg, which has one class­room ded­i­cated to high school stu­dents who strug­gle in other ed­u­ca­tional set­tings, about 75 per cent of the 30 seats are oc­cu­pied by teenagers who’ve left MSS, ac­cord­ing to ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor Stephanie Roy.

The 11 First Na­tions that send kids to Rain­bow District schools are rep­re­sented by In­dige­nous trustee Grace Fox. She did not re­spond to in­ter­view re­quests but dur­ing a peace­ful rally from M’Chigeeng to MSS shortly af­ter the brawl, she ex­pressed frus­tra­tions over the sys­temic chal­lenges.

“It has been quite dif­fi­cult to be Anishi­naabekwe within this cor­po­ra­tion,” she said. “You want Anishi­naabe stu­dents to suc­ceed, you want them to grad­u­ate, you want them to prac­tise their lan­guage, their cul­ture, in a set­ting such as this.

“I lit­er­ally cry when I go to grad­u­a­tions, when I go to awards nights (and) see the ab­sence of First Na­tions stu­dents at th­ese func­tions.”

Man­i­towabi, whose daugh­ter now at­tends MSS, wor­ries that anti-In­dige­nous sen­ti­ment may have wors­ened com­pared to when he was in high school, iron­i­cally be­cause of the in­creased at­ten­tion paid to In­dige­nous is­sues in re­cent years.

“More peo­ple are be­com­ing aware of Abo­rig­i­nal treaty rights and in­her­ent rights and free­doms,” he says. “The main­stream (white com­mu­ni­ties) may feel that they’re not be­ing treated as fairly any­more.”

MSS of­fers 10 cour­ses on In­dige­nous his­tory and cul­ture, as well as two pro­grams in part­ner­ship with Ken­jgewin Teg.

While sev­eral In­dige­nous stu­dents at MSS said they wanted more In­dige­nous con­tent in class­rooms, this sen­ti­ment was not shared by a group of stu­dents who spoke to the Star on a re­cent Tues­day. While smok­ing cig­a­rettes at the happy trail, th­ese stu­dents, who were mostly non-In­dige­nous, com­plained they were learn­ing “too much” about In­dige­nous is­sues.

“Year af­ter year, we’re hear­ing the same thing about res­i­den­tial schools,” one said. “It’s like, I get it. But it’s not the worst thing to have hap­pened to any­one.”

“Why does every book I read have to do with na­tives?” asked an­other. “I might as well be go­ing to Ojibwe class.”

Th­ese stu­dents felt the racism an­gle of the brawl was overblown. They said In­dige­nous com­mu­ni­ties were ex­ploit­ing the in­ci­dent for me­dia at­ten­tion be­cause “M’Chigeeng’s got noth­ing go­ing for it.” They also stated as fact that M’Chigeeng stu­dents were the source of the her­pes out­break, while ar­gu­ing it wasn’t racist to point this out.

But how did they know there was ac­tu­ally a her­pes out­break? “We just know,” said one stu­dent, who also said he didn’t want to drink from wa­ter foun­tains for fear of catch­ing her­pes. (In re­al­ity, ex­perts say, the chances of con­tract­ing her­pes from a wa­ter foun­tain are highly un­likely.)

Linda De­bassige sees a lack of un­der­stand­ing over how racism can be man­i­fested. Just be­cause kids of dif­fer­ent races min­gle or date each other doesn’t mean anti-In­dige­nous at­ti­tudes no longer lurk be­neath the sur­face. She ques­tions why stu­dents were so quick to be­lieve M’Chigeeng kids were the source of a her­pes out­break, which may not even have been real.

“It shows and demon­strates the nor­mal­iza­tion of the old adage of In­di­ans be­ing ‘dirty.’ ”

De­bassige agrees this painful in­ci­dent demon­strates a need for bet­ter sex­ual health ed­u­ca­tion at MSS. The up­dated cur­ricu­lum, re­pealed by the provin­cial gov­ern­ment this sum­mer, would have con­tained up­dated in­for­ma­tion on STDs, as well about con­sent, so­cial me­dia and LGBTQ is­sues.

She and other ad­vo­cates also feel strongly that stu­dents need more, not less, ed­u­ca­tion on In­dige­nous cul­ture and his­tory. A re­vised In­dige­nous cur­ricu­lum grounded in truth and rec­on­cil­i­a­tion, which was can­celled by the prov­ince, would be par­tic­u­larly help­ful in bring­ing peace to a school like MSS, says Roy.

“I think had that cur­ricu­lum been in place 10 years ago, the racial un­der­tones would not have re­sulted. All it would have been is an al­ter­ca­tion.”

For De­bassige, a first and cru­cial step for Manitoulin Is­land is to ac­knowl­edge and con­front sys­temic racism, some­thing she be­lieves the school and board have yet to do. In a tele­vi­sion in­ter­view af­ter the brawl, the prin­ci­pal of MSS was asked whether he be­lieved racism was an is­sue at the school; he re­sponded no. The next day, the school held an “anti-racism assem­bly,” but many stu­dents felt it was su­per­fi­cial and un­help­ful.

“There are bla­tant de­nials of the ac­tual re­al­i­ties, and an at­tempt to push the is­sue once again un­der the rug so that it doesn’t have to be ad­dressed,” De­bassige says. “Racism is a dis­gust­ing topic to talk about. But un­til you talk about it, you can’t cre­ate re­sults.”

“I lit­er­ally cry when I go to grad­u­a­tions … (and) see the ab­sence of First Na­tions stu­dents.” GRACE FOX RAIN­BOW DISTRICT TRUSTEE

RICK MADONIK TORONTO STAR

Linda De­bassige is chief of M’Chigeeng First Na­tion. Her son is a Grade 12 stu­dent at Manitoulin Sec­ondary School.

JEN­NIFER YANG TORONTO STAR

“A lot of peo­ple were re­fer­ring to (the fight) as ‘cow­boys ver­sus In­di­ans,’ “says MSS stu­dent Pierre De­bassige, who is chief of the school’s In­dige­nous stu­dent con­fed­er­acy.

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