Do we have a responsibility to do something about Thunder Bay?

Hill Times, December 2 2019

Credit R.LeMay

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to see Thunder Bay, Ont., again, and it was winter already. I travelled there to attend the memorial for two First Nations youth who died in Thunder Bay— Jethro Anderson and Paul Panacheese. Tanya Talaga documented the loss of seven First Nations youth from 2000 to 2011 in her recent book, Seven Fallen Feathers: Racism, Death, and Hard Truths in a Northern City.

Jethro was from Kasabonika Lake First Nation and Paul from Mishkeegogamang, both in northern Ontario. Jethro was lost on Nov. 11, 2000. Paul was lost on Nov. 11, 2006. What is it about Remembrance Day in Thunder Bay?

There are no high schools in these First Nations communities, so most youth go down to Thunder Bay to complete their schooling. Many attend Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School (DFC), a school started by the parents and elders of communities across the Nishnawbe Aski Nation across northern Ontario. There is a high school, but it is so old that it desperately needs to be replaced. There is no residence so the students find housing or boarding across the city.

The truth is that I’m left wondering if Canada actually cares about First Nations kids. There’s so much talk about the importance of our kids, and then one walks down the school hallways and sees the disparity. It’s an old building, most easily seen in the antique aspects of bathrooms and heating. The memorial was held in the DFC gym, filled with grieving families and students from the school, surely wondering what’s going to happen next. And there was the wall mural started by one of the fallen, never to be finished.

I really have no words to describe my experience.

Thunder Bay, the city accused of racism and the city which seems to refuse to admit it, has a problem. When Jethro’s body was finally found in the river, his family was not informed by the Thunder Bay Police. At the time of the losses, many of the parents experienced a total lack of compassion or response from the local police, an organization regularly accused of racism. The Ontario Independent Police Review Director’s (OIPRD)report in December 2018, and the Thunder Bay Police Services Board investigation from November 2018 both found significant issues in investigations involving First Nations victims, and overt and systemic racism. It took this amount of pressure to restart investigations into mysterious deaths of First Nations.

Why were these youth lost? Racism and inequities in education and support for First Nations.

So what do we do? Who is responsible to fix this? Who is responsible to ensure we do not lose more Indigenous kids to racism and inequitable supports?

It can be overwhelming to think and feel about the losses of youth, and about the risks they continue to face. However uncomfortable this may be, it is nothing compared to the experience of the grieving families. It is nothing compared to the experience of the First Nations families in northern Ontario who continue to endure racism, lack of good schools in their community, and a sense that Canada will not protect them. The cold season of racism, winter storms of racism, continue to batter First Nations kids in northern Ontario. Spring and warmth and safety seems a lifetime away.

Here’s what you can do. Learn more about the experiences of Indigenous parents struggling to get their kids into good, safe schools. Email Minister Marc Miller of Indigenous Services Canada to demand that the DFC school and residence be funded immediately. Stand up against racism every single time you see it. We have to stop racism now, or we will lose more Indigenous kids. It’s that simple.