POLICING A CITY OF TEARS
Since the end of the Second World War, Thunder Bay’s fortunes have changed. Today, the city, the government, the healthcare sector, and the university have become the major employers, though many workers still staff the lumber camps, the pulp and paper mill, the mining industries, the port, and the highways that transport goods. Air travel has transformed the city from an unavoidable byway to a flyover community. On my regular flights to or from Toronto, the proximate national and international travel hub, I usually see roughneck miners from around Canada passing through Thunder Bay on their way to remote worksites, civil servants and bureaucrats, healthcare specialists on their way in, or patients — including many Indigenous people from remote fly-in Northern communities — headed to Toronto for medical treatment.The isolation, the economic marginality, and the history of extraction and racial resentments all contribute to, but cannot completely explain, the staggering degree of racism in the city. Every Indigenous person I have spoken with, from jetsetting university professors and lawyers to people living on the frigid winter streets, has stories. These include everyday microaggressions like nasty comments from nurses or civil servants or being suspected of shoplifting at the supermarket. But they also include profound physical violence, threats or peril.
Like many police forces in Canada, officers in the Thunder Bay Police Service (TBPS) have been known to drive Indigenous people out to the outskirts of town, take their shoes and coats, and leave them to walk back or freeze to death. Unlike most police forces in Canada, the TBPS has recently been found to be plagued with profound “systemic racism” by two independent and high-profilereports. These happened to have been published just days before a videocirculated on social media of an angry Indigenous teenager being slapped by a police officer while strapped to a stretcher awaiting ambulance service to a local hospital. The Police union, unsurprisingly, vigorously denies racism is systemic.
The real reason for the investigations was the deaths of seven Indigenous youth, most from remote Northern communities, most in the city to access high school education or medical services denied to them in their communities. Most of them were found in or near the city’s rivers and waterways. One report found gross police incompetence in the investigations of these deaths, which were ruled accidents. The dismissive belief among the police and many if not most of the white citizens of Thunder Bay is that these children got drunk or high, fell in, and drowned. Almost every Indigenous person I have spoken to suspects there are gangs of men, who may include police officers, preying on isolated and vulnerable youth, abusing them, and murdering them, making it look like an accident.
As scholars Damien Lee and Jana-Rae Yerxa note, many precedents stand behind these fears. Indigenous people end up dead in Thunder Bay at staggering rates. It is one of the Canadian hotspots for the epidemic of murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls, and also for human trafficking, which have been condemned by Amnesty International and the United Nations, among others. Court cases from the ‘80s and ‘90s have revealed that past generations of city leaders — including mayors, city councillors, judges, lawyers, and police — regularly availed themselves of the services of Indigenous sex workers, many of them underage, forced into the trade by a combination of addiction, marginalization, racist policies or practices, histories of abuse, or dire poverty. Just before the most recent police reports were issued, the mayor (a former Police Association president), the police chief (a fool) and the city’s most successful lawyer (a convicted child molestor) were all implicated in a scandal involving a blend of sexual abuse, extortion, and breach of trust.
Meanwhile, just as I moved to the city in early 2017, an Indigenous woman was fatally injured in the street when one of a gang of white teenagers out joyriding threw a heavy metal trailer hitch at her from their speeding car. It took her several agonizing months to die from her internal injuries. Almost every Indigenous person I have spoken to has a story of having something thrown at them from a speeding car — sometimes just insults, sometimes forks or kitchen knives, other times eggs or liquids (in the depths of winter, getting wet can actually be very dangerous), other times glass bottles.
YOU DON’T GIVE US TIME TO GRIEVE
“I don’t believe in reconciliation” an indigenous friend tells us. We’ve called a public meeting to discuss racism in the community. “How can there be reconciliation when the crimes continue, when the hurt continues.” Everyone present, Indigenous and settler alike, nods, solemnly. We find ourselves in circles like this more and more frequently these days, though our optimism that they’ll change anything is running thin. Still, sometimes it’s enough to simply be able to look around a mixed room of people and see everyone nodding in sorrow. Not enough of us, though.
“You don’t even give us time to grieve” she says. The violence comes in relentless waves. Even those of us settlers in the room are part of that ‘you.’ Our presence on the land makes us colonists, even if we fight within, against, and beyond it. My friend isn’t blaming us exactly. How could “we” be responsible for a ten-year old Indigenous girl who takes her own life in a remote community because she sees no future? And yet the grave lies open between us. Indigenous youth succumb to suicide at a staggeringly elevated rate of five to six times the non-Indigenous average. As Tanya Talaga explained in a recent series of nationally-broadcast lectures, the reasons are clear: systematic denial of basic human rights. When a child dies unnecessarily in any community it ruptures the order of space and time, the relationship between generations, the narrative of existence. In many indigenous communities such deaths are unrelenting. Grieving is, for many, an unchosen way of life. Only the colonizer can afford to deny the presence of ghosts.
The response from the “white community” to the recently revelations and news stories about Thunder Bay has been one of highly aggrieved shock and hurt. A few weeks ago the new mayor — who replaced the one felled by the scandal — announced his top priority would be defending and restoring the city’s reputation, and indeed most citizens feel that the biggest problem in the city is “negative media attention” and people who “play the race card”: complaining about racism to escape taking responsibility for their own problems.
One beer later and most white citizens will proudly tell you the heroic story of their ethnic ancestors arriving, suffering racism, and overcoming it through hard work, never asking for a hand-out or complaining. After a second beer they will tell you that Thunder Bay’s problems come “from the outside” by which they mean the high number of Indigenous people in the city from remote Northern communities who, in their estimation, “bring trouble” with them when they arrive “from the bush.”
Perhaps, this might be a reference to the kinds of social and psychological challenges that Indigenous people in Canada disproportionately face as a direct result of they and their ancestors surviving a 400-year unrelenting war of genocidal annihilation, of which the Residential Schools were only one part. Perhaps they are referring to the chronic and disastrous underfunding of health, education and social services on reserves. But I think not: their opinions are typically echoes of the fabled “garrison mentality.”
It goes something like this: we, loyal subjects of the British Queen, that icon of an empire of civility and progress, are stuck here, together, in a savage landscape surrounded by savage natives, banding together in our diversity to apply ourselves to the hard but morally rewarding work of transforming a virgin land into a modern economic bounty. Whiteness in Canada, as critical-race theorist Sherene Razack has explained, is marked by transforming geographic spaces into racializing places where certain bodies — typically white — are seen as normal and beneficial and others — especially Indigenous — are seen as interruptions, threats or hindrances.
Razack has elsewhere explored the perpetual cultural production of beliefs in — white — Canadian innocence and generosity which is constantly being betrayed or abused by ungrateful Others. In this racist worldview, white civility is constantly being jeopardized by the barbarism of non-white Others. Indeed, during country’s last Federal Election the panicked then-ruling Conservative party hired notorious far-right election strategist Lynton Crosby to — unsuccessfully — pivot the election discourse towards the “barbaric cultural practices” that non-white immigrants were allegedly importing into the colonial settler state.
IT’S THEIR OUR CULTURE…
The rank, racist and reactionary hypocrisy so common in Canada and in Thunder Bay is, unfortunately, often mistaken for merely a culturalanachronism, which can be solved through better public education, greater cultural sensitivity and more opportunities to celebrate diversity. This has, for instance, been the approach to the problems of racist policing in the city: another “cultural competency” workshop ought to clear up that unsightly blemish. It has also, by and large, been the approach of the ascendant heartthrob Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, son of one of Canada’s most famous politicians (or, allegedly, of Fidel Castro) whose Liberal Party swept to power in 2015. Trudeau has pledged to implement the recommendations of the country’s profoundly influential Truth and Reconciliation Commission that addressed the legacies of Residential Schools, naming them a form of “cultural genocide.”
Trudeau’s government has taken many steps towards what is branded as “reconciliation” with Indigenous peoples. While this has largely taken place in the areas of rhetoric and culture, as Manuel and others including Mohawk theorist Audra Simpson and Anishinaabe writer Leanne Betasamosake Simpsonillustrate, there are profound political and economic barriers to any substantial rapprochement. And without understanding these barriers we cannot understand why tensions persist throughout the country, and why Thunder Bay remains the most racist and dangerous city in the country. It is not simply that Canadians are racist because they do not know any better. Racism serves a systemic and structural function.
My friend Billy Lewis, an Mi’Kmaq elder in Halifax, is often invited to speak to high-school classes, especially following the Canadian government’s embrace of the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation report on residential schools. As a teenager, Billy ran away to become a dock worker. When he arrived on the first day the workers were on strike and he became a lifelong anarchist labor agitator, as well as a prisoner’s rights activist.
“Don’t ever let them tell you that youth are this country’s most important natural resource,” Billy jokes to the students, “you don’t want to know what Canada does with its natural resources.”