Recently I came across a podcast by the Anishinaabe comedian, writer and documentary maker Ryan McMahon, who spent a year investigating the spate of unexplained deaths of Indigenous youths in Thunder Bay for the Canadaland website.
The teens’ bodies were usually found in rivers and marshes. Most were from small, remote First Nation communities who were attending high school there because there wasn’t one back home. McMahon knew he wouldn’t find out who killed these kids but wanted to find out why this happened.
Over the course of five podcasts, or “chapters,” he showed that it’s a deep-rooted problem and one that has earned Thunder Bay the nickname of Murder Bay because the small city of 110,000 has more homicides per capita than anywhere else in Canada. As icing on the poisonous cake, almost a third of Indigenous hate crimes in Canada are reported in Thunder Bay.
The local attitude is ingrained. One city man McMahon interviewed offered the opinion that, “Nobody’s pushing them in. They just go to the water. It’s a natural progression when people are sick. When moose are sick, when animals are sick, they go to the water.”
The local police force is a central part of the problem, having been conclusively judged as riddled with systematic racism.
“One time, I dealt with a Thunder police officer,” commented a woman identified as Bridgit on McMahon’s program. “And that fucker told me, ‘I can’t wait to tell your parents you’re murdered. I can’t wait to knock on your door and tell them you’re dead.’ Like, who says that to a 16-year-old? Mind you, at the time he was charging me for armed robbery because one of the johns wanted his money back.”
Another woman said that after she was sexually assaulted, police asked what she was wearing, if she was under the influence or if she tried to engage the person. “I just remember thinking, these are the people who are supposed to protect me,” she said.
Right after that statement another woman called in to say, “I hate to sound like a racist, but it’s the northern population. We just harbour them in and nobody is in control of their behaviour. They don’t know civilization.”
The attitude towards Indigenous people is something every First Nations person experiences at one time either first-hand or through family or friends. But Thunder Bay seems to be out of control.
In the winter of 2017, 34-year-old mother Barbara Kenter was walking a block to her son’s house with her sister Melissa when a car drove by. One of the car’s passengers, local teenager Brayden Hardy, allegedly threw a rusted trailer hitch at them and then yelled, “Oh, I got one of them!”
The hitch hit Barbara in the abdomen, rupturing her intestine. She died six months later, after which Hardy was charged with second-degree murder.
Interviewed on McMahon’s podcast, human-rights lawyer Julian Falconer was blunt. “Thunder Bay is utterly immune to shame,” he said. “They are immune to the facts being disclosed. It literally causes them to dig in, and they continue – it’s reminiscent of the Deep South.”
If you have the stomach for it, McMahon’s podcasts can be found www.canadalandshow.com/shows/thunder-bay/. Though any teen at 14 is vulnerable, Indigenous adolescents from remote communities who have never set foot in a city are especially so. That they are sent to Thunder Bay, the most dangerous place for Indigenous youth in Canada, makes one wonder.