When he’s wearing his sharp grey blazer and blue Oxford shirt, Sol Mamakwa gets by fine in Sioux Lookout.
Being visibly Indigenous isn’t much of a liability, he says – if he’s dressed like a young urban professional who splits his time between Toronto and Northern Ontario. After all, he is the local MPP.
At other times, though, it doesn’t seem to matter that Mr. Mamakwa, who is a member of Kingfisher Lake First Nation, represents a sprawling majority-Indigenous riding northwest of Thunder Bay. When he isn’t dressed up, he says his skin colour is sometimes treated as a stigma.
“If I’ve come off the lake, and I have my hoodie and cap. You’re treated differently,” the NDP MPP said. “I’m so used to it, I just shrug it off. I’m used to being treated second class. I’m used to not getting service quickly, not getting attended to quickly.”
Racial discrimination in Sioux Lookout has come under a national spotlight this week, after a video on social media showed a local Ontario Provincial Police officer pushing an Indigenous girl to the ground while arresting her, which apparently left her unconscious – evidence, according to some local First Nations people, of chronic police mistreatment.
Mr. Mamakwa met with the head of the local OPP detachment about the incident on Thursday, and said he is keeping an open mind about the events leading up the arrest. But the video has clearly left a mark on him.
“My initial reaction is, of course, concerned and disturbed just because of the amount of force being done to a young girl,” he said.
Meanwhile, as the provincial police look into the matter, and activists in the region plan protests, this town of 5,500 continues to grapple with the legacy of racism that shapes everyday life in Ontario’s “hub of the North.”
“Whether it’s the policing system, the justice system – these are colonial systems,” Mr. Mamakwa said. “And these systems typically discriminate against our people. And when these things happen sometimes we shake it off and normalize it too much.”
The 16-year-old girl in the video has not shaken it off. Her mother said that she is struggling in the aftermath of the arrest, which left her with two gashes on her face and a lump over her left eye. (Neither can be identified because the girl is a minor and has been charged with three counts of assault in relation to the incident. In a news release, the OPP said she was “highly intoxicated” at the time.)
“She’s still quiet,” her mother said. “Scared.”
Candace Kitchkeesick, an activist based in Thunder Bay, is part of a group planning a protest in Sioux Lookout next week. Though she is white, she has a 15-year-old Indigenous daughter in town and says the girl has faced police harassment, including being questioned while sitting on the steps of her house.
“The reason I’m protesting is because of the violence against Indigenous youth,” she said. “This behaviour needs to stop.”
Police attitudes toward Indigenous people in northwestern Ontario have received heightened scrutiny in recent months. A pair of official reports have recently identified a culture of broken trust and systemic racism in the police force and civilian police board of Thunder Bay, 270 kilometres southeast of Sioux Lookout. In December, Ontario’s Independent Police Review Director Gerry McNeilly found that investigations into the deaths of nine Indigenous people in Thunder Bay were hindered by “racist attitudes” on the force.
In Sioux Lookout, video of the girl’s arrest this week has reinforced what some felt they already knew – policing here is not immune from bigotry against Indigenous people.
“It’s very hard to watch a person from your group and your community being treated like that,” said Sylvia Davis, a teacher at Pelican Falls First Nations High School in Sioux Lookout, and a member of the nearby Lac Seul First Nation. “You wonder, ‘Why does this happen? Does this person view this child as a human?’ ”
OPP spokesman Mike Golding said the force is assessing the officer’s behaviour in the case to determine whether a professional-standards investigation is warranted.
But Sioux Lookout Mayor Doug Lawrance said the town’s “committed and compassionate” police force is not the problem.
“The video is a snapshot – it doesn’t show the lead-in to the incident,” he said. “I’m saddened for a young girl that she’s so intoxicated that she’s in a public place putting herself and perhaps others in danger.”
As for the girl’s injuries, the mayor said they did not convince him the arrest was improper.
“Often you’ll see people in an intoxicated state in Sioux Lookout who look pretty rough from the get-go. So I’m cautious about making any statements about this case,” he said. “I think we should let experts in arrest procedure comment on those procedures.”
The deeper problem in Sioux Lookout is that the town lacks the necessary resources to cope with a steady influx of First Nations people from remote reserves who come here to seek health care and other services, Mr. Lawrance said. The town is a hub for 29 such communities, and their residents often bring formidable addiction and mental-health challenges with them.
Mr. Lawrence has been calling for a fully funded homeless shelter and the construction of a detox facility in town, and supports the idea of a supervised drug-consumption site here. In the meantime, he said, police deal with people who would be better served by other supports.
“It’s the police that are put at the forefront of that and then what do they do?” he said. “There is no detox. So they take them to the detachment.”
Ultimately, the mayor says this small northern community has been given the near-impossible task of managing a country’s worth of demons.
“I think Sioux Lookout deals on a micro level with some of the situations the society has created and [we’re] dealing with them as best we can,” he said. “What’s led to this is decades and decades of poor policies, decades of intergenerational trauma.”
“You’ll see the sad history that Canada has created here.”