Last December, the Thunder Bay chapter of the Bear Clan, a grassroots Indigenous-led volunteer group best known for its community safety patrols, shared a disturbing post on its Facebook page. It was about a young Cree man who was allegedly stripped of his clothing and driven to the bush by members of the city’s police force, and then left there, in the cold, to find his way back to the Northern Ontario city.
“Please alert your family members and friends to remain vigilant as the abuses against our people, Turtle Islanders, continue,” a friend of the young man’s family wrote under the post’s title: “Starlight tour.”
The accusation came on the heels of scathing reports from the province’s Office of the Independent Police Review Director and the Ontario Civilian Police Commission that admonished the Thunder Bay Police Service for racist attitudes toward Indigenous peoples and the police board for turning a blind eye to complaints.
The term starlight tour is infamous in Canada – used to refer to allegations of police driving intoxicated Indigenous people out of town, then abandoning them there to walk home and sober up.
“Obviously retaliation from police wasn’t considered with the release of the OIPRD and the police services board final investigation report,” the Thunder Bay Bear Clan asserted to its 9,000 Facebook followers. “People could lose their lives with the backlash such as this attempted murder.”
The fallout was swift, not for the city’s police service, but for the Thunder Bay Bear Clan.
The accusation against the police, which has not been substantiated, placed the volunteer group at odds with its Winnipeg-based parent organization, which supports taking a co-operative approach with law enforcement and opted to revoke the chapter’s Bear Clan membership. It also opened divisions among local members of the community patrol, formed a few years earlier to create safe spaces for Anishinaabe people.
But for one of the group’s more outspoken leaders, Ivory Tuesday, co-operation was not an option then and now. Not in a city where the police were ordered to reinvestigate nine Indigenous deaths because their initial probes were ruled inadequate, where many Indigenous people are reluctant to report crimes because they fear the police, where eggs, trash and other objects have been thrown from vehicles at Indigenous residents – with a fatal consequence in the 2017 death of Barbara Kentner.
"There’s a need for a grassroots response that exists outside of colonial institutions, structures and colonial approaches to care,” says Ms. Tuesday, a crisis-support counsellor who this year helped form a new patrol group called Wiindo Debwe Mosewin, which translates to Walking In Truth. “People need to step up and help out because there’s a crisis in the community.”
Anna Betty Achneepineskum, the founder of the Thunder Bay Bear Clan chapter, can remember the first time she went out to search for a missing teen in Thunder Bay in the 1990s. At the time, Ms. Achneepineskum was still fairly new to the city after leaving her home in Marten Falls First Nation to pursue her postsecondary education. She was concerned about the lack of support from the city and the police service when students from Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN) territory were reported missing. Many were living away from home for the first time because their First Nation communities didn’t have their own high schools.
Ms. Achneepineskum later spent many hours sitting in a courtroom during a 2015 Ontario coroner’s inquest into the deaths of seven First Nations youth in Thunder Bay.
”It was very disturbing that there were testimonies that, when one of our young people was reported missing, the police didn’t respond and that there were comments like, ‘He’s probably out drinking,’ ” recalls Ms. Achneepineskum, who served as a Deputy Grand Chief of NAN from 2015 to 2018. “I could not accept that. It had to change. Our young people are valuable and every citizen in this city is valuable.”
In the spring of 2016, Ms. Achneepineskum formed a grassroots safety patrol based on Winnipeg’s established Bear Clan model and invited the organization to offer training to Thunder Bay volunteers the following winter.
The Winnipeg patrol group, created in 1992, was reborn in 2015 after a hiatus to provide security and support to the city’s large Indigenous population. The group also collaborates with the police and often acts as a liaison between officers and residents. Some of its funding comes from the Winnipeg Police Service Endowment Fund. Bear Clan chapters have since emerged in communities across the country, such as Montreal and Port Alberni, B.C. In Thunder Bay, the Bear Clan initially focused on creating partnerships with the Thunder Bay Police Service and Shelter House to improve safety for people who are displaced.
Ms. Achneepineskum says people felt safe with the grassroots presence of the Bear Clan, who were finding their own solutions to community problems such as crime and homelessness and taking the lead to implement them. Ms. Achneepineskum stepped aside from her leadership role in the Thunder Bay chapter in 2017 because of the challenge of balancing the demanding volunteer position with full-time NAN duties.
When Ms. Tuesday took over the reins, the Thunder Bay Bear Clan’s chapter ethos evolved. The group’s volunteers began posting to social media about what they saw and heard on their patrols, such as spray-painted hate messages and stories of racism. They offered vulnerable residents tips on how to stay safe in the city and began providing eyes on the police as a counter to the mistrust and fear many Indigenous people felt.
“We were story sharing in the community … to warn people, ‘You should watch for this and that,' " explains Ms. Tuesday, who is from Couchiching First Nation and has lived in Thunder Bay for the past decade. "It was all moccasin telegram.”
The starlight tour allegation wasn’t the only incident heightening concerns about the Thunder Bay police that winter. On Dec. 2, 2018, a video appeared on Facebook that showed a young Indigenous woman strapped to a gurney, allegedly being slapped by a Thunder Bay police officer. In September, that officer was charged under the Police Services Act with two counts of unlawful or unnecessary exercise of authority.
Ms. Tuesday says the video and starlight tour allegation were calls to action.
“It was time for the Indigenous community to support each other and just show people this isn’t a one-time thing that happened with the police. That video, this abuse has been going on,” Ms. Tuesday says.
When asked about last December’s starlight tour allegation and the former Bear Clan patrol’s claims, Scott Paradis of the Thunder Bay Police Service said the force would not comment on specific allegations. “To date, we have not received any complaints connected to the allegations that you are referring to,” he said in a written statement.
The public criticism of the city’s police by the Thunder Bay chapter did not sit well with the leader of the Winnipeg Bear Clan. The parent organization takes a more traditional, protective stand while on the streets, sharing what they witness during their patrols with the police, not on social media, says James Favel, executive director of the organization.
“They were doing some really outside-of-the-box thinking. They were kayaking on the river there, and that was fantastic. They were doing patrols and they were going out late and they were doing well,” Mr. Favel says of Thunder Bay group. "But it was their message that was not in line with our mission and values.”
Mr. Favel says he received a call from a municipal politician complaining that Ms. Tuesday was making inflammatory and damaging statements.
“Some of the terminology that she used, you know, ‘settler,’ ‘colonial.' These are very divisive terms in our communities and we’re about reconciliation,” says Mr. Favel, who revoked the Thunder Bay group’s Bear Clan membership in February.
Councillor Aldo Ruberto was one of the complainants to the Winnipeg Bear Clan. “Once this [Thunder Bay] Bear Clan started accusing the police of doing certain things and the accusations about whatever with absolutely no evidence, people started messaging me,” Mr. Ruberto recalls.
The councillor wasn’t alone with his thinking that the patrol group’s public Facebook posts had gone too far. Ms. Achneepineskum says she was uncomfortable with the tone, too.
“The group that I handed it off to were individuals that were very strong-willed, they were volunteering quite a bit and I thought it was going to be a good hand-off. And it was unfortunate that things went different," says Ms. Achneepineskum, who was the NDP candidate for the Thunder Bay-Superior North riding in the recent federal election. "I did try to talk to them and say, ‘we’re not activists here. We’re people that are supposed to be out there being extra eyes for police.’ ”
But that’s not how other members of the group viewed their role. In the wake of the Bear Clan’s demise in Thunder Bay, several volunteers have carried on patrolling under the new name, Wiindo Debwe Mosewin. The group is led by Indigenous women and says it welcomes people of all races and nations to patrol with them. (Another community group called the Sleeping Giant Patrol had also formed, but has since been shut down.)
Ms. Tuesday says Wiindo Debwe Mosewin decided to offer a space free of police and politicians, based on years of mistrust. While out on patrols of the streets, rivers and alleyways at night, the group shares food and stories with the city’s most vulnerable. “I listen to what they have to say and validate them for what they’ve been through while living here. Mainly I just try to be a friend,” Ms. Tuesday says.
Jolene Banning is a reporter with APTN National News based in Winnipeg.
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