The head of the organization representing many First Nations people who live in Thunder Bay, or who travel there for services, says it will be difficult to fight racism in the city without the active participation of municipal leaders, including Mayor Bill Mauro.
“The issues that we have been struggling with for a long time, in our view, require leadership at all levels, including city hall,” Alvin Fiddler, the Grand Chief of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN), said in a phone interview on Sunday. “And that’s the only way that we can make significant progress – if the leadership acknowledges the issues and we all come together to address them.”
In December, a critical review by Ontario’s Office of the Independent Police Review Director (OIPRD) found racism at an “institutional level” within the Thunder Bay Police Service. And a report by Senator Murray Sinclair said the police board was failing to protect Indigenous people from hate crime.
Thunder Bay has the highest rate of hate crime in the country and also the highest murder rate. Many of the victims are Indigenous.
Mr. Mauro said he looks forward to further discussions with Mr. Fiddler.
"We agree leadership at all levels of government and NAN and other First Nation leaders need to come together for the benefit of all the people of Thunder Bay as we did at NAN’s recent political table on the ongoing response to the [2015 inquest into the deaths of seven First Nations youth],” Mr. Mauro said on Sunday in an e-mailed statement.
But, earlier this year, Mr. Mauro was reluctant to give Police Chief Sylvie Hauth the $1.1-million she said she needed to enact the recommendations of the OIPRD. The mayor told The Globe and Mail he objected to provincial agencies telling the city how to spend its money.
And although Mr. Mauro said he recognized there is racism in Thunder Bay, he told The Globe: “I only had two heroes in my life and one of them was Martin Luther King Jr. And, if he couldn’t fix it, I hope you’re not expecting me to.”
Mr. Fiddler said he read Mr. Mauro’s comments from earlier this year.
“It is very challenging to fight racism if the leadership of the municipality, first of all, doesn’t want to take part in fighting it,” he said. The reports of the OIPRD and Senator Sinclair “speak for themselves and we just have to acknowledge the findings, accept the findings and develop a plan to begin to address the recommendations.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was in Thunder Bay on Friday and held a town hall at a Lakehead University gymnasium that was attended by about 900 people. He fielded questions on a wide variety of issues, from the environment to infrastructure to the SNC-Lavalin affair that has gripped Parliament for the past two months.
None of the questioners raised the issue of racism.
But Jeff Upton, the chair of the crime prevention council of Thunder Bay, referred at the town hall to the large number of teenagers who have died in the city after being sent there from the Northern reserves because there is no high school in their home communities.
The coroner’s inquest in 2015 into the deaths of seven of the students came up with 145 recommendations for preventing those types of deaths, many aimed at the federal government as well as the city of Thunder Bay.
Mr. Upton asked Mr. Trudeau to explain what the federal government will do “to help these Indigenous families so that they don’t have to send their kids down to us every day.”
The Prime Minister responded by pointing out that the budget released last week promises $42-million to build a new school in the Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug First Nation that will take students up to the end of Grade 12.
“Obviously, in communities that want it, that feel it is important to them, we need to make sure there are schools so they don’t have to go away and put themselves at risk,” Mr. Trudeau said. Even so, many First Nations students will still have to go to Thunder Bay and other non-Indigenous communities for high school, he said, “and we need to make sure we have the programs to keep them safe.”
Mr. Fiddler said he met with Mr. Trudeau prior to the town hall and raised many of NAN’s priorities, including a permanent extension of funding for a program called Choose Life, which takes vulnerable youth out to the land to teach them life skills and aims to reduce suicides and other forms of self-harm.
He also invited the Prime Minister to attend a meeting in Ottawa in late May of those responsible for enacting the recommendations of the coroner’s inquest into the student deaths, including the three levels of government,
Mr. Mauro, who attended the last meeting of the group, is also invited.
“It would say a lot,” Mr. Fiddler said, “if the most senior leadership of each [level of] government, were to attend and demonstrate to our communities, and more especially the youth of NAN, that they are committed to fully implementing all these recommendations and that the work will not stop.”