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2019 in review

From a new bureau in Thunder Bay, Globe journalists spent 2019 chronicling the region’s challenges with racism, politics and a sputtering economy. Over and over, we found resilient, kind and courageous people trying to change things, in ways big and small. These are their stories

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Photos: David Jackson, Melissa Tait and Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

John Gagnon, the elder

Thunder Bay has had little to celebrate in recent years: It’s seen a rise in hate crimes, Canada’s highest homicide rate, Indigenous youth found dead in mysterious circumstances in the city’s waterways and an independent inquiry’s findings of systemic police racism. But this year, teachers at a local high school decided to lift the spirits of Indigenous youth with Wake The Giant, an awareness campaign that brought thousands of people together for a concert in September. Globe and Mail reporter Molly Hayes was there. So was John Gagnon, an elder from Aroland First Nation who’s worked at the high school for three years. “This festival here, this is what the city of Thunder Bay needs. We need to get everybody on board, to get along. For the sake of the kids – for their safety,” said Mr. Gagnon, who kept a small healing room at the festival. To him, Wake The Giant means “you’re waking up the people. Waking up the Giant. [We are] saying ‘That’s enough.’ ”

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Elder John Gagnon from Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School smudges the grounds at Wake The Giant Music Festival on Sept. 14.David Jackson/David Jackson/The Globe and Mail

Sandi Boucher, Ivory Tuesday and Georjann Morriseau, the warrior women

In the Ojibway language, Ogichidaakwe roughly means "warrior women.” Motivational speaker Sandi Boucher has a clear idea of who it applies to in Thunder Bay, besides herself: Ivory Tuesday, who leads a volunteer patrol group called Wiindo Debwe Mosewin; and Georjann Morriseau, a former Fort William chief. Their visions of how to solve the region’s problems, which The Globe’s Eric Andrew-Gee profiled in September, couldn’t be more different. Ms. Morriseau believes change requires access to the corridors of power, like local and federal government, a philosophy that’s gotten her branded a “sellout” or worse by other First Nations people. Ms. Boucher runs a consultancy giving seminars to “mainstream” organizations about reconciliation. Ms. Tuesday pivoted her patrol group, formerly called the Bear Clan Patrol, away from the beliefs of its founder (more on her later) by ruling out co-operation with the police. She argues that “a grassroots response that exists outside of colonial institutions” is the best solution for Thunder Bay.

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Motivational speaker Sandi Boucher, Lakehead University sessional instructor Ivory Tuesday and former Fort William First Nation chief Georjann Morriseau.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Anna Betty Achneepineskum, the candidate

For Indigenous voters in Canada, October’s federal election was a referendum on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s vision of reconciliation. Anna Betty Achneepineskum was one of those who found that vision lacking: “Fancy words were thrown around” by the Liberals in 2015, but “whatever their definition of the process [of reconciliation] is, I don’t see it.” Ms. Achneepineskum is the original founder of the Bear Clan patrol’s Thunder Bay chapter, and a former deputy grand chief of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation. This fall, she ran for the NDP, trying to unseat Liberal Patty Hajdu in Thunder Bay-Superior North. She didn’t succeed, but it got her more involved in the Canadian democratic process than ever. “At one point in my life, I used to say, What’s the point in voting?” she told The Globe’s Kathryn Blaze Baum in an interview at her campaign headquarters. “I felt invisible. No one came to knock on my door to talk to me. But later on, I realized that I can go and pound on that table. I can go and knock on the door. I don’t have to wait for someone to come to me.”

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Anna Betty Achneepineskum, the NDP candidate for Thunder Bay-Superior North, is interviewed on Sept. 30.David Jackson/The Globe and Mail/The Globe and Mail

Everett Dylan MacKinnon-Ottertail, the builder of the spirit house

When his sister Devon died of a rare blood disorder this past spring, Everett Dylan MacKinnon-Ottertail thought she should have an Anishinaabe spirit house, like the one on his father’s grave. At first, the city government of Dryden, Ont., west of Thunder Bay, didn’t like it. They ordered it dismantled. But instead of marshalling public protests to force the officials to back down, he talked it over with them. He explained how the house was meant to shelter the spirit before it transitions to the next world. Not only did they allow the house to stay, they looked at changing the rules to allow more of them to be built. “Anger doesn’t solve anything,” Mr. MacKinnon-Ottertail told The Globe’s Marcus Gee. “You can’t approach it that way. You’ve got to teach them so they understand. They did this because they didn’t understand.”

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Everett Dylan MacKinnon-Ottertail stands by the traditional Anishinaabe spirit house he built for his sister's grave.David Jackson/The Globe and Mail

John Pateman, the librarian

One of the most important arenas of reconciliation in Thunder Bay is the public library, which, like the police, city government and local universities and colleges, signed on to a 2018 accord against racism and colonialism. Chief librarian John Pateman, a Briton of Romany descent, says the discrimination his ancestors faced has made him a passionate advocate against racism, which is why he came to Thunder Bay in 2012. He told The Globe’s Gloria Galloway that the library “is a very seditious organization because we can engineer social change in a very quiet way. Which is the way we [librarians] like to work.”

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Librarian John Pateman listens as three Indigenous poets read their work at an event held to create space for First Nations people in Thunder Bay.David Jackson/The Globe and Mail

John Power, the English teacher

When The Globe’s Caroline Alphonso caught up with John Power at St. Patrick High School, he was teaching his Grade 11 English class about the poetry of Rita Joe, who mourned the loss of her Indigenous language in residential school in I Lost My Talk. Students greeted each other in Ojibway in an exercise where they rolled a ball of yarn across the floor, forming a dream-catcher shape. Mr. Power’s lessons are part of a broader shift at Thunder Bay’s schools, away from literary mainstays like The Great Gatsby and toward the bigger cultural conversation about racism and reconciliation. “Out of everything I teach, this one is the most meaningful for me," Mr. Power said of his Ojibway-language exercise. "In this one, I feel like I’m part of real positive change.”

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Alyssa Lentz, 16, asks teacher John Power a question at St. Patrick's High School in Thunder Bay.David Jackson/The Globe and Mail/The Globe and Mail

Lashee Waswa, the student

At summer’s end, 15-year-old Lashee Waswa said goodbye to her isolated Oji-Cree community, Neskantaga, to move to Thunder Bay for school. The journey had ended badly for some of those who went before her. In recent years, several teenagers who boarded in Thunder Bay were found dead in the city’s waterways, triggering an official inquest in 2016. But for Lashee’s cohort of students at Matawa Learning Centre, new programs had been introduced to protect them from the culture shock and hazards of urban life: Drivers on call every night, elders embedded in classes to offer advice, and a safe sobering site for students. “I’ve heard there is a lot of support,” she told The Globe’s Geoffrey York on an August afternoon before leaving Neskantaga. “You can ask anyone for help. You just call them and they’ll come to you.”

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Lashee Waswa laughs with her friend Yvette Slipperjack on the Neskantaga First Nation in Northwestern Ontario this past summer, before their journey to study together in Thunder Bay.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Victoria (Effie) Saites, the hot-dog queen

Whatever their differences, Indigenous and settler residents of Thunder Bay know to set them aside at the Coney Island Westfort diner, home to a secret recipe for a type of local chili called Coney sauce. The Globe’s Eric Andrew-Gee visited the 70-year-old diner to find out how it was so successful at bridging the divisions of race and class in the city. There, he met Victoria (Effie) Saites, who has run the diner for 52 years and is called “Mom” by some on the Fort William First Nation. “That’s my friends up there, all of them,” she said.

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Coney Island Westfort owner and cook Victoria (Effie) Saites, 75, cleans dishes in the kitchen.Melissa Tait/The Globe and Mail

Compiled by Globe staff

With reports from Gloria Galloway, Geoffrey York, Eric Andrew-Gee, Colin Freeze, Allan Maki, Kathryn Blaze Baum, Caroline Alphonso and Melissa Tait

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