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Tenille Campbell, a Dene First Nations poet from English River First Nation, Saskatchewan., reads her work at the Thunder Bay Public Library.David Jackson/The Globe and Mail

The road to reconciliation with Indigenous people in Thunder Bay could begin between stacks of books.

On a Wednesday night in March, three months after a provincial agency had declared the city’s police force to be rife with racism, three young Indigenous women took turns reading their poetry to an audience composed of mostly other First Nations women at the Brodie branch of Thunder Bay’s public library system.

Tenille Campbell, Erica Violet Lee, and Ardelle Sagutcheway faced a crowd of about 40 people in the 107-year-old building that sits just behind City Hall, a block from the seediest part of Thunder Bay that is the haunt of drug dealers and criminal gangs.

Ms. Campbell, part Dené and part Métis, was the headliner. She was bawdy and quirky and funny. With a driving rain splattering against the windows behind her, she flipped through pages of her book, #IndianLovePoems, then selected the verses she would share.

“I’m going back to my roots, I’m searching for that brown sweetie, who flirts like a boy from the Rez, shy and teasing,” reads Ms. Campbell, one hand on her hip and the other holding the small volume that speaks of her sensual flirtations and sexual frustrations.

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Erica Violet Lee, a First Nations poet from Saskatoon, reads her work from Moontime Warrior at the Thunder Bay Public Library.David Jackson/The Globe and Mail

The event on that night was organized by Indigenous librarians as a literary event for Indigenous people.

It was also two hours of an orchestrated effort on the part of the library to “decolonize” Thunder Bay, to bring Indigenous people into the fold, to make them feel safe and welcome.

The Thunder Bay Public Library, along with the police, the city, school boards, the hospital, a major health-care centre, Lakehead University, Confederation College, the Fort William First Nation and others have, for nearly a year, been signatories to an anti-racism accord that says colonization has led to systemic racism against Indigenous people and others, and that harms everyone in Thunder Bay.

But those engaged in the fight against racism in Thunder Bay say the library, of all public institutions, is showing how to blow up the walls that divide the First Nations residents from the rest of the city that has the highest rate of hate crime in Canada. At the National Indigenous Peoples Day on Friday on Thunder Bay’s waterfront, two librarians will be promoting its outreach to the First Nations.

Chief librarian John Pateman, a bald, bespectacled British man who says his interest in fighting racism stems from the discrimination faced by his Romany ancestors, says he is providing the “democratic space” to allow Indigenous and non-Indigenous residents to bridge their divide.

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Chief Librarian of the Brodie Street Public Library, John Pateman, listens as three Indigenous poets read their work at an event held to create space for First Nations people in Thunder Bay, Ont.David Jackson

The library “is a very seditious organization because we can engineer social change in a very quiet way,” Mr. Pateman said in a later interview in his sparse office at the library system’s Waverley branch. “Which is the way we [librarians] like to work.”

But, tales of anti-racism efforts in Thunder Bay often have a twist, and the library’s is no exception.

When the March reading ended at 9 p.m., after patrons had departed, the poets called for a cab. It did not come, at least not quickly. And the non-Indigenous security guards and some staff members, who were eager to end their shift, forced the young Indigenous women out into the rain and onto the dark streets of one of the most dangerous parts of the city that ignominiously claims the highest murder rate in Canada.

Ms. Lee wrote a letter of complaint to the library a week later.

“We were surprised by these actions, as it is common for us to make sure that our young Indigenous people do not leave spaces without making sure of their safety,” she said. “We understand work hours, of course, but we also understand the inherent responsibility we have to look out for one another."

The actions of the security guards and staff were striking, Ms. Lee wrote, “and a direct reflection of the lived experiences of racism toward Anishinaabe in Thunder Bay and Fort William First Nation territory.”

Mr. Pateman was embarrassed. There was an investigation, he said, “and as a consequence we have changed our event-management protocols to avoid a repeat of this unfortunate incident.”

Mr. Pateman came to Thunder Bay in 2012 after heading the libraries in Lincolnshire, Britain, with the intent of tackling racism in this city and has written a book with his son, Joe, called Managing Cultural Change in Public Libraries: Marx, Maslow and Management.

“The major piece,” he said, “is changing attitudes, behaviours, hearts and minds, changing the way people think about these issues and then how they respond to them.”

Sylvie Hauth, who became police chief last November after serving a quarter-century with the Thunder Bay force, shoulders much of the immediate responsibility for exorcising Thunder Bay’s racism demons.

A two-year investigation conducted by Gerry McNeilly, the Office of the Independent Police Review Director (OIPRD) in Ontario, found the repeated failure of police officers to conduct adequate investigations into violent acts against Indigenous people was, in part, attributable to racist attitudes and stereotyping. “Overall,” Mr. McNeilly said in his report released last December, “I find systemic racism exists in [the Thunder Bay Police Service] at an institutional level.”

Two days after Mr. McNeilly’s findings were made public, a report by Senator Murray Sinclair, who presided over the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on Indian residential schools, said the Indigenous people of Thunder Bay had lost confidence in the city’s police in the face of “unmistakable racism,” and that the Thunder Bay Police Service Board should be disbanded and replaced.

Chief Hauth has begun to work on the recommendations of the OIPRD that are aimed at improving her force. Just this week, she announced a review of investigations into the deaths of nine Indigenous people in the city going back more than a decade. She has increased the size of her investigations branch, she is purchasing cameras that will go on cars and officers, and she is talking with other forces about how to better share information.

And, like Mr. Pateman, she is also trying to change Thunder Bay at large.

The library is taking the initiative and “we’re there with them,” she said in an interview in police headquarters.

The accord signed by the library, the police and the other civic institutions was drafted as the investigations of Mr. McNeilly and Mr. Sinclair were under way, and after a coroner’s inquest into the deaths of seven Indigenous students arrived at 142 recommendations that were largely aimed at tackling the inequities faced by the First Nations population in Thunder Bay.

“It’s us coming forward as a community to say we recognize that we need to look at all aspects to ensure that we are addressing systemic racism within our community,” Chief Hauth said. “And it’s not just a police issue, it’s a community issue.”

But even naming the accord was something of a fight.

“They wanted to call it the Inclusion Coalition. I wanted to call it the Anti-Racism Alliance,” Mr. Pateman said. “I was pretty much a lone voice around that table, but I stuck to my guns and argued that exclusion was not the problem and therefore inclusion was not the solution. In the end there was a compromise … and they agreed to call it the Anti-Racism and Inclusion Accord. But this is in name only. They feel far more comfortable with the inclusion part than the anti-racism piece.”

Chief Hauth said she would like to expand the accord to include private businesses.

First Nations people in Thunder Bay say they are shadowed by security in the city’s shopping malls, eyed suspiciously at drug stores and treated dismissively when they show their treaty cards in shops.

Robert Ostramus, an Anishinaabe from the remote Fort Hope First Nation who has been a regular library user since he was a teen and is now a member of the library’s three-year-old Indigenous advisory council, says that is why the public space at the library is so important.

Young First Nations people in Thunder Bay “feel vulnerable, always looking over their shoulder,” Mr. Ostramus said. “The library can help that by being creative in terms of how we connect Indigenous people with non-Indigenous people.”

That creativity has taken many forms.

The Waverley branch has given most of its lower floor over to the Anishinabek Employment and Training Services agency, which helps First Nations people find jobs.

First Nations elders offer traditional counselling weekdays out of an office in the same branch. Indigenous people who have the required experience and are recommended by their communities are flown in, on a rotating basis, from the remote reserves around Thunder Bay to provide guidance and traditional healing ceremonies for Indigenous and non-Indigenous people alike.

Meanwhile, a social worker is available once a week at the Brodie branch, and a medical team sets up a weekly free clinic there for members of the community who feel uncomfortable seeking out a doctor. And, in every branch, there is an Indigenous resource centre where all of the books by and for Indigenous people have been gathered into one spot.

More than that, Mr. Pateman said there has been a fundamental change in the way First Nations people, especially those who are homeless, can expect to be treated. Where staff might have once hustled out someone who appeared to have nowhere else to go, today they are welcomed, he said.

Sharon Johnson, an Ojibwa who advocates for families of crime victims, is also on the library’s Indigenous advisory council.

“I do have a friend who goes [to the library] a lot and, I think because he’s on the streets, he tells me, ‘They know me by name,’ ” Ms. Johnson said. One time, the staff “saw him falling asleep at one of the computers and they told him, ‘Why don’t you just go and sit in that chair over there and, if you are going to fall asleep, maybe just put a book over your face.’ ”

The road to reconciliation in Thunder Bay has been rocky.

When Renu Mandhane, chief commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission, visited Thunder Bay in late February, she tried to arrange a visit with Mayor Bill Mauro, but was told he was too busy to see her. A member of Mr. Mauro’s staff explained to The Globe and Mail that Ms. Mandhane’s two-day schedule was too tight and there would be future opportunities for a meeting between the commissioner and the mayor.

During an interview at a local coffee shop, Ms. Mandhane said: “It’s amazing how a few committed leaders who share a vision can accomplish a lot. But I think it has yet to be seen whether the mayor is supportive of the anti-racism efforts by the police and in the community more generally.”

She was here, in part, to speak with Catholic teachers. That is important, Ms. Mandhane said, because the only way to end racism is to ensure that it is not passed on to the next generation.

As for the findings of the OIPRD, Ms. Mandhane said she senses that Thunder Bay’s police officers are fatigued with the discussion of racism. “They have been in the spotlight for 2½ years and I think people just want to start working on solutions.”

In reality, the racism on the police force that was uncovered by Mr. McNeilly and Mr. Sinclair is just a reflection of the feelings of a segment of Thunder Bay’s population, Ms. Mandhane said. “So I think the sustainable solutions here have to be at the community level.”

To some extent, that is already happening beyond the walls of the library.

At Thunder Bay’s massive new court house, there is a round room – meant to represent a medicine wheel – where traditional Indigenous hearings are convened twice a month. Elders conduct ceremonies during the proceedings and offer advice about the best healing process for the convicted person, who must take responsibility for their crime. Judges, meanwhile, are required to take the past circumstances of the guilty person’s life and the intergenerational trauma of colonization into consideration when passing sentence.

And at the Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre, Michael Robinson, an Oji-Cree deacon in the Catholic Church, provides spiritual care to the many First Nations people from the remote northern reserves who must travel to the city for medical treatment.

“When you walk into this building that may be twice the size of your community, it is a very scary experience,” Mr. Robinson said during an interview in his office. “Stress levels are up for patients and their families, and they hear stuff in the media [about racism in Thunder Bay] so their guard is up.”

Mr. Robinson tailors his ministry to the beliefs of his patients, offering both Catholic prayers and guidance along with traditional First Nations spirituality.

On the day of The Globe interview, as he does often, Mr. Robinson held a smudging ceremony in the hospital chapel, a small, bright room with glass on two sides and a cross displayed prominently at one end. It has been specially ventilated to allow smoke to filter free.

Holding an eagle feather, Mr. Robinson allowed each of five women perched on the chapel’s wooden benches to bath herself in the sacred medicine of burning tobacco, cedar, sage and sweetgrass and then say a few words about her state of mind. Mr. Robinson found the women on the hospital wards and convinced them to take part in the ceremony, which is intended to be both psychologically cathartic and spiritually healing.

Tears rolled down the cheeks of one of the patients as she told her story of fentanyl addiction and a physical attack against her, for a very small amount of money, that left her near death. Another wept as she recounted her fight to recognize her own self-worth.

Mr. Robinson said more than half of the people who attend his smudgings are non-Indigenous. Many doctors, he said, say the ceremonies have reduced their patient’s anxieties.

The hospital building also has its flaws.

For example, its rooms are not big enough to accommodate the large number of friends and family who travel from the reserves to be with loved ones when they are dying. And the windows do not open, which is necessary after death, according to Anishinaabe teachings, to let the spirit fly free.

But “I really do see the hospital as being a leader” in the fight against racism and discrimination, said Audrey Gilbeau, an Anishnabequek who is the executive director of the Nokiiwin Tribal Council, an organization that represents five northwestern Ontario First Nations including the Fort William First Nation. “They are open to looking for different ways.”

Some hospital staff have undergone a “Spirit Builder” course taught by Ms. Gilbeau. It’s an anti-violence program based on the Seven Grandfathers teachings – the seven principles of humility, bravery, honesty, wisdom, truth, respect and love that the Anishinaabe believe allow someone to lead a good life.

On a recent Thursday this month, nearly a dozen people gathered at a community room at the Mary J.L. Black library branch to watch the documentary, Colonization Road – part of a series of screenings being held throughout June to mark national Indigenous history month.

The film, which features Anishinaabe comedian and writer Ryan McMahon, examines how roads were used to displace Indigenous people and create communities for settlers. In some communities, such as Fort Frances, Ont., streets are still named Colonization Road.

After the documentary, Robyn Medicine, the Indigenous liaison for Thunder Bay Public Library, pulled the non-Indigenous group together in a circle to talk about the film’s message and how it applies to Thunder Bay. Nearly everyone there was older than 50 and eager to heal the fractures in their city.

Tina Tucker, the library’s director of communications, said some patrons have complained about the amount of effort being made to reach out to the Indigenous residents of Thunder Bay.

“There are still racists that come into every space in this city, not just the library,” Ms. Tucker said. “We answer their comments by saying everyone is welcome at the library and we all co-exist and that is our expectation of [them] as well, in a respectful community way.”

But, even internally at the library, cultural change has met resistance.

There are two Canadian Union of Public Employees locals at the library, one for librarians and one for technicians, and Mr. Pateman said both have launched grievances over his decision to hire Indigenous people who do not have full librarian credentials.

“We felt that lived experience [of an Indigenous person] was as important, if not more important, than qualifications and professional staff,” Mr. Pateman said. “If we are going to be serious about this Indigenous agenda, we need positions within this organization that are focused strongly on Indigenous affairs, and therefore we need Indigenous people in those positions.”

Mike Walters, the national staff representative for both locals, said this week that the grievance over the hiring of the Indigenous library technician has been dropped. It was never about hiring Indigenous people, Mr. Walters said; it was about concerns expressed by his members over the diminishing of the qualifications of library staff.

Some employees have also pushed back against a proposal that would have them give up their office at the Waverley branch for a medical clinic once a week, much like the one currently offered at the Brodie branch. And some, Mr. Pateman said, say they have developed “post-traumatic stress disorder” over his comments about the library being a racist institution that must be changed.

“This racism thing is really shaking things up,” he said. “It is the inevitable consequence of an organization that stands up and says, loud and clear, that racism exists, it exists everywhere in our city, it exists in our institution, and we are going to do something about it.”

With a report by Renata D’Aliesio

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