Ryan McMahon is an Anishinaabe comedian, writer and host of the podcast Thunder Bay.
It all happened in the shadow of the death of Braiden Jacob.
Braiden, a 17-year-old from Webequie First Nation, was found dead in a Thunder Bay park on Dec. 9. The young man was in the city attending grief counselling and therapy sessions to help him work through a particularly difficult time in his life. He went to Thunder Bay to make his life better. Then, the unthinkable happened, and his life was taken from him. On Thursday, police announced they are considering his death a homicide.
At the same time Thunder Bay police were investigating what happened to Braiden, the Office of the Independent Police Review Director was preparing to release a report about the city’s police service itself. Before Braiden’s friends and family members could wipe the tears from their eyes, headlines about his tragic death turned to anticipation about the report that examined allegations of racism in how the local force investigates the deaths and disappearances of Indigenous people.
It’s been a few days since the release of Broken Trust: Indigenous People and the Thunder Bay Police Service, which was issued by Gerry McNeilly, head of Ontario’s Office of the Independent Police Review Director, and it’s safe to say the OIPRD report, which identifies “nothing short of a crisis of trust afflicting the relationship between Indigenous people” and the Thunder Bay Police Service, has left the city, its police and its citizens reeling.
The city will long remember Dec. 12, the day the report was released. The news conference itself was standing-room only, the tension and hope immeasurable. Family members and loved ones of people who have died in Thunder Bay filled the room. I’m pretty sure that when Mr. McNeilly woke up on Wednesday morning, he wasn’t expecting to receive applause. But when he spoke the words, “Over all, I found that systemic racism exists in the Thunder Bay Police Service at an institutional level,” the crowd erupted in applause. Whether you were there or watching online, you could feel Mr. McNeilly’s words – those words reached my bones, touched my spirit and brought tears to my eyes. When he finished, many in the room rose to their feet, clapping, as though they had just witnessed a rarely performed concerto.
It took two years to conduct the investigation. It was worth the wait. Finally, the Indigenous community in Thunder Bay was vindicated. They were told what they already knew: They suffer at the hands of police racism, indifference, at a systemic level.
The report calls for a significant overhaul of how the 300-member force conducts major investigations and has dropped 44 recommendations into the lap of the city’s chief of police, Sylvie Hauth. The report is the latest and most comprehensive look at a police agency that has faced repeated accusations of systemic racism for the way it investigates deaths and disappearances of Indigenous people. It has already led to changes: On Friday, it was announced that the city’s police services board would be disbanded.
It wasn’t the only significant report issued this week; on Monday, the Ontario Human Rights Commission released A Collective Impact, its interim report on its inquiry into racial profiling and discrimination of black people by the Toronto Police Service.
These reports are undeniably important. The naming of systemic and institutional racism in Canada is a monumental moment for all who suffer at the hands of discrimination. They provide a warning – a warning that other police forces, or cities, can also be found guilty. They provide a sense of comfort – that someone, finally, has listened. They provide badly needed moments of clarity. They allow us to understand the inequities and disparities faced by Indigenous and black communities in Canada.
There’s something unsettling about all of this for me, though. How can we know that one place, Thunder Bay, is worse than another? What’s the point of this conversation? There’s no such thing as a racism ranking. There are no racism awards given to cities across Canada. I worry it could become easy for those living in other Canadian towns and cities to dismiss problems in their own communities – at least we’re not as bad as Thunder Bay, they’ll say.
Calling someone a racist is a bit like trolling someone on the internet – it’s easy to throw out words into the universe. The question is: How do we ensure these words land, have an impact and effect change? The real challenge facing Canada is communicating the barriers and aggression that black and Indigenous communities face to the rest of the country. How do we articulate these things to decision makers and policy wonks? How do we tell Joe and Jane Canada that, yes, you don’t face racism, and you may not think it’s a real thing, but we promise you, we’re telling the truth? Trust me, we know it when we see it or hear it. Worse, we know it when we live it.
Last year, I decided I needed to do more. I decided that I needed to find a way to be more articulate about Canada’s racism problem and the continuing colonial legacy experienced by Indigenous people in Canada. So I spent the last year reporting, researching, writing and recording a podcast series called Thunder Bay for Canadaland. By all accounts, it’s a smash hit – we’ve garnered critical praise, recognition by our industry peers and hundreds of thousands of downloads around the world. Most people love it; others, not so much.
I enter the conversation about Thunder Bay as an “outsider.” I’m not from Thunder Bay, but I’m from close to there – I grew up in Fort Frances. I am from Couchiching First Nation. My home territory is just a few hours down the highway. Growing up, Thunder Bay was the big city. We went there to shop, to see the doctor, to play in sports tournaments. I’ve been going to Thunder Bay my whole life. Today, I have dear friends, family and colleagues who live there. I care a lot about Thunder Bay.
It was a hard series to make, knowing full well and understanding deeply the moment the city finds itself in. I knew how tough it would be for some residents to face the truth we uncovered through our work. In the words of Senator Murray Sinclair, former chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, “the truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.”
I talked with dozens of people, most of whom you will not hear on our podcast. People who worked for non-profits, in social work and for other community groups in Thunder Bay. I spoke with lawyers and doctors and business owners, many of whom had fair and critical insight into the story of Thunder Bay but didn’t want to go on the record, fearing a backlash in the community or at their workplaces. It didn’t surprise me that people didn’t want to go on the record.
What did surprise me were the voices that did want to be on the record – Indigenous youth. They could not wait to have their voices heard. They didn’t care who I was or what I was doing. All that mattered was that someone – finally – had asked them what they thought.
So I listened, and I heard story after story of police mistrust. I heard stories from Indigenous women who would rather deal with domestic violence than call the police. I heard stories from young Indigenous women and Two Spirit people being sexually assaulted, only to be blamed for their assaults because of who they were with or what they were wearing. I heard stories from Indigenous youth about attempted abductions and beatings. No two stories were the same, but they all carried the same subtext: We didn’t report it because no one believes us.
And all these stories had something else in common: They were all told by young people begging for their humanity, begging to be heard, begging to be believed. Why had no one listened to them before? Why didn’t anyone believe them? Why were these young people so desperate to talk to me on the record when many other people refused? I think it’s because they just wanted to be seen as human.
The truth is, the podcast, like Broken Trust, is a plea for Indigenous peoples’ humanity in Canada. I made the podcast to take people beyond headlines and into our lives. I made the podcast to shine a light on a world that kills Indigenous people in disproportionate numbers. I made this to shine a light on a system that simply doesn’t work.
Why is it that in 2018 – 2018! – Indigenous people in Canada are still forced to beg for humanity? Why do we need reports, commissions and inquiries just for Canadians to listen to us? To believe us? Why does it take so much effort for the simplest shift in policing and legislation?
Why do we have to die before action is taken in this country?
Frankly, Thunder Bay could be made in dozens of communities across Canada. The podcast zooms way in on the troubles of one city, but it also zooms out to capture the troubles of an entire country. The city is not unique in its challenges and failures. There is more than one Thunder Bay in Canada.