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opinion

Travis Hay is a postdoctoral fellow in the Indigenous Learning Department at Lakehead University and the former treasurer of the Thunder Bay chapter of the Bear Clan Patrol.

I am not known for my optimism about the state of my hometown. And why should I be? I have lived here for most of my life and I have not seen meaningful change.

For the third straight year, Thunder Bay – long saddled with the terrible nickname of “Murder Bay” – had the highest homicide rate of any city in Canada. Some explain this away by citing the fact that we have a relatively small population. But here’s what’s not up for debate: Jethro Anderson, Curran Strang, Paul Panacheese, Robyn Harper, Reggie Bushie, Kyle Morrisseau, Jordan Wabasse, Josiah Begg and Tammy Keeash each lost their lives here. The deaths of these Indigenous youth are an indictment of the structural violence of Northwestern Ontario and the way in which a lack of on-reserve services combines with a shortage of compassion in Thunder Bay – the closest place with city-level resources to those remote communities – to create a deadly mix.

I’ve seen the racism here in full force with my own eyes. With the Bear Clan Patrol, I spent many weekend nights handing out food, hot drinks and winter wear to the folks who needed them most. I also patrolled the kind of neighbourhoods that are often called “scary” or “sketchy” and never once found myself in what I considered to be serious danger – at least, not from the homeless or people living in low-income areas; I have received threats to my job and safety for speaking up about the reality of racism in Thunder Bay.

Local political leadership laments the city’s image in the media, but that doesn’t help them face unpleasant facts. The response to two devastating reports on the Thunder Bay Police Service and its board released in 2018 – one by the provincial Office of the Independent Police Review Director (OIPRD) and another by the Ontario Civilian Police Commission, led by respected Senator Murray Sinclair – was just one example. Mayor Bill Mauro’s comments to the media was that “these guys” drew “absurd” and “ridiculous” conclusions in their findings. This evasive posturing and disrespectful language, directed at both Mr. Sinclair and then-OIPRD director Gerry McNeilly, was deeply troubling to many concerned community members. This was unacceptable and unbecoming of our mayor.

But if I am being honest, I now feel optimistic about what is happening in my hometown. And it was Mr. Mauro himself who ultimately gave me cause for such high hopes.

Earlier this year, the mayor was the swing vote in city council on a motion to approve the rezoning of land for the purposes of building a 58-bed transitional housing project for Indigenous youth. One would think that, especially with Thunder Bay’s dark legacy, this social policy would have been easily passed. Our shelter housing services are overcrowded and underfunded. The Final Report of the Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls called for transitional housing; numerous studies have shown it helps cities save a lot of money down the line.

But this is Thunder Bay. At a community event discussing the proposed project in June, a citizen asked why the housing project couldn’t be built on the “reservation,” and he received a raucous reply of applause for his ridiculous question. (This, despite the fact that we do not have reservations in Canada, but reserves.) Indeed, more than 500 community members signed a petition demanding that the housing be built elsewhere. How sad it was that so many members of my community – although quick to complain about the so-called “homeless problem” – refused a solution so patiently presented to them.

But for all his past rhetoric, Mr. Mauro joined councillors Shelby Ch’ng, Andrew Foulds, Aldo Ruberto, Brian Hamilton, Kristen Oliver and Cody Fraser in voting in favour of the project being built in the city. Mr. Fraser punctuated his vote with the following statement: “The eyes of this nation are on us. Sometimes for all the wrong reasons, unfortunately … we have the opportunity to lead by example with these acts of reconciliation. These types of projects are exactly what we need in this city.”

Thunder Bay will surely continue to make the news for less-than-celebratory reasons. But the cold lack of compassion that has characterized our city for so long finally seems to be breaking. Almost 60 at-risk youth – many of whom certainly knew Jethro, Curran, Paul, Robyn, Reggie, Kyle, Jordan, Josiah and Tammy – will not be out in the cold once the facility is built. That is an excellent start to a new year in Thunder Bay.