Tanya Talaga is an Anishinaabe author and journalist, and the first woman of Ojibwe descent to deliver the CBC Massey Lectures. Her book Seven Fallen Feathers: Racism, Death, and Hard Truths in a Northern City won the RBC Taylor Prize and the Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing.
I met Troy Neekan outside a Thunder Bay hotel last September.
It was late. I had just got off a flight from Toronto and was about to check in.
Mr. Neekan asked if I was the writer, the one he had seen on YouTube speaking about the deaths of the First Nations students in the river.
I told him I was. We began to talk.
Mr. Neekan told me he was in Thunder Bay to pick up his 21-year-old son Craig’s body and take him home to Mishkeegogamang First Nation.
Mr. Neekan was told Craig was brought in by paramedics to the Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences emergency room, but the young man was escorted off of the property by security just 10 minutes after his arrival.
Questions surround why Craig – a charismatic student who had a history of suicidal ideation – somehow became a security issue and not a medical problem. He was not treated. Instead, he was taken out of the hospital by force.
Hours later, Craig’s body was found hanging in a tree not far from the hospital on Lakehead University’s campus.
When we spoke, Mr. Neekan was in shock. He didn’t understand what exactly happened and why, instead of recovering in hospital, his precious, youngest son was dead.
As demonstrations rage across North America in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police officers and calls are made across the continent to defund the police and to break the colonial grip of white privilege that proliferates within governments, media and capitalism, I think of Craig Neekan.
This is reality for the Indigenous people of Turtle Island. We are living in a constant state of trauma, our people dying daily due to indifference in a country that has preferred to look away rather than deal with the racism that has existed here since contact.
In the past two months, a half-dozen Indigenous people have died in interactions with police including Eishia Hudson, 16, shot by police in Winnipeg after a car chase, 29-year-old Regis Korchinski-Paquet who fell to her death from the 24th floor balcony of a Toronto apartment after police responded to a “domestic incident” call, and Chantel Moore, a 26-year-old Tla-o-qui-aht mom who was shot five times by police in Edmundston, N.B., during a wellness check.
And then there are the non-fatal encounters with law enforcement, which are all too common; in the past two weeks we’ve read reports and seen the photo and video of Chief Allan Adam’s violent arrest at the hands of RCMP officers, and the video of the Inuk man being struck by a truck driven by a Mountie.
Ms. Moore was killed as we marked the first anniversary of the release of the final report of the National Inquiry into Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls, an anniversary remembered due to an absolute lack of action on the Calls for Justice contained in the report.
A promised national action plan has been put off indefinitely because of COVID-19. Why the delay when our government has mobilized with lightning quickness to provide benefits and plans to prop up the economically vulnerable in all corners of Canadian society – from the airline industry to university students – while our women continue to be in situations that threaten their very lives?
I have written two books on racism in Canada. The first was on the deaths of seven children who had to leave their homes, their parents, and communities in order to go to high school in Thunder Bay. Four of their cases are now being reinvestigated by a multidisciplinary task force after investigations into their deaths – and five other Indigenous people – by Thunder Bay police were found completely inadequate. The entire force is now trying to rebuild after it was found “systemic racism” exists – something First Nations people have known for decades.
The second book looked at genocide in this country and other colonized nations where Indigenous people have been violently separated from the land they lived on for thousands of years, and where racist policies such as the Indian Act in Canada continue to exist to keep our people in a near permanent state of Crown wardship to the federal government, governing everything from what kind of glasses you can wear to the type of coffin you will be buried in when you die.
I have toured Canada speaking in libraries and concert halls on the immediate need for equity, so all children in Canada – regardless of the colour of their skin – are given the same equal access to school, health care and the right to grow up in a safe and loving home with parents who tuck them in at night and tell them they matter, they belong. I follow a long line of Indigenous authors, poets, musicians and artists who have done the same – crying out against injustice with our voices and words.
Why has all of Canada not stood up with us?
Canada’s unique brand of racism can be quiet and loud. It manifests as indifference and it has crept into all public institutions, government agencies, corporations and in the way you look away from the homeless Indigenous man you see sitting on the sidewalk.
Both Black and Indigenous people know what it feels to be under the knee of a system that was designed to eradicate your very existence, to keep you down and out of the way. I can’t profess to know what it is like to be part of a Black family having to face the news of another brazen police killing of one of their own, openly in the streets, captured on video. But I do know what it is like to have Troy Neekan and countless other Indigenous parents ask me, “When are you going to start on my baby’s story?”
In 1967, the year before Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, he gave one of his most powerful speeches at Stanford University on "The Other America.”
One, he said, was beautiful, overflowing with innocence, the milk of prosperity and the honey of opportunity. It was the home of many with freedom and human dignity of spirit, experiencing daily the opportunity to pursue life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. “In this America, millions of young people grow up in the sunlight of opportunity,” he said.
But then he spoke of the tragedy of another America, one with an ugliness about it that constantly transforms “the ebulliency of hope into the fatigue of despair.” In that America, millions found themselves living in slums, people perishing in poverty while they live surrounded by an ocean of wealth. But the most tragic is what it does to little children, who are forced to “grow up with clouds of inferiority forming every day in their little mental skies … we see it as an arena of blasted hopes and shattered dreams.”
I have seen the dark clouds in the eyes of Indigenous youth once they realize they do not have the same opportunities other, non-Indigenous youth are provided. Opportunities others may take for granted – such as a high school located down the street from their home or access to a hockey league, an arena and a new pair of skates. I have seen the clouds form when they talk of being followed by security guards in the mall, their inability to get hired in a summer job, or, their sheer fear of being stopped by police.
What Dr. King’s speech says to me is that you can pass all the legislation you want to in the world – from the U.S. Civil Rights legislation in 1964 to a commitment by the Prime Minister in this country to adopt all of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action or British Columbia’s passage of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples – but it amounts to nothing unless the people of the nation get behind it.
The will of the majority must stand up and commit to equity, to giving all of our children that same, fresh start.
There have always been two Canadas – one for non-Indigenous people with free land to settle and farm, one of strong public education systems, colleges and universities and of a prosperous economy. One with a universal health care system that is admired the world over.
Then there is the Canada for Indigenous people – one where we were violently taken off the land, in many cases by the RCMP, and put into Indian Residential Schools in order to “beat the Indian out of the child.” Our children are lucky if they have a high school to attend, and many of our children in need of access to mental-health care are taken away from their families and put into foster care or group homes in cities hundreds of kilometres away from their communities just to get an appointment.
Our children languish in the space between these two Canadas, listening to politicians who say they care and passing legislation to make things right, but then when it comes to practice, the laws passed amount to empty words as our children continue to die.
Craig Neekan had dreams.
He’d just turned 21 and he was in Thunder Bay trying to finish his high-school education.
Troy Neekan texted his youngest son at least every other day. Craig, the youngest of four boys, was an ancient history buff; he was always researching and reading. Troy said Craig used to amaze people about his knowledge of historical facts and of the intricacies of the treaties that built this country.
He had been hospitalized before for suicidal ideation. On the night of his death, the Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre said in a letter to Mr. Neekan, dated May 6, 2020, that “when asked by paramedics he did not provide a reason for going to the ER,” nor did he tell the nurse at triage, who evaluated him and said he didn’t need immediate care. (In a separate statement, the hospital said its goal is to have patients assessed within three to five minutes by a qualified nurse.) The letter says he was intoxicated, using profanities. Eventually security guards became involved and took him out of the hospital.
In a statement, hospital chief executive Jean Bartkowiak expressed his condolences for Craig’s death and said he has “learned” from it. “We have a duty to provide safe, quality care and must be especially alert to the needs of historically marginalized people. Several specific recommendations have been and will be implemented to prevent a situation like this from happening again.”
In the wake of Craig’s death, the hospital has held a quality-of-care review committee, held a meeting with his father, reviewed what happened and produced a list of practices that need to change. Ontario’s Office of the Chief Coroner is investigating Craig’s death.
But Troy is not satisfied. He says he has not adequately got any answers as to what happened that night or heard a heartfelt apology for why his son wasn’t cared for. He is waiting to hear more from police.
Last week in Thunder Bay, a Black Lives Matter rally was held. Thousands came out.
Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler told me he was heartened to see the crowd. “But I just hope this isn’t just a fad. I also want them to acknowledge what is happening here in the country. This isn’t just an American problem. I hope they open their eyes to what is happening here,” he said.
“That is my message to the allies who have come out. If we are going to create systemic change – the disproportionate number of Indigenous people in jails, in family services, inequities in housing, clean water, we need them to stand with us to make change happen.”
Those that do nothing in the face of this country’s history, and the police shootings and abuses on both sides of the border, work against us.
Time will not solve all wounds. Waiting on time has been used by all of those who are indifferent and have allowed systemic racism to flourish in all of our governments and institutions.
As Dr. King said, good people who choose to remain indifferent and wait on time are just as damaging and deadly as the vitriolic racists who carry bats and guns and walk the streets, killing those who are Black, Brown and Red.
The progress of our nations never happened because we sat around and waited for it.
No, we’ve got to stand up and fight for it.
The time is now.
More reading: Black and Indigenous views on justice
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