A protest against the forceful arrest of a 16-year-old girl in Sioux Lookout is aiming to draw attention to the mistreatment of First Nations youth by authorities in Northwestern Ontario, a region plagued in recent years by the death of Indigenous children in care and allegations of systemic racism by police.
On Wednesday, a small group of students and activists converged on the site of last week’s arrest, captured in a viral video that shows an Ontario Provincial Police officer pushing an Indigenous teen to the ground, apparently knocking her unconscious.
The protesters called for an end to police violence.
“I came out because all my friends have been through something like this and it needs to end,” said Jericho Anderson, a local high-school student originally from Kasabonika Lake First Nation.
The girl in the video, who cannot be identified because she is a minor charged with a crime, faces three counts of assault in relation to the incident. The arresting officer can be heard in the video saying she was spitting on and kicking him before the arrest.
The following day, the girl had a welt over her left eye and two gashes on her face during a hospital checkup. Her mother, who also cannot be identified, said that even a week later her daughter was feeling shaken.
“She’s kind of still scared when she goes to school,” the mother said. The family is considering legal action against the OPP.
Last week, OPP spokesperson Mike Golding cautioned against judging the officer based on the nearly five-minute clip. The force is in the process of determining whether a professional standards investigation is warranted, he said. He could not be reached for comment on Wednesday.
Candace Kitchkeesick, who lives in Thunder Bay but has a teenage daughter living in Sioux Lookout, said Wednesday’s demonstration was meant to educate local children about interacting with the police.
“When we saw the video, we wanted to make sure that we could come up here and try and educate some of the youth on their rights when it comes to OPP officers or any kind of law enforcement,” she said.
Keeping children safe in their interactions with authorities has at times been a struggle for First Nations people in Northwestern Ontario. The protest in Sioux Lookout comes after years of inquests and investigative reports laying out official neglect and abuse of Indigenous youth in nearby Thunder Bay. In December, Ontario’s Independent Police Review director Gerry McNeilly found that investigations into the deaths of nine Indigenous people in Thunder Bay, many of them youths, were hindered by “racist attitudes” on the force.
Meanwhile, this week saw the release of a report by the now-shuttered Ontario Child Advocate detailing horrific conditions at a series of former foster homes for Indigenous youth in Thunder Bay. (Premier Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative government announced last fall it was scrapping the position, which no longer exists as of May 1.)
The report depicts a squalid environment at three homes run by the Vaughan, Ont.-based company, Johnson Children’s Services Inc. The province ordered the company to close its Thunder Bay facilities in May, 2017, after the death of Tammy Keeash, a 17-year-old from North Caribou Lake First Nation who was in its care when her body was found in the city’s Neebing-McIntyre Floodway on May 7 of that year.
The company’s three Thunder Bay homes were open for just more than a year and generated 114 police reports and were plagued by rotten food, broken windows and bedbugs, the advocate found. Blood-smeared walls and toilets leaking feces were among the unhygienic conditions.
Staff at the facilities were also unprepared to manage youth in severe distress, the report concludes. In December, 2016, one of their foster children went missing only to be discovered in Winnipeg two days after being released from hospital in Thunder Bay. In another case, staff watched a child down a bottle of Tylenol without doing anything to stop her because they believed intervening would constitute assault, the report records.
The company accepted the advocate’s recommendations in a written response to the report, acknowledging it set up operations in Thunder Bay “too quickly.”
But Nicole Ineese-Nash, an Anishinaabe scholar and lecturer at Toronto’s Ryerson University from Constance Lake First Nation, said the mistreatment of Indigenous youth goes beyond the errors of one company or police force.
Canadian social services such as the foster-care system have colonial roots, she noted, and too often “don’t regard Indigenous lives as worthy.”
The “funnelling of Indigenous people into urban centres” such as Sioux Lookout and Thunder Bay puts First Nations youth at even greater risk, she said. “Government policy is pushing these kids toward hubs, but there isn’t necessarily the institutional support to help them while they’re there.”
Brent Wesley is a Globe and Mail freelancer