It’s past midnight when Ivory Tuesday approaches “the apartment,” a busted GMC truck with blue tarpaulin for windows sitting in a vacant lot near a stretch of old motels. This is one of the spots around Thunder Bay where homeless people can go to sleep when they’ve been kicked out of the city shelters.
Tonight, a man and a woman are lying in the covered flatbed. Ms. Tuesday, who helps keep the truck stocked with blankets and checks on its occupants, approaches with an overnight kit: toothbrush, bottle of water, can of Coke, some granola bars. A harm-reduction worker named Candace offers condoms and clean needles, which the couple decline.
“Okay bro, have a good night,” Ms. Tuesday says, as she turns to continue her rounds.
That same week, Georjann Morriseau, the former chief of Fort William First Nation, finds herself in a very different setting: flanked by the mayor, the heavily bearded city clerk and several prominent lawyers in expensive suits, with TV news cameras pointed at them − sitting in her usual place at the Thunder Bay Police Services Board. That day, the board is discussing a new community satisfaction survey that suggests, to no one’s surprise, that young, Indigenous respondents are likelier than old, white residents to have complaints about the police.
A few days later, Sandi Boucher is finishing the move into her new uptown office building, and the sign on her door already seems to be making neighbours nervous. Under the nameplate for Mishkwe Enterprises, her consultancy for organizations trying to work toward reconciliation with First Nations people, it reads: “Improving Canada, One Relationship At a Time.” She has noticed other tenants looking at the door with a vexed expression, one that says: “Improving Canada? Canada doesn’t need to be improved.”
Ms. Boucher disagrees. So do Ms. Morriseau and Ms. Tuesday. They say they believe Canada needs to be improved − needs to be made more livable for Indigenous people like them − and are not waiting for it to happen. Instead, they’re starting with their city.
Thunder Bay has received a flood of national attention in recent years for the racism directed at many Indigenous people. Two provincial watchdogs have condemned the police and civilian police board for racist attitudes, and the city’s rate of hate crimes per capita was among the highest in the country last year.
Indigenous women often have it worst of all, bearing a double burden of racism and misogyny. This is a city whose neighbouring reserve still has a section called Squaw Bay; where police have alerted the public to more than 20 missing Indigenous women and girls since the middle of May. (They have all since been found safe).
What’s less often discussed, but just as stark, says Ms. Boucher, is the crucial role Indigenous women play in sustaining the cultural and political life of Thunder Bay. From City Hall, to the college and university, to the art galleries, to the boardrooms, to the street corners, they are loudly challenging a status quo that often seems hostile to their very existence. “There’s powerful women everywhere in this city,” said Shelby Gagnon, an Indigenous artist who grew up in Thunder Bay.
Their approaches and backgrounds vary. They don’t all know one another or always agree. It’s a loose group and, really, less of a group than a phenomenon. Ms. Boucher says they are acting in the style of the Ogichidaakwe. It’s an Ojibway phrase and concept that translates roughly as “warrior women.”
She carries a pot in her hands and the carcass of an animal on her back. Her eyes are weirdly without pupils, and her black hair is tied in a ponytail. She is seen in profile, and doesn’t have a name. We know her as Woman at Fort William.
Robert Irvine’s portrait, completed in 1811, left its subject anonymous. It also paid her a kind of homage. Europeans had occupied a fur-trade post at the mouth of the Kaministiquia River for more than 125 years, on and off, by the time Irvine took up his brush. But until then, no human likeness, no depiction of an individual person, had come out of the settlement that became Thunder Bay. The first was an Anishinaabe woman.
That painting says a lot about the crucial but deeply fraught role Indigenous women played in the earliest history of the city and the wider region.
Then, as now, they did more than their share to sustain and even save a community that often exploited them in turn.
The exploitation took many forms. Most famously, it was sexual.
George Simpson, the long-time governor-in-chief of the Hudson’s Bay Company, referred to his Indigenous mistresses as “bits of brown.” In a dark reflection of how much power such attitudes continue to hold in Thunder Bay, one of the city’s main streets and a long-time hub for the local sex trade is still named after Simpson.
Still, when Indigenous women were taken advantage of, there’s evidence they knew how to fight back − sometimes in creative ways. A Hudson’s Bay officer described an incident at a French outpost on the Severn River during which soldiers “forced some Cree women into the fort against their will,” writes the historian Sylvia Van Kirk in her book Many Tender Ties. The women reportedly took revenge by urinating on the soldiers’ musket fuses, then signalling for their men to attack.
That tradition of disarming authority from within the walls of power has survived into the 21st century. There are many skilled practitioners in Thunder Bay.
Ann Magiskan, a member of Lac Seul First Nation, is Aboriginal Liaison with the city and regularly speaks to police officers about Indigenous history and culture, trying to instill in them some sensitivity for people whom they have a record of treating with contempt.
Celina Reitberger, a member of Fort William First Nation, is chair of the police services board, and recently chastised the mayor to his face at a meeting of the board for playing down concerns about racism in Thunder Bay.
Sandi Boucher says she sees a different role for herself. While allies work for change on the inside, she continues to lay a kind of siege. Last year, though she was contemplating a run for mayor − assembling a team, lining up supporters − her adult son and daughter talked her out of it. They worried that she wouldn’t be able to speak out about racism as effectively with the chain of office around her neck.
“As my son put it: continue to storm the gates; don’t move into the castle,” she said.
As Ms. Boucher’s life illustrates, the gates can seem dauntingly high to many Indigenous women. She grew up in the flyspeck railway town of Hudson, about a four-hour drive north of Thunder Bay, with a French-Canadian father and an Ojibwa mother, Alma Boucher, née Godin. In 1960s Northwestern Ontario, where racism was endemic, Alma had to live a kind of dual life.
“My mom was this amazing, outgoing, funny, crazy lady, who was just full of life − until we left the yard,” Ms. Boucher said. “And then my brothers and I used to joke around − it’s horrible now − but we used to say, ‘Mum’s trying to be wallpaper again.’ Mum would try to disappear. Mum realized that her presence insulted people.”
Today, Ms. Boucher has an expansive personality and a crisp self-possession that reflect her successes as an author and businesswoman. She jangles with energy and laughs infectiously. But as a young woman, surrounded by the glares of bigots and raised by a cowed mother, she tried to be wallpaper, too. The effort had awful consequences.
“That’s how I ended up a domestic-abuse victim,” she said. “Because as soon as I entered a relationship, I was so subservient. The fact that my partner told me I wasn’t worth the air I breathed matched everything this country was telling me.”
She survived the abusive relationship for “ten long years.” But it wasn’t until her mother’s death, in 2005, that Ms. Boucher was able to unlearn the lessons of the older woman’s subjection by channelling her strength.
Ms. Boucher’s first book was published in 2010 − a collection of inspirational stories drawn from her mother’s teachings. “I’ve met women who left abusive relationships because they read my book,” Ms. Boucher said.
Since then, she has launched a company focusing on literacy in Indigenous communities, written two more books and pivoted to a career giving seminars and speeches to “mainstream” organizations about reconciliation and racism.
It won’t be Ms. Boucher, for now, but if another Indigenous woman were to run for mayor, Georjann Morriseau would be a prime candidate. The former chief of Fort William First Nation was popular in Thunder Bay during her term, has the kind of broad appeal and sunny charm that make political careers and is instantly recognizable in her four-inch heels and beehive hairdo. (“When I die, it’ll have its own memorial service,” she said of the distinctive 'do.)
She doesn’t mind the view from the castle, either. In the past couple of years, Ms. Morriseau has accepted posts on the First Nations Tax Commission, Thunder Bay Police Services board and with Resolute, a massive forestry company, as director of Indigenous affairs. (Ms. Morriseau identifies not as Indigenous but as Anishinaabe, the cultural group to which she belongs.) In 2015, she briefly ran for the Liberal nomination in a local federal riding, and hasn’t ruled out entering politics again. She says she believes you need power within the current system to improve people’s lives.
“In order for things to actually improve, to sustain improvements, you actually have to go back to the institutions, to the highest level of leadership,” she says.
That philosophy has gotten her branded a “sellout” and worse, but Ms. Morriseau knows from hard experience what it is to be powerless, and she prefers the insults. Born to an absent father and a troubled, itinerant mother, she was raised on reserve by her grandmother until the age of 11, when she was abruptly taken into care. Ms. Morriseau says she honours her grandmother and is grateful for all she imparted.
“She’s the reason I am where I am today," Ms. Morriseau says. “Grandma was just having too hard of a time."
The next five years were spent back and forth between her grandmother’s house and a series of foster homes, some of them neglectful and racist. One couple liked to sing the children’s song refrain “One little, two little, three little Indians” when Georjann was in earshot. Then came a spiral into substance abuse and violence.
“Come Grade 7 or 8, I started to act out,” she said. “I started doing drugs. Drinking … hanging down on Simpson Street.”
As a girl, she had been picked on for being from “the rez” and for her mismatched, home-sewn clothes, and she learned to defend herself. But now, she was becoming a freelance street fighter with a reputation around town. She spent stretches of her early teens in and out of jail on various charges as a young offender. It was only after a particularly brutal clash that resulted in her narrowly avoiding a long prison sentence that she resolved to change.
Determined to leave her old life behind, she moved in with a boyfriend (now her husband) at 16, and settled into a fairly conventional role as a homemaker, eventually applying to study culinary arts at Confederation College to augment her home cooking.
When she didn’t get into the program, she opted for her Plan B, aboriginal law and advocacy, figuring she could transfer soon enough. Instead, Ms. Morriseau found that learning about Canada’s colonial history and legal regime in a formal way for the first time was an infuriating shock to the system.
“How do you learn about something [like that] and not get angry?” she said.
Some of that fresh anger found vent in fights with her Catholic grandmother and white husband. “I would throw out the whole ‘W’ card,” she says, uncomfortably. “I was borderline racist myself. I was just an angry, angry person.”
But Ms. Morriseau’s rapid-fire education also blossomed into a new sideline as an activist for local Indigenous causes. She raised money and befriended community leaders during the fight over the KI6, when a half-dozen activists from the remote First Nations community of Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug were jailed for protesting a mining project on their treaty lands in 2008.
“To watch a judge sentence six of them like that was hard. It was really, really hard,” she said. “I had this point where I went: ‘I think I’m ready to go back home.’ ”
A newly radicalized Ms. Morriseau ran for a place on the Fort William Band Council and, to her surprise, won. But when the political newcomer tried to challenge financial secrecy and conflict of interest, she hit a wall of sexist hostility. Her opponents referred to her using sexist slurs and set up fake Facebook accounts to attack her candidacy for chief when she ran for the role a few years later.
She won anyway − by five votes − and set about launching or finishing a suite of projects she can still rattle off proudly: getting up to date with spending audits, reorganizing the band office, building 17 kilometres of road and a 21-lot housing development, reaping a million-dollar fiscal surplus.
For her trouble, Ms. Morriseau had her tires slashed, her windows shattered by rocks and anonymous threats levied against her children. When she lost a close re-election campaign marred by irregularities, she didn’t appeal the result. “I was tired,” she said.
The experience of power had been bruising, but instructive. Now a veteran band-council operator, land-claim negotiator and counterpart of mayors and ministers, she had moved on from her street-fighting youth and radical young womanhood and embraced a philosophy of almost aggressive pragmatism.
Today, Ms. Morriseau wants to work in a non-partisan way with mainstream organizations such as corporations and the police for “the outcome that’s going to be as pro-active and sustainable as possible,” she says. Her goal is to find common ground. “And yes, that does take time.”
Ivory Tuesday is somewhere else on the political spectrum − less concerned with wielding power than with criticizing it and cleaning up its messes.
Ms. Tuesday, a member of Couchiching First Nation, a four-hour drive west of Thunder Bay, is a sessional instructor in Lakehead University’s Indigenous Learning program. She also leads weekly patrols of the city’s parks and waterways to look for vulnerable people in need of a ride, a blanket or a hot meal.
In Thunder Bay this decade, Indigenous youth have been found dead in such places at a disturbing rate, often without proper police follow-up. Her cousin, Stacy DeBungee, also suffered that fate. The 41 year old was discovered in the city’s McIntyre River in 2015, and police declared his death non-criminal just three hours later, a rush to judgment that has been slammed by the province’s Independent Police Review Director.
Ms. Tuesday’s patrols are an effort to “prevent more tragedy,” she says. But they also aim to draw attention to the historic and present-day brutality that Indigenous people have been subjected to in Canada. “We’re converting Canadians to stand against settler colonialism and violence,” she says, behind the wheel of her pickup.
That kind of rhetoric, espoused eloquently on Facebook, has made Ms. Tuesday a target. One night last year, a group of drunk white men in trucks surrounded her and her colleagues in a park and called them “stupid Indians,” she says. Others have spit on the group from bridges during its kayak patrols. Hostility from some members of the public eventually forced the Bear Clan Patrol, as it was known, to change its name and go quiet for a time.
Ms. Tuesday has been less outspoken in recent months, but no less active. On a rainy night in May, she and a group of volunteers started where they usually do, outside of a homeless shelter on the city’s hollowed-out south side. The group served hot dogs and hot chocolate out of the flatbed of her truck and got tips from regulars about where the trouble spots were that night.
One woman, leaning on crutches, alleged that her cousin had been assaulted by the police outside a Bank of Montreal branch earlier that day, and gave the group details. Other people were just grateful for the dinner. “Hot dogs!” exclaimed one puffy-faced woman in cargo pants. “Oh man, you guys are styling! Can I have two?”
It turned out to be a quiet night, but Ms. Tuesday filled the hours with memories of more harrowing patrols. She once discovered a group of police arresting six Indigenous youths in a mall parking lot, she says, and began filming the situation on her phone.
“What are you doing recording a minor?” she remembers one officer asking, facetiously.
“We’re watching you,” she replied. “We’re watching you.”
The police let the young people go.
The sheer number of prominent Indigenous women in Thunder Bay, in every field and of every stripe, seems to invite attempts at explanation. How have so many members of a group that is notoriously mistreated in the city managed to thrive there − and more than that, help the city thrive?
Ann Magiskan, the city’s Aboriginal Liaison and a student of local history, says she believes that men in her community suffered a particularly acute kind of cultural dislocation when they were confined to small reserves, while women were able to cope better with changing ways of life.
“The men’s roles were stripped away. Their role in protecting the community and the family unit. The men’s role in hunting and providing for the family,” she says. “Did the women’s role go away? The women still had to maintain the home.”
Other theories focus on the role of healing, which is so often needed in Indigenous communities plagued by generations of trauma.
“Our elders have always said, the healing starts in the hands of our women,” Ms. Boucher says. “Because we’re fighting for the next generation.”
But even as they bandage the psychic wounds of their own communities, by serving in politics or writing books or providing warm meals, Indigenous women in Thunder Bay often see themselves as fighting back against callous or harmful institutions. Ms. Boucher describes the city’s latter-day “warrior women” as something like a guerrilla army, waging an underground war.
“It’s going to take many of us, in many different places, doing it our way, because this is a battle that has to be fought on many fronts,” she said. “At community events, whether it’s a powwow, whether it’s a feast, whether it’s a coffee shop, we always take the time for a hug. In that split second, there’s someone who gets it. And that has to be acknowledged and celebrated.
“And then we go off to fight on our battlefields, whatever it may be.”