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Thunder Bay’s Indigenous guardians volunteer to protect their community

Sandra Munroe and Lyle Fox, who work with high-school students in Thunder Bay, survey the Neebing-McIntyre Floodway near the spot where the body of Tammy Keeash was discovered.

Joe Friesen/The Globe and Mail

A man lies sprawled on his back near the riverbank, his eyes closed, his arms extended at his sides. He appears to be unconscious, just a few metres from the McIntyre River in Thunder Bay.

A short distance away, four men in bright orange vests scour the riverbank on foot. They move quickly, casting their flashlights in the reeds and stooping to look under bridges.

They are the Bear Clan Patrol, a group of Indigenous volunteers who recently began to patrol the city a few nights a week. They are looking for signs of trouble – in particular among those who drink by the river.

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This is the danger that preoccupies the city of Thunder Bay, where seven Indigenous high-school students have been found dead in the water since 2000. Last month, the bodies of 17-year-old Tammy Keeash and 14-year-old Josiah Begg were found over a 12-day period in the city's waterways. In response, local Indigenous leaders created the Bear Clan Patrol.

They spot the man sprawled on the grass about 30 metres ahead.

Before they reach him, a Thunder Bay police vehicle pulls up. The officer radios for an ambulance, which arrives quickly. The paramedics get the man on a stretcher. The members of the patrol nod to the police officer, but they don't speak to each other.

"The police were there. We're just a set of eyes to make sure everything goes right," says Joe Okitchquo, 34, the leader of the small team of four.

"Ever since those bodies been found in the river, we had to step up as Anishinaabe people. … We want to make a better, safer community for our kids, for our people, so we won't have any more of these stories. Enough is enough."

The relationship between city police and the Indigenous community has been strained here for as long as anyone can remember. But now, it's being called a crisis.

Recent tragedies along these waterways have galvanized distrust of the Thunder Bay Police Service and its investigations of Indigenous deaths – fed by the racism that is an undeniable reality of life for that community.

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This week, Federal Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale responded to demands for RCMP intervention in Thunder Bay by saying, "this kind of angst diminishes the strength of the country" and by signalling the federal government's willingness to respond "constructively." His comments came the day Statistics Canada released figures showing Thunder Bay leads the country in reported hate crimes.

"This is a community in crisis," said provincial Independent Police Review Director Gerry McNeilly, who is currently reviewing the local force's investigations into Indigenous deaths. "The relationship between the police and the community needs to be rebuilt. We need to put an end to the crisis. The police are willing. The Indigenous communities are willing."

At a time when the community needs its civic leaders most, their authority has been undermined.

Last month, the chair of the police services board was suspended briefly. This week, the mayor embarked on a 20-day working road trip.

Between those two events, Police Chief J.P. Levesque was charged with breach of trust and obstructing justice. He has been barred from communicating with the mayor and the police board that employs him.

Rumours have swirled on social media that Chief Levesque's charges are related in some way to his department's investigations into the drownings. The rumours are false, Mayor Keith Hobbs says, but they have served to intensify the perception of a leadership vacuum.

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The details of Chief Levesque's alleged offence remain obscure. Mr. Hobbs told The Globe and Mail it can be traced back to late last year, when a local lawyer was charged with sexually assaulting women. The mayor said he was the one who turned in the lawyer. Court documents outlining Chief Levesque's charges state he disclosed "confidential information" regarding the mayor but provide no further detail.

"I support the chief. I'm totally aware of why he was charged and [the charges are] total B.S.," Mr. Hobbs said.

The police chief's lawyer, Brian Gover, has said he looks forward to his client's "ultimate vindication."

Many of the waterway deaths have been ruled accidental. The cause of others remains undetermined. But many people don't buy the official explanations, and this tumultuous period in local politics has only reinforced that attitude.

"There are many people in our community who believe that a group or groups of undesirable people are focused on harming our young people," said Marlene Pierre, an Ojibwa member of the province's Elders Council and a Thunder Bay resident.

Alvin Fiddler, Grand Chief of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, which represents more than 49 Northern First Nations, said none of the issues plaguing Thunder Bay can be viewed in isolation.

"The question on everybody's mind is what's really going on. It's all interrelated," he said. "The bottom line for us is to ensure our kids are safe."

Last year, one of the longest coroner inquests in Ontario's history finished looking into the deaths of seven Indigenous youths between 2000 and 2011. All were originally from remote reserves and had moved to Thunder Bay to pursue a high-school diploma, which they couldn't do on reserve.

The coroner's jury issued 31 recommendations for the City of Thunder Bay. On Monday night, the city's response was presented to council. The evening's sole Indigenous speaker (there are no Indigenous members of council) was Norma Kejick, executive director of the Northern Nishnawbe Education Council, who was part of a team that had conducted a safety audit of rivers and waterways.

The audit involved walking the vast stretches of water throughout the city, identifying design changes such as improved lighting, CCTV cameras and thick metal grates to block the undersides of bridges, where drinkers congregate. The two-day process took place under tragic circumstances, Ms. Kejick explained, because it coincided with the frantic search for Josiah Begg. Whatever they did would be too late for him.

"It did hit me hard. I broke down [in tears] at the spot where Curran Strang was found and at the spot where Kyle Morriseau was found," Ms. Kejick said, referring to students who died in 2005 and 2009 respectively.

She said she's at a loss to explain why children are dying in Thunder Bay's rivers. She hoped the inquest would provide some answers, but it didn't.

"To me it seems strange. Our kids were raised on the water, surrounded by it," she said. "Yet you don't hear of these things happening in the home communities."

One of the issues raised at city council was what is being done to prepare students from Northern reserves before they arrive in the city. It was part of a broader narrative of insider and outsider. It's a familiar line of thought to Mr. Fiddler.

"I felt that over 30 years ago when I went to high school here, and it's unfortunately the attitude that exists today," he said. "They still treat our community members as outsiders."

It seems every Indigenous resident of Thunder Bay has a story, or several, of personal encounters with racism.

Almost a third of the anti-Indigenous hate crimes recorded in Canada in 2015 occurred in Thunder Bay, according to the aforementioned Statistics Canada report. The city had by far the highest level of hate crimes among Canada's larger cities – more than double that of second-place Hamilton – due mostly to attacks against the Indigenous population, the report said.

Cory Spence, one of the leaders of the Bear Clan Patrol, said it's not uncommon for Indigenous people in Thunder Bay to have things thrown at them from moving cars and to hear racial slurs.

"It's getting worse, the racism. I've never seen it like this, the ramping up," Mr. Spence said.

Earlier this year, a woman was hit with a trailer hitch thrown from a vehicle and suffered severe injuries.

Mr. Spence said he suffered a similar attack when he was hit in the back with a brick thrown from a passing truck a few years ago.

Lyle Fox, who works at Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School, said he has heard students say they've had things thrown at them. "We always hear about the bottles and garbage being thrown from moving cars. I also get a lot of, 'I don't want to talk about it,'" Mr. Fox said.

A survey conducted by Thunder Bay police in 2015 found that more than 80 per cent of local residents said they believe racism and discrimination are a serious issue in the city.

And many of those concerns focus on the police. Celina Reitberger, executive director of Nishnawbe Aski Legal Services, said she deals with about two complaints a month.

"The trust has to be rebuilt, and that might mean getting rid of some officers who have a long history of having complaints against them. Maybe it means having better oversight. … How can it be that they don't have a single aboriginal person on that board?"

Sylvie Hauth, the acting chief of the Thunder Bay police, said last week there is no policing crisis in the city and no need to bring in the RCMP. She characterized the situation as "challenging times" but said the community remains confident in police and it is "business as usual."

The force is slowly changing to reflect its residents. Roughly 10 per cent of Thunder Bay's 120,000 residents are Indigenous. The police department employs 17 Indigenous officers – 7.62 per cent of its uniformed force. Last year, Chief Levesque pledged in a letter to the provincial human-rights commission to address "the issues that exist with respect to human rights and policing in Thunder Bay."

The Bear Clan Patrol tries to hit every area known to attract young people. Many of the locations feel dark and isolated, punctuated by the sound of railway bells and the rumble of freight cars. The young people they come across are usually searching for a place to disappear for a while, one explains.

They come across a man in mud-stained clothes who is stumbling and appears highly intoxicated.

"I just want to make sure you're all right," Mr. Okitchquo said.

"Yeah, I'm okay," says the man, mumbling a few words.

"Make sure you get to shelter before it rains," Mr. Okitchquo says. One of his companions hands the man a bus ticket.

"You guys are the searchers, eh?" the man says, a smile on his face. He thanks them.

The patrol regroups so they can head even further afield. Their route takes them past memorials to the two most recent victims. They admit their work can seem grim, the product of too many tragedies, but they're buoyed by camaraderie and a sense of doing good. The Bear Clan concept was imported from Winnipeg. They share the same name and goals: to act as additional eyes and ears on the street and to protect the vulnerable. And when there's a need, they search for missing people.

It's almost midnight, and Mr. Spence and his fellow volunteers are still conducting sweeps, searching the waterways as well as the nooks and crannies where the down-on-their-luck congregate.

A minivan pulls up next to the group, not far from the area where the trailer hitch assault took place, and the driver rolls down the window.

"I just want to thank you for what you're doing," the woman says.

Tina Achneepineskum, another of the Bear Clan leaders, tells her they appreciate the support.

And then she walks on into the night.

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About the Authors
Demographics Reporter

Joe Friesen writes about immigration, population, culture and politics. He was previously the Globe's Prairie bureau chief. More

National reporter

Patrick previously worked in the Globe's Winnipeg bureau, covering the Prairies and Nunavut, and at Toronto City Hall. He is a National Magazine Award recipient and author of the book Mountie In Mukluks. More

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