THERE are always two sides to every story. When one side is marginalized or simply ignored, the conversation is incomplete. That is what is happening in Thunder Bay.

The city and many if not most of its people have tried hard to understand and improve the lives of First Nations people who’ve moved here and run into trouble. So much trouble that Thunder Bay has become the centre of national attention on the subject.

A sense of guilt, a feeling of responsibility, and the all-too human need to ‘fix things’ gets accelerated when officialdom comes to town to pronounce on its problems. And so we’ve had Ontario’s human rights commissioner, its civilian police commissioner and independent review director weigh in after reports that the Lakehead is the racist and murder capital of Canada.

National media outlets send reporters to parse the situation in a few days and file stories that are compelling but often incomplete.

Many area First Nations leaders are eager to assign blame while rarely accepting any themselves.

Thunder Bay has the highest proportion of First Nations people of any city in Canada. It is the largest city and natural hub of Northwestern Ontario which has more than half the province’s First Nations, 25 per cent of which are truly remote. Conditions in many of those communities are horrendous and getting out becomes more the priority of many people every day.

Thunder Bay is the place most want to reach, if only for the company of so many other Indigenous people. The easy availability of alcohol and drugs are central to the problems many encounter.

The confluence and often the resulting clash of cultures has led to where we are today – a mixture of ill-will and goodwill. You see it on the streets, in the news and even in the highest echelons of society where Lakehead University’s genuine intent to hire an Indigenous dean for its new law school ended in disaster when she quit and sued the institution for systemic discrimination. Even the interim dean, with a long and honorable record of working for Indigenous justice, was subjected to indecent condemnation simply because he was a white man.

The case of Adam Capay, a young man from Lac Seul First Nation held in solitary confinement in Thunder Bay for four years on a murder charge captured national attention. It ended earlier this year with an order he be freed because his charter rights were violated.

Guards said keeping him isolated in the crowded, century-old district jail was for his own safety and that of other inmates. But details of the case remain confidential, including those of the violent death of another inmate for which he was accused of murder in the first degree. Addressing Capay's mistreatment in prison created another injustice because a court never got to hear the evidence in the death of 35-year-old Sherman Quisses of Neskantaga First Nation.

You can’t find out what percentage of Thunder Bay’s troubles involve First Nations people – police say they don’t keep those numbers – but the daily police reports, the court dockets and the jails tell the story. Indigenous people are over-represented in the justice system. How they got there and why are studied and argued while police wade into trouble day and night, earning the force the accusation of practising “systemic racism.”

It is a charge hotly debated to this day. How many officers are actually racist? How many doing their best are overwhelmed by the responsibility to maintain law and order in a city where the scale of drunken violence by aboriginals and non-aboriginals alike is unknown to most people? Which is not an excuse to treat people differently, only that the job is much harder than many critics are willing to admit.

THUNDER Bay Mayor Bill Mauro, on a number of occasions since taking office last year, has tried to put the city’s situation in perspective. Unfortunately, Mauro’s strident manner sometimes gets in the way of his best intentions. An example came when he told a visiting Globe and Mail reporter: “I only had two heroes in my life and one of them was Martin Luther King Jr. And, if he couldn’t fix it, I hope you’re not expecting me to.”

He took a more nuanced approach in an interview with the Indigenous TV network APTN late last year. “I am concerned with the reputation that our city has received. I think there are a lot of us here who don’t necessarily believe that’s fair. We understand – I’ve said this consistently – that there are issues here in our community but we also understand that those issues exist in most other communities in the province of Ontario and the country of Canada.”

At a town hall meeting this month Mauro repeated his concerns about the harsh nature of two provincial reports into city policing and oversight, prompting police services board chair Celina Reitberger to caution him. Fort William First Nation Chief Peter Collins has called on Mauro to leave the board, straining relations between the adjoining communities that have long been a source of pride and satisfaction in both.

Then the province’s board appointee, John Cyr, came under fire when a letter he wrote to this newspaper in 2017 resurfaced this week. The province revoked Cyr’s appointment because he wrote in defence of regional Sen. Lynn Beyak’s attempts to place the issue of residential schools in perspective.

Reitberger could hardly have been more praiseworthy of Cyr before the old letter surfaced: “John brings a wealth of experience . . . I was very impressed with his insight, his enthusiasm, and his experience with Indigenous people, so I think he’s well-placed to help us move forward.”

For his part, Cyr had this to say upon his appointment: “I’ve always been impressed by the police services. I understand there are some challenges. I want to be a part of the solution. My first inclination to put my name forward came as a result of (Celina) Reitberger’s comment that it’s time to move forward. If that’s the attitude I would very much like to be part of it.”

Beyak, herself suspended from the Senate, had written that she personally knew some people in the Northwest who had positive experiences at residential schools, whether teachers or aboriginal students unlike others who were badly abused. "I speak partly for the record, but mostly in memory of the kindly and well-intentioned men and women and their descendants . . . whose remarkable works, good deeds and historical tales in the residential schools go unacknowledged for the most part and are overshadowed by negative reports," she said in a Senate speech.

In response to an avalanche of criticism, Cyr wrote, "Sen. Beyak’s comments were balanced and thoughtful. They gave needed voice to good people who appear not to have been heard, or, if heard, not listened with any understanding. Not to recognize that would seem to choose tyranny and hurt feelings over reconciliation."

Cyr may be largely the victim of Beyak’s subsequent insistence on keeping letters on her website from some people whose views are racist and abhorrent. The context of his original support for her earlier comments has been lost in the hasty rush to judgment for any and all who seek to find and speak the whole truth about the extraordinarily difficult situation in which Thunder Bay finds itself. 

Ian Pattison is retired as editorial page editor of The Chronicle-Journal, but still shares his thoughts on current affairs. 

(Originally published May 25, 2019)

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