An investigation of racism on LU campus and Thunder Bay’s complicity with anti-Indigeneity and systemic violence against Indigenous women
By Brady Coyle, Staff Writer and Leah Ching, Editor-in-Chief
Lakehead University is a postsecondary institution that prides itself on its connection to the Indigenous community.
Can Lakehead truly make these claims when there is still anti-Indigenous racism present on its campuses and within the city of Thunder Bay itself? And what is to say for the role of the Thunder Bay Police Service, and the role of other city institutions in upholding and perpetuating this system of ongoing racism and violence against Indigenous people?
In conducting research into this issue, The Argus spoke with Tannis Kastern, an Indigenous woman and Lakehead student that sits on the LUSU (Lakehead University Student Union) Board of Directors.
“I do believe that discrimination,colonialism, and privilege are very much predominant and alive on this campus,” said Kastern.
While the issue does not solely pertain to Lakehead, Kastern believes there is a racial divide, whether intentional or not, amongst students. This lack of solidarity only serves to drive a wedge even deeper into the racial divide.
“It [Lakehead’s campus] is very divided,” says Kastern.
There are prominent issues of inequality regarding Indigenous students on Lakehead’s campuses that have gone unnoticed by many students in LU’s population. For example, the flag display in the Agora is set out to be a sign of unity and togetherness, but there is a particularly notable absence.
“Why don’t we get the Fort William First Nation (FWFN) flag here?” asks Kastern. “We’ve got every other country’s flag hanging in the Agora, except for Fort William which this campus sits on.”
This is an absence that is unacceptable, particularly in light of the university’s claims to have strong ties to the Fort William First Nation. What is even more unsettling is the response of administration when asked about putting up the FWFN flag in The Agora.
About a year ago, the Aboriginal Awareness Centre built a birchbark canoe that the University’s maintenance department ended up hanging up in the Agora. This occurred before the Centre had made a final decision on what their plans were for the canoe. The canoe was built with the intentions of being a symbolic bridge between Indigenous and Non-Indigenous students. In light of this, it seemed like a perfect time to add the Fort William First Nation flag to the display of flags in the Agora.
“We wanted to have a flag raising and acknowledge the canoe as a part of the symbolic rebuilding,” said Kastern. “Administration kept coming back saying ‘November is midterms and classrooms are around there that it [the ceremony] will disturb.’ Yet, we can have the poster sales and food sales and all sorts of noise-making events in the Agora?”
Not only was this a particularly flimsy excuse from university administration, but what is worse is the culturally insensitive and disrespectful recommendation that followed.
“One of the administrative secretaries sent back an email asking if we could have it [the ceremony] in The Outpost… We do not take our medicines and our drums into alcohol environments. That you [administration] even suggested that is a slap in the face to the Fort William First Nation and to me as a sober Indigenous woman.”
Lakehead showed its true colours when university administration suggested that such an important ceremony be held in the campus pub. For a university that claims to have such strong ties to the Indigenous community, their actions showed disregard and disrespect, with a heaping load of cultural insensitivity. To say that administration is out of touch with the Indigenous student body, and the Fort William First Nation, is an understatement.
The city of Thunder Bay itself is in the midst of serious controversy regarding police misconduct in the field. The police force has come under national criticism from media outlets in regards to racism and violence in the field, and how officers in the line of duty are answering, or failing to answer, calls from Indigenous community members.
The last few weeks of local news have been highlighted by the story of Barbara Kentner, an Indigenous woman who was struck in the stomach by a trailer hitch thrown out of a moving truck. Kentner underwent surgery following the incident, but her kidneys are now failing and there is little else doctors can do for her. She will likely die due to the injuries she sustained from the attack. The suspect, 18-year-old Brayden Bushby, is said to have thrown the trailer hitch at Kentner from a moving car saying “Oh! I got one!” Bushby is being charged with aggravated assault.
“I just want people to start realizing we’re important too; our histories are important too,” says Kastern, when asked about Thunder Bay’s treatment of Indigenous citizens. “You don’t owe us anything, but just show us some damn human compassion.”
Sadly, this is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to problems in the Thunder Bay Police Department.
On March 10th 2016, a 28-year-old Indigenous woman was found naked in the street on the north side of Thunder Bay, crying out for help. She feared for her life after a man tried to throw her into the lake and drown her. After dragging her around the street, he tried to drive off with the woman hanging from the vehicle. Covered in bruises, and severely shaken up, the woman was found by two men who responded to her cries for help around 2:15 in the morning. In response to the extreme and traumatic violence perpetrated against this woman, the Thunder Bay Police Service told the woman and her mother that this wasn’t a police matter. Eyewitnesses on the scene reported to CBC that the police responded with much less concern when they realized that the woman was a sex worker. This begs the question, which bodies do the police set out “to protect and serve,” and which bodies are unable to rely on the protection of the state in the face of real and pressing danger?
“What gets to me is that she was assaulted, this guy was going to kill her according to her,” said the mother of the woman, in an interview with CBC. “This guy was going to kill her and throw her in the water and the Thunder Bay police told me this wasn’t a police matter.”
Robin Sutherland, the man that had responded to the woman’s cries and gave her a sweater to wear while she waited for the ambulance also commented on police behaviour toward the woman by saying, “they handed it [the sweater] to me by two fingers and said that ‘she was contagious’ and to ‘wash or burn my sweater as soon as I got a chance.’”
According to Net News Ledger, a local news source, in late 2016 the Office of the Independent Police Review Director (OIPRD) put the Thunder Bay police under official review. This specifically had to do with “their policies, practices and attitudes regarding missing person and death investigations involving Indigenous Peoples.”
This came on the heels of a disastrous training session for Thunder Bay police. A cross cultural training session was provided by a facilitator, who afterward stated that she was verbally assaulted during the lessons she was teaching, while other police officers spent time on their phones, simply not paying attention.
“Living on a reserve and knowing what the city of Thunder Bay thinks of us…” says Kastern. “Right from our police force to our mayor saying, ‘go ahead and keep on doing what you’re doing… These are great police officers.’”
The situation has been reported on with outrage in national media outlets such as the CBC and The Toronto Star, but local outlets such as The Chronicle Journal have been quick to jump to the defense of police force and to publish stories that are critical of other media outlets.
This is a slippery slope that feeds into the culture of victim blaming and shaming. The Chronicle Journal has also come under fire for publishing regular “Letters to the Editor” that are ripe with racist anti-Indigenous content, and only serve to further negative stereotypes and racism within the city.
“If Tamara Johnson can get the front page of a newspaper, but the trailer hitch victim or the woman who ran out onto the street naked because she got almost killed gets a little small corner,” says Kastern, “then The Chronicle Journal is endorsing all of this horrible stuff.”
This is the unfortunate trend within the city of Thunder Bay, and within Canada, where settler citizens seem to gloss over the significant damage that they have done to Indigenous communities, failing to understand and acknowledge the ways in which they benefit from the continuation of the colonial state. Apart from overtly ignoring problems of Canada’s colonial past, and the foundation of genocidal violence that Canada was built upon, there are many who go on to espouse overt racist and anti-Indigenous sentiments, as evidenced by the twitter screenshots showcased below.
These tweets were made by young Thunder Bay locals after the fire that closed the James Street Bridge (the bridge that links Fort William First Nation to Thunder Bay) in 2013.
In Euro-Canadian school systems, very little, if any, of the atrocities committed by British colonialists is taught. They may occasionally acknowledge the existence of residential schools, but there is clearly a larger systemic problem when individuals, like Senator Lynn Beyak, praise residential schools.
“Mistakes were made at residential schools,” said Conservative Senator Lynn Beyak. “In many instances, horrible mistakes that overshadowed some good things that also happened at those schools.”
Senator Beyak has since stood by her claim that not all residential schools were bad and that the mistakes overshadow the good intentions. This is not only indicative of a sentiment that may very well exist amongst many Canadians, but to know that this is a belief being held in the country’s senate is an unsettling thought.
Thunder Bay has the most reported hate crimes of any city in Canada, leading Net News Ledger to dub it “The Hate Crime Capital of Canada”. This is a dreadful moniker to have associated with any city, but when you look at the accusations made about the city’s local police force, and see the biased coverage provided by local media outlets, can we truly be surprised?
Sadly, there is little indication that change is coming soon, which should leave many of us wondering the same question Tannis Kastern is:
“All the hate and violence is overwhelming. I mean is it ever going to stop? Because we’re only looking for what was originally ours.”
An earlier published edition of this article included a statement pertaining to black students on campus, and the Black Lives Matter advocacy group. The Argus’ decision to publish this statement in our article without context was disrespectful to the many black members of Lakehead’s student community and the efforts they make to make our community a better place. While we do not wish to speak for any of the persons quoted in this article, The Argus is apologetic for our decision to publish this statement without ample context, which served to downplay the existence and efforts of the black members of our student community, including the two Nigerian Canadian students that sit on the Lakehead University Student Union Board of Directors. The Argus apologizes in full for our oversight. To all black members of our community, and to anyone we have offended as a result of our mistakes, we are truly sorry. We remain committed to fighting anti-Black, and anti-Indigenous racism within our community, and apologize if we have made ourselves complicit through any of our actions. We remain committed to ensuring that our stories are truthful and accurate, and to upholding a high degree of journalistic integrity.