Tia Nicholaichuk said she was struck by how quickly the rumours spread on Facebook about Barbara Kentner, the Anishinaabe woman who died this summer after she was struck by a trailer hitch thrown from a moving car in northern Ontario.
The 34-year-old social work student from Thunder Bay, Ont. said she was also bothered by the tone of some Facebook comments directed at Kentner after her family announced she was dying and also after her death.
"The lies had been going around for quite a while." said Nicholaichuk. "There's been really nasty things being said."
Kentner, 34, died at about 5 a.m. July 4 in the hospice and palliative care unit of St. Joseph's Hospital in Thunder Bay. On Jan. 29, at about 1 a.m., she was struck by a trailer hitch thrown from a car on McKenzie St. The impact of the trailer hitch created internal injuries that led to a slow and painful death, according to Kentner's family.
Earlier this month, the Crown prosecutor announced he was upgrading the charge against Brayden Bushby, 18, to second-degree murder in connection with the trailer hitch incident. Bushby, who turned himself into police shortly after the January incident, was initially charged with aggravated assault.
Nicholaichuk said she decided to act after the Crown's announcement. She noticed a Facebook comment from someone debunking a long-shared lie that Kentner had been previously involved in an assault on a 15-year-old boy that left him with a caved-in eye-socket. Nicholaichuk said she wanted to get to the "bottom of this" and began sifting through posts, primarily from the Real Concerned Citizens of Thunder Bay Facebook group.
"When I sat down and tried to trace this rumour and I kind of put all these screenshots together of misinformation being spread and just outright hate, it was really shocking," said Nicholaichuk. "The whole story people were basing this on was fabricated. I realized I needed to get the word out there as soon as soon as possible."
Origins of the fake story
Nicholaichuk provided CBC News with a number of posts she collected, many from the Real Concerned Citizens Facebook group.
It appears the rumour that Kentner had previously assaulted a boy began after a redacted copy of a court document sheet with Kentner's name was posted on the Thunder Bay Courthouse — Inside Edition Facebook page in February. It claimed Kentner and two other women were facing several charges for allegedly assaulting and intimidating a Crown witness on Nov. 8, 2016. The posted copy had the victim's name redacted.
CBC News obtained a copy of the original court document and it identified the victim as a woman.
One of the people who supported the story was Thunder Bay resident Tyler Jeffries, who also posted under the name Gregory Lusko. He claimed the boy was a child of a "friend of mine" and that he was "friends with the family."
The story was repeated by several posters and some continue to believe it.
CBC News contacted Jeffries about his posts. He said he was "wrong" and that he never knew the family of the boy.
"I was bullshitting about that," said Jeffries, in a telephone interview. "I heard it from a buddy and he heard from a buddy's buddy."
Jeffries, who says he has friends from "all ethnicities," maintained his belief that Kentner was a "monster" because she allegedly intimidated a witness — something that was never proven in court.
"Do I go around throwing pennies at hookers at the age of 35, no, absolutely not," said Jeffries, who was banned from the Real Concerned Citizens Facebook group.
'I don't really care if she was purple'
An eyewitness to the Nov. 8, 2016, incident, which occurred in a park across from the Thunder Bay courthouse, said Kentner did not assault anyone. Holly Papassay, Kentner's sister-in-law, said she arrived at the park as the melee was unfolding. She said Kentner did nothing more than yell during the incident and she was arrested for simply being friends with one of the women involved.
Papassay said the social media lies and hate have hurt the family.
"Seeing all those posts, and knowing my nephews and my niece, Barb's daughter, were seeing this was heartbreaking," said Papassay, in a Facebook conversation with CBC News. "And it angered me…. That's just sickening and shows how cowardly most of them are, to hide behind a screen and talk trash."
Tanya Toneguzzi was another Facebook poster who believed Jeffries' story. Toneguzzi bristled at the suggestion her posts reflect racism.
"I don't really care if she was purple, it just so happens she was Native," said Toneguzzi, in a Facebook conversation with CBC News. "If I was 'ranting' about a case such as Barbara's, and the deceased person was Caucasian, do you really think people would be angry with me? No, it wouldn't matter because the person was Caucasian."
Toneguzzi said Bushby has also been bashed on social media.
"I'm sure that a lot of things said on social media hurt Bushby's family," she said. "The fact that people are trying to say that this was a 'hate crime' is unfair. We don't even know the true facts in regards to the alleged incident."
Racist posters blocked
Pino Demasi, one of the moderators of Real Concerned Citizens — which has over 13,000 members — said discussion on the page, while sometimes heated, is generally civil and he's seen opinions evolve.
"There is a small group of people who are vocal about what they feel," said Demasi. "I don't think the comments of a few reflect the actual atmosphere of Thunder Bay. I think they are more of the louder people you see."
Demasi said there are about 9,000 group members who are from Thunder Bay and the page sees roughly about 1,700 posts and between 60,000 to 100,000 comments a month.
He said the page's banned poster list is about 2,000 people long and about 1,000 were blocked for racist comments.
"The majority, 30 to 40 per cent, are definitely toward Indigenous people," said Damssi. "The No. 2 would be towards white people."