In this striking true crime podcast, the culprit isn't a person — it's colonialism in Thunder Bay

Why do so many Indigenous youth die here? "Thunder Bay" searches for answers, and it's vital listening for all Canadians.

Why do so many Indigenous youth die here? 'Thunder Bay' is vital listening for all Canadians

The Thunder Bay podcast. (Canadaland)

The genre of true crime has always been coded with a layer of exploitation and voyeurism. Ostensibly, people who consume true crime media are drawn in by being guided through the particulars of some of the most heinous and seemingly inexplicable crimes committed — the more severe, the more salacious. Part and parcel, and perhaps central, to this is a look at the aggressor: an exploration of their psyche, how they operated, where they came from. The purpose of true crime is usually to piece together some kind of answer: why did they do the things they did?

Thunder Bay, the podcast hosted by Winnipeg-based Anishinaabe comedian Ryan McMahon, is in some ways in line with this genre. But the culprit, in this case, isn't a person. It's a city, and more accurately, a system, working in tandem to erase and kill Indigenous people in Thunder Bay. The podcast extracts a spiritual cost: it is at once intriguing, shocking, nauseating, angering and incredibly informative. And it is vitally important listening for all Canadians.

The podcast, presented by Canadaland and produced by Jesse Brown (and featuring a great original score by Indigenous composer Cris Derksen), wrapped its first season last week. It's the first investigative podcast produced by the independent media company. A summary for the podcast queries: "The highest homicide and hate crime rates in the country. A mayor charged with extortion. A police chief who faced trial for obstruction of justice. Nine tragic deaths of Indigenous high schoolers. Why does it all happen here?"

Trout Lake just outside of Thunder Bay. (Submitted by Brett Belcher)

Thunder Bay has been hailed aesthetically as a mix of true crime and social activism, rooted in McMahon's narrative investigation of a city that locals call "Murder Bay." The podcast is driven by the high number of unexplained deaths of Indigenous youth in the city — a subject also explored by writer Tanya Talaga in her book Seven Fallen Feathers. McMahon's podcast isn't seeking to solve the mystery of these deaths — believed by most to be murders — but instead aims to solve the mystery of the city: why do so many Indigenous youth die in Thunder Bay? As the first episode poses, it isn't about "who killed all those kids, but what killed them."

McMahon spent his childhood around Thunder Bay, and thus has a connection to the city and the traumatic subject matter of the podcast. He also has lots of experience with the format: he created Indian & Cowboy, a listener-supported Indigenous podcast network, and hosts the podcasts Red Man Laughing and Stories From The Land. With Thunder Bay, he's lending the form to a painful story that pieces together the connections between the titular city's crime, corruption and racism. McMahon acknowledges that the podcast might upset Thunder Bay residents, but he approaches the work with a responsibility to find the truth. "At the end of the day, we just have a job to do," he explained to Ryerson Review of Journalism.

We want to show you, 'Hey, this is how Canada has failed, and this is how Canada is failing.- Ryan McMahon, Thunder Bay podcast host

Listening through the episodes, it becomes clear that that job isn't to tell the story of Thunder Bay alone — it's also to tell the story of Canada. "We're creating a show that allows people to hear what colonization sounds like," McMahon says. "We are making a show that allows people to consider the ongoing effects of the last 150 years."

"We want to show you, 'Hey, this is how Canada has failed, and this is how Canada is failing.'"

These narratives are driven as much by McMahon as they are by the voices like Aboriginal Peoples Television Network journalist Willow Fiddler, lawyer Julian Falconer and activist Bridget Perrier. Many of the voices on the podcast are Indigenous people who live in the city. Audio-only content offers a unique and effective vehicle for this sort of storytelling — without visuals, we focus more explicitly on the words. "The good thing about audio is you sometimes just have to let people speak," says McMahon. "The medium becomes a really powerful communicator of the complications of Canada. It's not fictional. It's not imagined. It's from the ground...from the people that live there."

Not all of these voices are kind ones. McMahon and Brown collected tape from a broad range of perspectives across different areas in the city — including interviews with racist residents who blame the deaths on the victims themselves. "We took a sampling of the city," McMahon says simply. The result is a bleak, honest rendering of how many people in Thunder Bay view their city.

Writer and comedian Ryan McMahon speaks during a segment of CBC Radio's The Current on Monday, May 15, 2017 in Toronto. (CBC)

After McMahon and Brown discussed the intricacies of creating the show at a panel held during Toronto's Hot Docs Podcast Festival, audience members congratulated the two on the show's success. But for McMahon, the praise has begun to feel strange. "I've started to feel uncomfortable by it," he says. "People are going, 'We love your show, your show's amazing.' What's amazing about it? We're talking about dead people."

The issue is whether or not these assessments are critical and progress-minded: are people absorbing the podcast simply as entertainment or as a legitimate unpacking of settler-colonial violence? McMahon hopes Thunder Bay will stimulate both: "Let's have the conversation about what we're finding so surprising or so rewarding. If what we're gaining from this is a new perspective on this country, that's exactly what we're meant to do."

McMahon acknowledges that it's challenging to reach many Canadians with this content. "It's hard work making the phantom visible to people who don't want to see it," he says during one of the episodes. But it is crucial to dismantle the sort of institutional racism that underpins Thunder Bay and the rest of Canada. Each day it remains in place, it might take another Indigenous life. Last month, a young Indigenous woman was found dead in a Thunder Bay apartment and four locals were charged with first-degree murder. These events suggest why McMahon, speaking of the city in the first episode, sighs, "I don't know if it can be fixed."

But with Thunder Bay, that work is coupled with a structure that makes these issues accessible and real, with listeners getting the story straight from the mouths of those affected. McMahon knows this well, and he says the podcast is far from over. "Seasons two, three and four are sitting in the Google Drive," he chuckles. "If we can allow people to hear what colonialism looks like and how violent settler-colonialism is, and do that by tricking people into listening to a podcast, we win — and everyone wins."

Listen to Thunder Bay on Canadaland.


Luke Ottenhof is a freelance writer based in Toronto.