M'Chigeeng Chief says brawl stemmed from racism 'rearing its ugly head'

First Nations leaders are disturbed that a brawl among students at Manitoulin Secondary School last week is an indicator of underlying racism.

OPP charge five M'Chigeeng members in wake of brawl involving Indigenous and non-Indigenous students.

A police search and recovery truck.
OPP have laid charges of assault, assault causing bodily harm and uttering threats against five people following the violent incident. (CBC)

First Nations leaders are disturbed that a brawl among students at Manitoulin Secondary School last week is an indicator of underlying racism.

M'Chigeeng Chief Linda Debassige says she learned that the problem started between two non-Indigenous students from Little Current and later escalated to involve young members of M'Chigeeng and other First Nations in a ''demoralizing and demeaning way.''

In a news release, Debassige wrote that ''this incident is an indicator of a deeper more disturbing reality, which is underlaying racism that has now reared its ugly head yet again.''

''This is a situation that must be acknowledged and tackled head on or it will keep re-occurring as we have seen over the last few decades,'' she said.

Debassige also said she is beyond frustrated that the only people charged by police were M'Chigeeng members when non-Indigenous people were clearly involved.

Issues with Rainbow District School Board

OPP said they charged five people, one 38 year-old woman and four teens from M'Chigeeng ranging from 13 to 17 years of age. They face counts of  assault, assault with a weapon, assault causing bodily harm and uttering threats.

The Chief went on to say that her community feels betrayed by the Rainbow District School Board for failing to honour Truth and Reconciliation and neglecting to renew their Education Agreement, which expired August 31st.

A spokesperson for the Rainbow District Board confirmed that a teacher from the high school is being investigated for making comments in connection with the violent incident. Nicole Charette says the teacher is at home awaiting the outcome of the investigation. Charette says she can't say anything else for privacy reasons.

As for the Education Agreement, Charette says the Board is keen to set a date for discussions. She says there are some changes that all parties need to look at before it can be signed.

Glen Hare is the Grand Council Chief of the Anishnabek Nation (Anishnabek Nation)

Anishinabek Nation Grand Council Chief Glen Hare also blames racism for fuelling the violent incident.

"I am in disbelief that our First Nation students are still the target for racism and violence while attending school in this day and age. This is unacceptable," said Grand Council Chief Glen Hare in a news release.

Addressing racism

"We have lived and continue to live with the legacy of the residential school era. It is truly shameful and disheartening that the education system in Canada and in Ontario continues to be dysfunctional when they ought to be the leaders for respectful understanding and change for benefit of all students, families and communities,'' he said.

However, he reiterated his belief that education is key in combating racism.

Education is key

"I've said it before and I'll say it again: education is crucial to counter ignorance. Racism stems from ignorance—from the unknown. We need to educate our First Nation and non-Indigenous youth alike so they grow up to be educated and respectful adults that break the cycle where prejudice and racism is perpetuated.''

But Jamie Mohamed, the second-year principal of Manitoulin Secondary School, says the incident that led to the brawl was not racial in nature.

"The incident started with a boyfriend and girlfriend thing," Mohamed said. "It was basically a bullying kind of technique. [Saying] we're no longer going out, I'm going to say something mean about you, and it snowballed from there."

From there, Mohamed said, things escalated.

"What occurred subsequently in the heat of the moment, there was some racial things that were said."

Mohamed said the incident, regardless of how it began, raised red flags in the school and community.

"I have reached out to the community, to Chief Debassige specifically after this incident, informed them of what has happened and asked for their input so we can move forward in a positive way," he said.

"We don't want to rush it, but we want to make sure we put in place is what everybody wants, what's best for kids, best for the school, and best for the community."

with files from Kate Rutherford