At least five people have died in the streets of Thunder Bay since Christmas. Who's keeping track?
The numbers come from local street patrol group, but city institutions don't have complete data set
A bright, red cloth tied to a lamp post outside the Thunder Bay Museum stands out from the downtown streets.
It marks the spot where the body of Arnold Sakanee, a 29-year-old man from Neskantaga First Nation, was found frozen in the early morning of Friday, Jan. 22. Temperatures the previous night were well into the minus 20s.
The words "RIP Brother" are scrawled on the building's wall, located just a few minutes walk from one of the three overnight shelters in the city.
His friends from the shelter remember Sakanee as "tough," but as "a good man" who would help them with their problems.
And his mother, in town to make burial arrangements, described her son as a friendly, outgoing person who liked fishing, camping and living a traditional lifestyle when he was at home. But she said he'd been having a hard time with drinking and other addictions at the time of his death.
Sakanee is one of at least five people that have died on the streets of Thunder Bay, Ont. since Christmas, according to reports from the local street patrol group Wiindo Debwe Mosewin.
Lives cut short too early: Not One More Death
"All of these people are passing away, but none of these deaths needed to happen. And whether it was exposure or an overdose or COVID — whatever it was — it just didn't need to happen," said Cassie Thornton, a spokesperson for Not One More Death.
The group formed last summer to protest police violence and other forms of systemic racism in Thunder Bay, and to honour those who died too early.
Thornton added, "it feels so urgent that the public knows what is happening, you know, behind the casino and in the parking lot of Canadian Tire. Death is happening in plain sight."
Ma-Nee Chacaby, another spokesperson for Not One More Death, says she worries people in Thunder Bay have just stopped caring.
"This is my opinion. The community is falling apart. They're not caring for each other," she said. "Yes, they care for the little kids and stuff like that. What about the adults? We need to care for each other."
But the pain is felt deeply by loved ones.
In a Facebook post a few days after Sakanee's death, Neskantaga Chief Chris Moonias wrote, "imagine the pain the community has to endure and has the resolve to keep going and help each other. This will be our second funeral this month related to mental health, addiction or homelessness issues."
The photo shared by the Neskantaga Chief showed a group of men preparing a burial site for their community member, despite temperatures reaching -30 C.
He added in his post, "last week I read about an outrage of community members in town because they removed nets from a skating rink. The same week, there was no outrage on a death of a homeless man near a homeless shelter in that same town."
Lives and deaths of people should be tracked, data published
Volunteers with Not One More Death have spent many late nights on Zoom calls in recent weeks.
They've been trying to learn more about who the people were and how they died, thinking about what support they can offer to families, and asking how they can work to prevent pre-mature deaths.
"The problem is that those people — their lives and their deaths — go invisibilized. So we can't learn from the problems that are causing their deaths, and we also can't acknowledge their lives," said Thornton.
But an idea that has caught their attention is a survey conducted by Toronto Public Health. It collects data about people experiencing homelessness who die while living on the street, at a friend's place, at a shelter, or at other locations in the city.
Toronto's city council made the decision to start collecting the information in the spring of 2016, shortly after the Toronto Star published an investigation into the Ontario's "uncounted homeless dead" which found that the province and most municipalities in Ontario do not track homeless deaths.
In 2017, the city's public health organization began working with service agencies to record the deaths of homeless people. The work consists of an online, publicly available survey that asks people to input as much information as they know, including: first and last name, age, gender, date, place and cause of death and contact information. The team in Toronto then analyzes that data and publishes it twice per year.
Sarah Collier, the manager of surveillance and epidemiology with Toronto Public Health, said they always knew that homelessness was a big problem in the city.
"We had heard a lot of information anecdotally, but being able to quantify it and routinely monitor it year after year has allowed us to examine it in a bit more of a systematic way."
She says the survey itself is relatively simple. The hard part is making sure organizations are regularly filling out the surveys so the information is collected, and then making sure the same deaths aren't duplicated.
But Collier adds, the depth of information provided is unprecedented.
"We did a pretty deep scan to see if there's anything that currently exists and that we could just either build off of or utilize instead of building our own system. And currently, nothing exists that would robustly capture the number of [homeless] deaths for the city of Toronto."
Thunder Bay doesn't have that data
The executive director for Shelter House in Thunder Bay, Michelle Jordan, says that data could be useful.
"We do try to fill gaps where we see them and so yeah, I'm very interested to know what happened [to the people that have died since Christmas]."
But that level of information simply doesn't exist.
It just speaks to how little value we put on the lives of Indigenous and impoverished people.- Cassie Thornton, spokesperson for Not One More Death
The CBC asked a number of organizations if they could verify the number of people that had died outside in Thunder Bay.
Thunder Bay Police Services said it would be difficult to provide an accurate number.
Superior North Emergency Medical Services said they were aware of two outdoor cardiac-related emergencies since Christmas and that they have been responding to opioid-related calls daily, but they do not transport bodies found.
The Municipality of Thunder Bay and the district's health unit both referred the CBC to the coroner's office.
And the coroner's office said "deaths due to exposure happen in Thunder Bay."
Not One More Death's spokesperson Cassie Thornton says that isn't good enough.
"It just speaks to how little value we put on the lives of Indigenous and impoverished people."
- A previous version of this story said Toronto Public Health publishes data every two years on the deaths of people experiencing homelessness. In fact, they publish the data twice per year.Feb 05, 2021 9:57 AM ET