First Nations student recalls 'very scary' experience in Thunder Bay
'To them we are just savages,' former student testifies about experiences
A young woman from Keewaywin First Nation in northern Ontario told a coroner's inquest jury on Thursday that she was physically assaulted by police in Thunder Bay when she was taken into custody for drinking when she was 15 years old, and was later shown racially offensive drawings while she was in a holding cell.
Skye Kakegamic was testifying at the inquest into the deaths of seven First Nations students who died while attending school in Thunder Bay.
She was with one of the students, Robyn Harper, on the night she died in 2007, but Kakegamic was also questioned by lawyers at the inquest about her general experiences as a student in the city.
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Kakegamic testified that within days of arriving in Thunder Bay when she was 15, she was drinking with friends when police arrived and a male officer began "body searching" the female students.
"I said, 'shouldn't a lady cop be searching me?'" Kakegamic told the inquest. "I guess he was just frustrated with me...he grabbed my hair and he slammed my head [into the police car].
"There was a dent in the car...my head was hurting," she testified.
'Cartoons of natives' shown to girls in cell
A group of girls were taken to the police station and put in holding cells where it was "scary and we were just crying," she testified.
"The cops were in there just laughing at us," Kakegamic told the inquest. "They would hold up a paper... and draw cartoons of a native and say savage on there...and draw sad faces that said 'boo hoo.'"
A spokesperson for Thunder Bay police told CBC News that police would not comment on testimony that is before "an active inquest."
Kakegamic also answered lawyers' questions about other incidents of racism she said she experienced in the city.
'To them we are just savages'
She testified that several times, food was thrown at her from passing vehicles and people made a war-whooping noise and yelled things such as "stupid savage, go back home."
"It's very scary," Kakegamic told the inquest. "To them, we are just savages, they think it's funny. Like some people when they pick on a dog, or torture it, they think it's funny. They treat us like that."
When asked how the incidents made her feel, Kakegamic said "I get mad, I get frustrated, I feel I could do better."
Later Kakegamic testified about the reasons she believes First Nations students turn to alcohol.
"The easiest thing to do is to drink a little to boost up your confidence," she said. "That's what happened to Robyn. I made friends like that too, and everyone around me.
"I guess we were just taking the easy way," she added. "We didn't know any other way. We were just kids."
Kakegamic testified she and Robyn Harper met up at the mall on Harper's first Friday in the city and bought alcohol from a "runner," an adult they knew from Keewaywin.
They then headed to a park to drink.
'I knew we wouldn't be safe with police, so I didn't call [them].' - Skye Kakekagumick
"When I was walking with her [Robyn], she said 'if I get too drunk, watch me, make sure I get home,'" Kakegamic testified. "I promised...and then we just did something like kids do, we pinky promised."
Later that night, Kakegamic said she called a student support worker, worried about Harper's level of intoxication.
"I knew we wouldn't be safe with police, so I didn't call [them]," she testified.
Support workers picked up the girls at the Brodie Street bus station and took Harper to her boarding home, where she was found dead in the hallway the following morning. Medical experts testified she died of alcohol poisoning.
Kakegamic now works as a teacher's assistant in Keewaywin First Nation. She told the inquest she worries about the students she teaches having to come to the city for high school. Like many remote communities, school doesn't go past Grade 8 in Keewaywin.
She suggested that teachers and support staff from the First Nations high school in Thunder Bay hold a "meet-and-greet" with prospective students and their parents in their home communities before the teens leave for school.
That way, they would know who to turn to for help once they arrive in the city.
"All of our lives, we're told not to talk to strangers, but for our education, we have to," Kakegamic said.