Thunder Bay·Exclusive

First Nations man survived assault in Thunder Bay river, says woman who called police

Distrust of police in Thunder Bay, Ont., is growing after the death of a seventh Indigenous teen in a river since 2000.

Indigenous groups begin patrolling river banks as questions grow over police response to deaths

Members of the Thunder Bay Bear Clan patrol the river banks in an attempt to improve safety in the city where seven First Nations teens have been found dead in the water since 2000. (Martine Laberge/Radio-Canada)

First Nations volunteers are launching a regular patrol of the river banks in Thunder Bay, Ont., and non-Indigenous residents are joining the chorus of criticism about police practices in the city after the death of a seventh Indigenous teen.

Josiah Begg, 14, was found dead in the McIntyre River on May 18, less than two weeks after Tammy Keeash, 17, was found dead in the floodway of the same river. Both teens were from remote First Nations. In all, seven Indigenous teens have been found dead in rivers that run through the city since 2000.

No one knows how the teens wind up in the river, but there are growing concerns about racially motivated violence.

"For me, the anti-Indigenous racism in this city has become so normal and it's so troubling and it creates this atmosphere of heaviness and unrest and unsafeness," said Jana-Rae Yerxa, a member of Couchiching First Nation who lives in Thunder Bay.

'I don’t know what’s happening but it scares me. It concerns me and I just think about if these weren’t Indigenous youth, how would we be looking at this?' says Bear Clan patrol volunteer Jana-Rae Yerxa. (Martine Laberge/Radio-Canada)
"A few months ago we had an Indigenous woman that was hit by trailer hitch and all of this makes me want to do this," Yerxa said Friday night as she joined the Bear Clan, a First Nations-led volunteer group that has vowed to regularly patrol the river banks.

News of the recent river deaths prompted Tara Lewis to ask questions about how police in her hometown are dealing with a situation she encountered last fall.

Lewis told CBC News she was closing up her downtown business on Thunder Bay's south side on Oct. 22, 2016, when she encountered a First Nations man in distress.

"He was completely drenched and bleeding from the head," Lewis said. 

'I feel like this is the time to talk about it,' says Tara Lewis, who encountered a First Nations man who said he'd been thrown in a river by two white men. (Martine Laberge/Radio-Canada)
"In a nutshell he told us he had just crawled out of the river because two — in his words — white men, had come down to the river in a blue truck, had beat him up, assaulted him and thrown him in the river and he struggled to get out, got out of the river and noticed they came back in the truck and put him back in the river," she said.

Lewis alerted police and gave a statement. Now she's left wondering why police didn't treat the case with more urgency or see a connection to the river deaths.

"It seems to be the opinion of a lot of people ..in the Indigenous community, but also people like myself who have borne witness to something that is clearly troublesome," she said.

2nd report of assault at the river

Thunder Bay police confirmed the report of an assault on that date last fall. In an emailed statement, a spokesperson said the criminal investigations branch "followed up on the case and it remains unsolved and open."

It's the second report of a First Nations person being thrown in a river. In 2016, an inquest into the deaths of seven Indigenous students heard evidence about a teen from North Caribou Lake First Nation who survived a 2007 attack by a group young males who were not known to him. No one has been charged for that assault.

Ontario's civilian police oversight body launched an unprecedented systemic review of the way Thunder Bay police investigate the deaths of Indigenous people last fall. Results aren't expected until the end of the year.

That's in part because the two recent deaths have been added to the review. Police say Begg's death remains under investigation while Keeash's death has been handed over to the coroner to examine.

Police role critical

Dr. Kona Williams, with Ontario's Forensic Pathology Service, said the role of the police is critical for collecting clues about what happens before someone drowns. (Williams is not involved with either case).

She acknowledged it can be difficult to determine how people end up in the river.

"If somebody had been pushed into the water, versus someone who slipped in the water, there would generally not be any signs on the body that we would be able to tell or make that differentiation," she said. "It can be very difficult for us to say this person was pushed, this person slipped, or this person was held under the water."

The river bank is a dangerous place for any child, regardless of race, Thunder Bay Mayor Keith Hobbs says. (Jeff Walters/CBC)
Thunder Bay Mayor Keith Hobbs says he doesn't believe there is a criminal element to the deaths near the river, nor does he accept that racism plays a role.

The river bank is a dangerous place for any child, regardless of race, Hobbs said, and Indigenous teens who come to the city must be taught to avoid it.

"We have to street-proof those youth coming down [to the city from remote First Nations] and I think we have to do a better job at it. Obviously we haven't done a good enough job," he said. "We get reports all the time, police get reports that kids are hanging out down the rivers. There are parties underneath the bridges."

That response smacks of stereotypes for Yerxa on the Bear Clan patrol.

"There's always this talk of youth and drinking and the stereotype of the drunk Indian and that's what I mean about the anti-Indigenous racism being so prevalent in this city," Yerxa said.

"Because the truth is, young people, they experiment, they might drink sometimes — all youth — not just Indigenous youth, but for some reason it's our youth that end up dead in the river. How do you make sense of that?"

Clarifications

  • The original version of this story referred to a second report of a First Nations person being thrown in a river "by non-Indigenous people." The agreed statement of facts from the 2016 inquest about a former student being thrown in the river does not mention race and refers to an attack by "a group of young males, who were unknown to him."
    Jun 12, 2017 11:12 AM ET

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