As It Happens

Police review of Thunder Bay Indigenous deaths 'a big step,' says writer Tanya Talaga

Thunder Bay will review the deaths of nine Indigenous people in the city after a report by Ontario's police watchdog found that racist attitudes by police contributed to inadequate investigations.

4 of 9 cases under review by police were featured in Talaga's book Seven Fallen Feathers

Tanya Talaga wrote about four of the cases that are under review in her book Seven Fallen Feathers: Racism, Death, and Hard Truths in a Northern City. (Reuters/Mark Blinch)

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The decision by police in Thunder Bay, Ont., to re-investigate the deaths of nine Indigenous people is a "bittersweet" moment for the community, says author and journalist Tanya Talaga.

Police made the announcement Tuesday on the recommendation of the Office of the Independent Police Review Director.

The civilian oversight body found in December that police had failed to conduct adequate investigations — at least in part because of racist attitudes and stereotyping.

Four of the nine cases involve young people from remote Indigenous communities who went to Thunder Bay to attend high school — Jethro Anderson, Curran Strang, Kyle Morrisseau and Jordan Wabasse.

Talaga wrote about the students in her book Seven Fallen Feathers: Racism, Death, and Hard Truths in a Northern City. Here is part of her conversation with As It Happens host Carol Off.

What does it mean to have police review the investigations into these deaths?

This is a big step. It's something that I think the families, the community, everyone who knows about the cases of the people that have died in Thunder Bay and not been thoroughly investigated — this is something that we've all been waiting for. But it's also bittersweet.

But does it mean that they will be re-investigated?

Sylvie Hauth, the police chief of Thunder Bay, has announced that she has a team that's going forward and they are going to look at those cases again, those nine cases that were recommended be redone.

And they will, as part of the process, be re-investigated by a multidisciplinary team of officers from other forces from the Thunder Bay police.

There will be an oversight of that team looking into the cases and the oversight of that team is going to have representatives of Nishnawbe Aski Nation, in particular Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler.

Also, there will be some people on that team from the Ontario Forensic Pathologist Office and the Chief Coroner's Office.

These seven students died in Thunder Bay between 2000 and 2011. From top left, Jethro Anderson, 15, Curran Strang, 18, Paul Panacheese, 17, Robyn Harper, 18, Reggie Bushie, 15, Kyle Morriseau, 17, and Jordan Wabasse, 15. (CBC)

There are nine different cases. But is there anything consistent among all of them that points to why they have to be re-investigated?

The one thing that I can speak to, specifically on the four cases concerning the Seven Fallen Feathers, the seven youth who died between 2000 and 2011, I can tell you that those cases were not properly investigated from the start.

Those cases all have similarities in a lack of police looking for the missing youth as soon as they were reported missing. There was problems with the investigations themselves. From the family members, if you speak to them, they always will tell you that things were left undone and unsaid. More needed to be done right from the start.

The cases showed that First Nations people in Thunder Bay are often treated as less than worthy victims. That's what came out through the seven youth inquest that was held three years ago.

How do you think this would have been handled in a different community? If there was a high school where seven kids over a period of time had disappeared, and four them drowning in rivers, even though they could swim — how would it have been dealt with elsewhere do you think?

Well, that's an interesting question. And I'm also going to point out to you that it depends, perhaps, if the children were First Nations or not.

There has been an undercurrent of racism that we've seen in this society concerning Indigenous people, especially concerning Indigenous people when it comes to law enforcement.

One of the things that you'll often hear is Indigenous people are over-represented in the prison system and they are over-policed as well — and yet they're also under-policed.

What that means is that often times, and I've heard this from covering the families of murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls, the calls aren't answered sometimes when they call the police. ... Or, you know, they're not getting regular updates. They don't really know what's happened or their cases aren't taken seriously.

So when you ask would this be taken differently if it was in any other city — I wonder, I wonder.

I think that perhaps now, because we have seen changes, we have seen an awareness of what Indigenous people have been facing in this country ... what's happened in the past is not OK anymore and that's a good thing.

I would hope that things would change. But in the same respect, we still have children dying in Thunder Bay. We still see many of the same things.

Sometimes I think in this country we take two steps forward and then we take 10 steps backwards.

The mayor of Thunder Bay has said that all of these investigations, these accusations of racism, are giving the city a bad name. We've seen people forced to resign from boards or have stepped down from them because of the turmoil around this issue of these Indigenous people who have died and now we're being told not properly investigated. Why do you think there is so much resistance in Thunder Bay to looking at these cases?

Sometimes the truth is hard to hear. We've been seeing this across the country when it comes to truth and reconciliation. Truth is a hard part. It's hard to hear what has happened in this country. It's hard to hear what's been happening in Thunder Bay. But it's the truth.

The national media is not making that up. First Nations people — we're not making it up. This is what's been going on in the city. And it's not everywhere in Thunder Bay. The entire city isn't like that, but you have to recognize the problem has been there.

You have to look at it, and it has to be aired out. It's happening now. We see all this change with the police board. We see change within the Thunder Bay Police Service. This is a good thing.

I would hope this gets replicated in cities all over Canada.

So you're hopeful that this is what we're now seeing, even though it seems like turmoil and a lot of angry people and a lot of finger-pointing — you think that this is a big step forward?

I'm always hopeful. I think that the families deserve answers — answers they never received years and years ago. So many other families also deserve answers.

People deserve justice no matter what colour they are — red, white, yellow or black — that shouldn't matter.

I am hopeful, yes. I'm hopeful that that's underway and this whole country is going to change.

Written by Morgan Passi and John McGill. Interview produced by Morgan Passi. Q&A edited for length and clarity.