Ontario Regional Chief says Thunder Bay can't keep Indigenous youth safe
This month, the bodies of two Indigenous teenagers have been pulled from the McIntyre River in Thunder Bay, Ont.
The first was 17-year-old Tammy Keeash, whose body was found in the river on May 7. As the search was underway to find Tammy, 14-year-old Josiah Begg also went missing. His body was pulled from the river on May 18.
There have now been seven bodies of Indigenous youth found in the rivers around Thunder Bay since 2000. This week, the city's mayor and the Ontario Regional Chief announced their call to action to help protect First Nations people in Thunder Bay.
Is somebody doing this? Is this a serial killer situation?- Isadore Day, Ontario Regional Chief
As Isadore Day tells Day 6 host Brent Bambury, he has concerns that Indigenous youth and adults in Thunder Bay are being targeted.
"Let's face it, is somebody doing this? Is this a serial killer situation? Is this something that the entire city should be alarmed about?" asks Day, who is the Ontario Regional Chief for the Ontario Chiefs.
The city's mayor, Keith Hobbs, is also acknowledging the need for answers, and for change, in the city.
Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School is a school for Indigenous students in Thunder Bay. At the school's graduation ceremony last week, Hobbs apologized to the students for not keeping them safe.
"As mayor it's my job to keep this city safe, with the police obviously," Hobbs tells CBC Radio reporter Jody Porter. "I'm not doing my job if children that come to this community don't feel safe and don't think that they can go out at night."
Together, Day and Hobbs have vowed to work to keep Indigenous youth safe in Thunder Bay.
Who were Tammy Keeash and Josiah Begg?
Keeash was an artist from North Caribou Lake First Nation, a remote community more than 700 kilometres northwest of Thunder Bay. She was living in a group home and undergoing counselling when she missed her curfew and was reported missing on May 6.
Keeash was also a Junior Canadian Ranger and was familiar with the outdoors and with water, which has raised questions about how she drowned in the McIntyre River. Or why she was near the river in the first place.
Begg was from Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug First Nation, which is more than 600 kilometres north of Thunder Bay. He was in the city with his father for a medical appointment. Like Keeash, he went missing on May 6.
First Nations conducted their own search for Begg, parallel to the police search.
There have been longstanding concerns about the way Thunder Bay police have conducted searches for missing Indigenous youth, something that is now being investigated by the provincial civilian police watchdog.
Allegations of racism by police and within Thunder Bay were voiced at an inquest into the deaths of seven Indigenous youth in the city, five of whom drowned in local rivers.
The inquest was established to examine the circumstances surrounding the deaths of the students, who were in Thunder Bay to attend high school.
The inquest most certainly failed in that it did not take and squarely position the issue, and the concept, and the glaring tragedy of racism at the front end.- Isadore Day, Ontario Regional Chief
In many remote communities, the schools only have classes up to Grade Ten. After that, students move to cities like Thunder Bay or Timmins, Ont. to finish their high school education.
Friends of the victims who were at the inquest spoke of the racism they endured when they moved to Thunder Bay. One talked about frequently having eggs thrown at him as he walked to school.
But of the jury's 145 recommendations, few dealt specifically with racism.
The inquest had been highly anticipated, with the hope that it would result in changes for Indigenous people in Thunder Bay. But according to Day, the inquest failed First Nations students.
"The inquest most certainly failed in that it did not take and squarely position the issue, and the concept, and the glaring tragedy of racism at the front end," says Day.
Day says that if the inquest had dealt more directly racism it would have recognized that the deaths were very much race-based.
"There's no non-Native people being pulled out of the river. There's no non-Native people being found on the banks of those rivers without life. It's all Indigenous people," says Day.
Are Indigenous people being targeted?
From the inquest, the deaths of three teens who have drowned in the city's rivers remain "undetermined". And now, with seven students in total drowning in the river, Day wonders if there is something more at play.
"I don't think [targeting] is just possible, it's actually happening," he says. "But what is it? What is the manifestation of that target? Is it one person? Is it a system? Is it a police force? Is it, you know, the city of Thunder Bay as a whole?"
Day says First Nations people are the "outcome of something that's deeply wrong in Thunder Bay."
"We just need to get to the bottom of it and find out what's actually wrong."
Call to action
Day and Hobbs came together this week in a call to protect Indigenous youth in the city.
"We need to look at community safety. We need to look at the policing model and system because it's not working," says Day.
In an interview with CBC reporter Jody Porter, Hobbs suggested the creation of an alternate police force, to whom Indigenous people could go with any issues or concerns.
"Indigenous people, for whatever reason, good or bad, don't trust the police. So maybe there has to be a mechanism for those people that want to talk and tell their story," says Hobbs.
Hobbs suggests trained civilian peace officers could be made available to members of the Indigenous community to take statements and share information that may be lacking in an investigation.
Day is also pushing for a meeting between the Indigenous community and municipal, provincial and federal partners, to work to improve the lives of Indigenous youth.
"I can rest assure you that the young people have their ideas as to what's happening, and we need to listen to them."
To hear the whole interview with Isadore Day, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.