A new Statistics Canada report shows Thunder Bay has one-third of Canada's reported anti-Indigenous hate crimes, indicating justice gone missing in the lives of First Nations people in northwestern Ontario. The City of Thunder Bay is inundated with mysterious deaths and violent acts of racism, and hate crimes against Indigenous youth keep spilling into the news. Northern Ontario news has seen several incidences of horrific Thunder Bay racism.
Often these are bright kids coming out of remote communities to further their education. Future leaders are winding up dead. Indigenous leadership in the region has declared a complete loss of faith in Thunder Bay Police and the OPP. Here's a partial list of Indigenous people who had their lives cut short in Thunder Bay:
Stacy DeBungee, 41, was discovered dead in the McIntyre River on the morning of Oct. 19, 2015.
Christina Gliddy, 28, resident of Wunnumin Lake First Nationm was found unconscious on the gravel by the bridge over the Kaministiquia River at 8 a.m. on March 29, 2016, and died in hospital later that morning.
Clayton Chuck Mawakeesic, 38, of Sandy Lake First Nation, was discovered in the McIntyre River on July 29, 2016.
Jethro Anderson, 15, student at Dennis Franklin Cromarty First Nations High School in Thunder Bay, went missing in 2000 and his body was found in the Kaministiquia River
Curran Strang, 18, Pikangikum First Nation, student at Dennis Franklin Cromarty First Nations High School, went missing in 2005, body was found in the McIntyre River.
Paul Panacheese, 21, Mishkeegogamang First Nation, student at Dennis Franklin Cromarty First Nations High School, died in 2006. Cause of death unknown, "We don't know exactly how Paul died . . . we are still waiting for some answers," said his mother, Maryanne Panacheese.
Robyn Harper, 18, Keewaywin First Nation died in 2007, student at Dennis Franklin Cromarty First Nations High School, alleged to have died of an overdose, but questions remain.
Reggie Bushie, 15, Poplar Hill First Nation, student at Dennis Franklin Cromarty First Nations High School, went missing in 2007 and his body was found in the McIntyre River.
Kyle Morriseau, 17, Keewaywin First Nation, student in Thunder Bay, and apparently the second student from Keewaywin to die while at school, went missing in 2009, his body was found in the McIntyre River.
Jordan Wabasse, 15, Webequie First Nation, student at the Matawa Learning Centre, went missing on Feb 7, 2011, body was found in the Kaministiquia River three months later.
Tammy Keeash, 17, an artist from North Caribou First Nation, living in a Thunder Bay group home, went missing May 6, 2017, and was found dead the next day in the Neebing-McIntyre Floodway. "No evidence to indicate criminality," Thunder Bay police say.
Josiah Begg, 14, Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug, missing since early May, found in the McIntyre River May 18, 2017, a post-mortem examination was performed to determine the cause of death.
Stephan Banning, 22, Fort William First Nation, iron worker, body was found in the Kaministiquia River a day after his 22nd birthday on July 5, 1990, cause of death a question mark to everybody but the Thunder Bay police.
Along with student and other deaths, survivors tell of murderous assaults walking alone by rivers. Darryl Kakekayash, a survivor, was 17, from Weagamow (North Caribou Lake First Nation) attending Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School for indigenous youth from the Sioux Lookout district in 2007/2008, which is run by the Northern Nishnawbe Education Council. On Oct. 28, 2008, he was attacked, assaulted by three white males, and nearly drowned. “The ground was slimy. It wasn’t sand or anything but your whole foot would go in… when I stood on two feet, I couldn’t get my feet out. . ."
One unnamed man in his 30s is witness to such attacks, on Oct. 22, 2016. Tara Lewis tells news services that she was closing her restaurant at 11 p.m. when she encountered a First Nation man, dripping wet. He told her a group of white men driving a blue truck stopped and beat him up, threw him in a river, and returned for another attack as he emerged from the water. Lewis called police and the man filed a statement but never heard back.
A safety audit done in Thunder Bay and an inquest called for City of Thunder Bay, Thunder Bay police, and First Nations to work together to find a way forward including better lighting, emergency button poles, under-bridge barricades, and increased police patrols.
Hatred and violence directed at Indigenous people continues at an appalling rate in Thunder Bay. An act of senseless criminal violence put resident Barbara Kentner on death's door earlier in 2017. She was hit in the abdomen by a heavy trailer hitch thrown from a moving vehicle. Kentner's sister Melissa was walking with Barbara when someone in the vehicle yelled: “I [expletive] got one of them.”
Barbara Kentner’s recovery never came, stomach filling with fluids, kidneys failing, doctors saying they can do little else to save her. She succumbed to her injuries Jul. 5 and was laid to rest in Thunder Bay Jul 12. Police charged 18-year-old Braydon Bushby with aggravated assault, and as yet have not upgraded the charges to murder. He is white. Kentner was Indigenous from Wabigoon First Nation.
Francis Kavanaugh, Chief, Grand Council of Treaty 3, says, “In the face of the OPP’s refusal last fall to support our communities with an independent investigation into the Stacy DeBungee death, the logical next step is to bring in the RCMP with respect to the three latest river deaths including the DeBungee case. With all that has transpired to date, it is painfully obvious that the Thunder Bay Police cannot credibly investigate the river deaths.”
“The river deaths are an epidemic that urgently needs to be addressed by law enforcement before further tragedies occur. Alternating silence, denial, and contempt of evidence-based Indigenous concerns about a widespread and racialized policing crisis is not in fulfilment of the statutory obligation to provide adequate and effective police services,” wrote a group of chiefs in a complaint letter to the Ontario Civilian Police Commission.
The system is obviously encountering failure when the Office of the Independent Police Review Director (OIPRD), which handles complaints about police in Ontario, undertakes to examine Thunder Bay police service. Chiefs from Indigenous communities in the region discussed a letter they received from Ontario Civilian Police Commission (OCPC) regarding an investigation into the Thunder Bay Police Services Board providing inadequate oversight to the Thunder Bay Police.
Deanne Hupfield, Kentner’s friend, says racist violence in Thunder Bay is non-stop. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a grandmother or an adult woman or a teenage girl or even a kid, it’s always people in vehicles coming by, yelling racist things, throwing water bottles, beer bottles, garbage. If you’re visibly brown, it’s common to have stuff thrown at you." Hupfield's sister had a crowbar thrown at her from a passing car. Police officers saw it happen and apprehended the men. “They came back and told us: ‘Don’t worry, we scared them, so they won’t be bothering you again.' Even if we call the police, they don’t come for an hour, and that’s common. And no one reports it because it’s normal.” Hupfield left the city and lives in Toronto.
Hospitalization of an Indigenous man resulted when he was hit in the head by a brick in 2014, thrown from a passing car. According to a report from Stats Can released Jun. 13, 2017, "Thunder Bay had the highest rate of hate crime reported to statisticians by police among the country's census metropolitan areas with 22.3 per 100,000 people," which, Stats Can says, was, "mostly the result of 10 incidents against Aboriginal populations, which accounted for 29 per cent of the total anti-Aboriginal hate crimes reported in Canada in 2015."
Rebecca Johnson, Thunder Bay councillor, says, “Is some of it happening? Without question, I’m not going to defend that. But I don’t think it’s like, every day, people are getting things thrown at them.” The city’s mayor, Keith Hobbs, himself a former police officer who is not seeking another term as mayor, said, in 2015, “Every city — I don’t care where you are in the world — has issues with racism. Don’t be afraid to say you have racism in your city. If you never admit it, you’ll never fix it.”
Thunder Bay police apparently acknowledge reports of Indigenous people having objects thrown at them from passing vehicles, and say much of it is goes unreported. “We deal with approximately 30 incidents a year, where hate could be considered as a motivating factor,” said Chris Adams of the Thunder Bay Police Service.
David Perry, a private investigator with experience on files from Thunder Bay, says Thunder Bay police make assumptions based on what amounts to systemic racist stereotypes, and are missing the bigger picture. "I truly believe that there is likely a pattern. I personally don’t accept the fact all of these people ended up in the river as many of the cases stated because of the consumption of alcohol, falling asleep and rolling into the river. It doesn’t make sense.”
Jason Smallboy is Nishnawbe Aski Nation deputy grand chief, and his organization endeavors to educate people by conducting anti-racism campaigns and rallies. “It’s still pretty bad out there.” Smallboy says he’s heard reports of ‘moonlight riding,’ “I don’t know a specific number, but I know it’s happened a lot,” the practice of Indigenous people being abducted in cars and taken to Mount McKay, a site near Thunder Bay, and being abandoned to face winter. Known as ‘starlight tours,' this egregious behaviour was made famous by Saskatoon and Edmonton police services. Thunder Bay Police told media they’ve never heard of such incidents.
Teresa Trudeau is an employee of Anishnawbe Mushkiki Aboriginal Health Access Centre, involved with traditional healing coordination. She informs that her youngest daughter took to dyeing her hair blonde to disguise her race, to not “have to experience the racism and the hatred at school. It’s almost an expected social behaviour, and they’ve been living with it all these years,” said Trudeau.
Thunder Bay has its own slanderous term for Indigenous people, "bogan," whatever that means. A common assessment of Thunder Bay by Indigenous people is that the city is filled with hatred. “It’s not an isolated incident. We’ve been aware for several years of anecdotal reports of this kind of behaviour,” said John Hannam, Thunder Bay City Clerk, in charge of the Aboriginal Liaison Unit. Hannam said the city did a documentary series in 2014 on issues related to the Indigenous community, which is used to train city staff on cultural sensitivity.
Jayden Matthews was walking in the south end of Thunder Bay one recent Saturday night when two white men jumped out of a black SUV and tried to force him inside. "One guy came out and a second dude came out. Tried pulling me into the SUV.” That’s when he reached for a rock. “I grabbed it and I threw it at that dude there. Then the other dude, I had to bite him. I had no choice but to bite him. Then they let go of me. I thought I was going to die that night,” he said. “The worst experience of my life.”
Thunder Bay police were called and Matthews was taken to hospital by ambulance. “I just thank God he’s still alive with us,” said his aunt Ruth Mathews. His family is concerned about Thunder Bay police investigating. "I’ve been hearing a lot of stories about Thunder Bay police. They don’t even do their jobs. There’s too many stories going on.” Matthews walked home alone after being discharged from the hospital at 6 a.m.
The sole Indigenous community situated in Thunder Bay is Fort William First Nation and the family of Stephan Banning is trying to learn what happened, why he was found dead in the Kaministiquia River in 1990. The death was first ruled a suicide, then accidental. When further evidence was presented to police a decade later, it appears little or nothing was done to investigate what may of potentially been a murder.
Thunder Bay’s acting police Chief Sylvie Hauth this week rejected the idea of RCMP intervention and declared it was “business as usual” with her police force which faced no crisis. Hauth is acting chief since J.P. Levesque, the police chief, became charged with obstruction of justice and breach of trust for disclosing confidential information about Mayor Keith Hobbs.
Let us move 500 km west on the TransCanada Highway to Kenora, Ontario, with the case of Delaine Copenace. Such a beautiful and unusual name that is so sad to hear because of the shortness of her life, and the story behind it. The body of Delaine Copenace was discovered in frozen Lake of the Woods in the City of Kenora at the end of Water Street by city employees on Mar. 22, 2016, at 8:00 a.m..
In the immediate aftermath of the discovery, "(We) the family of Delaine Copenace would like to thank everyone for the continuous support and prayers," they said, "At this time, Delaine’s loved ones are asking that their privacy be respected as they take some time together to grieve the devastating loss of their daughter, sister and granddaughter and friend."
An investigation began early in March 2016, “There were two officers that came to the house, and both of them automatically said, ‘Oh, she probably just ran away,’” said her mother, Anida Ross. This was at least three days after the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) received a report that Copenace was missing on Feb. 27, 2016. Detective Inspector Randy Heida of the OPP Criminal Investigation Branch was in charge under the direction of the OPP North West Region Crime Unit.
Findings of the investigative branch and Regional Coroners Office did not satisfy the family. It took a lot of cajoling by Delaine's mother, and a lot of haggling with authorities to keep this unsolved crime an ongoing investigation; supposedly the investigation continues although part of it has since moved to the Office of the Chief Coroner and Forensic Pathology Services in Toronto.
Copenace went missing Feb. 27, and police called off the ground search Mar 14. "I believe she was murdered. I truly believe somebody hurt her and put her there and they have to look deeper into the cause, why, why she was there." Ross says police and coroner draw the wrong picture of Delaine, and denies she was a 'depressed' daughter, "engaging in risky behaviour on the ice."
OPP spokespersons responded that the police service, "considers all people as equals and every investigation receives equal service."
Ross says, "I just want justice for my daughter. I don't want people to think she was just another Indigenous kid who didn't know which way was up and which way was down. She was a smart kid." How did Delaine go from downtown Kenora onto the lake ice with nobody seeing? How did a girl go through the ice where day by day they search and find no holes?
Dr. Michael Wilson, regional supervising coroner, believes the investigation answered all questions about Copenace's death "to the best of our ability." Is that right? asks Delaine's mother. What caused bruising on Copenace's ankles and wrists? "To me that's not a common injury that you get just from walking somewhere. I find that suspicious because she didn't have bruises when she left home."
With security cameras all over Kenora's downtown, how is it Copenace was last seen at 5:30 p.m. on the night of her disappearance? Ross asks why no other camera picked up her daughter? Why did the teen's body turn up at a downtown dock when weeks of searching in that same area turned up nothing? "She was within metres of a police station where her body was found 24 days later. They want me to believe that she was there the whole time. That area was so extensively searched. How did her body just pop up?"
According to coroner Wilson, privacy rules will not allow comment on the details of the investigation. Ross says, "It's like they're telling me this is the end, but this is not the end. I'm still going to seek those answers and they [police] should be doing the same thing too. I think it should be further investigated because right now my daughter is getting no justice."
When the body was recovered, for example, “Her face still had colour, her lips still had colour.” Police say the body was, “well preserved.” Ross believes Delaine’s wrists must have bound. If her body was in the water from Feb. 27, why did the skin show little wrinkling? “It looked like she wasn't in there very long,” she says, and she was found where the water had been searched at least 100 times by family, friends, police dogs, and even police divers. “There were no reported holes where her body was and the water is not very deep in that area. There was no current around the shores.”
Move forward to the memory of Azraya Ackabee-Kokopenace, 14, found dead in Kenora on Apr. 17, 2016. In this case the coroner decides, "Ackabee-Kokopenace died by suicide." Family remains compelled to call for further investigation into the death of the girl from Grassy Narrows a year after the fact. Her father Marlin Kokopenace wants an inquest into his daughter's death.
She disappeared Apr. 15, 2016, after provincial police dropped her off at the hospital, last seen leaving the Lake of the Woods District Hospital in Kenora at 11:20 p.m.. Her body was found nearby two days later. Azraya's aunt, Lorenda Kokopenace, says, "Pretty much everyone failed her. They were supposed to be there helping and protecting her and they failed her."
Warren White, Treaty 3 First Nations Grand Chief, says the families of both Delaine Copenace and Azraya Ackabee-Kokopenace are being supported in their need for inquests. Systems do little service to Indigenous peoples interests in justice, ignoring them in their search for answers. "It will be a life-long process of healing and accepting, but at least in an inquest you'll have direct questions asked and ways of finding solutions. All we really want is a process where we get fair treatment in order to find those answers and closure."
Regional coroner Wilson replied, "Anytime you have a young person dying in unexpected circumstances there are going to be added complexities," saying that investigations may take months to conclude.