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OPINION: Thunder Bay: the pain, the opportunity, and the newspaper

This is about people, about poverty, about sharing a land and its resources, about the clash or the fusion of cultures in the North and building sustainability for our children.
Michael Atkins, president, Northern Ontario Business

Eight months ago, the Globe and Mail newspaper opened a bureau in Thunder Bay.

They did so because, in December, 2018, the Office of the Independent Police Review Director (OIPRD), a civilian oversight agency, concluded that the Thunder Bay Police Service was tainted by racist attitudes towards Indigenous people. The report was called “Broken Trust.” A few days later, Senator Murray Sinclair, the former head of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, submitted a report that accused the Thunder Bay Police Services Board of willful blindness to racism. There have been unsettling examples of racism beyond the occurrence of nine sudden-death investigations by Thunder Bay police, which have been described as problematic. One of the most graphic was the throwing of a trailer hitch from a passing pickup truck at two Indigenous women walking along a residential street. One died six weeks later.

The decision by the newspaper to focus on Thunder Bay was no doubt difficult. There are bloody few new subscriptions to be found for the Globe and Mail in Thunder Bay. No doubt they have lost more than they have gained in the last six months. The print copy, for years, arrived in the city a day late, hardly worth bothering about in the digital age. The demand for Thunder Bay news from the newspaper’s national readership is non-existent and, like the Toronto Star and Postmedia, the Globe is losing money – lots of it. Just last spring they had to downsize their staff yet again.

The decision to go to Thunder Bay took guts. They felt the release of the OIPRD report was a fulcrum moment, not just for the city and the province but for the country. Thunder Bay is not alone. It is a front-line in our national struggle to come to terms with the violence and racism of our colonial history. 

The journalism has been extraordinary.

They have covered local council meetings and have written about the significance of the closure of the James Street bridge between Westfort and Fort William First Nation. They joined young Indigenous students and teachers from Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School (run by the Northern Nishnawbe Education Council) on a midwinter 920-kilometre trip to Muskrat Dam. They have covered the machinations and resignations of the Thunder Bay Police Services Board. They have covered the world of three fabulous Thunder Bay Indigenous women they called warriors – Sandi Boucher, Ivory Tuesday, and Georjann Morriseau – and they have visited Coney Island Westfort restaurant – home of the Coney dog, where everyone is welcome and racial tensions evaporate. They have gone to remote Indigenous communities to talk to students and parents before they take on the daunting and sometimes frightening task of moving to Thunder Bay to go to high school. They covered the emergence and importance of the Matawa Learning Centre and the Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School. They have followed the renewed Police Services Board in Thunder Bay and Thunder Bay Police initiatives to investigate nine deaths deemed problematic. They have reported on the leadership of the Thunder Bay Library system in breaking down walls between First Nations people and the broader public, along with the anti-racism accord signed between Lakehead University,  Confederation College, the hospital, Fort William First Nation and others to begin a sustainable institutional approach to overcoming the past. Recently they covered the “Wake the Giant” concert, a musical welcome for Indigenous students and musicians from remote communities.

This coverage is not universally revered. If you have had no voice and suffered discrimination and/or racism for much of your life, or lost a loved one without proper police investigation, it is a welcome airing of historical grievance and injustice. If these issues are not part of your daily experience, this coverage is painful in a different way. The cognitive dissonance (discomfort when a person’s beliefs clash with new evidence) is palpable. It is destabilizing. By and large, people who live in Northern Ontario love their communities and take exception when outsiders come to town to tell them who they are and what they are doing wrong. That’s not the intention but that’s how it can feel. 

I feel connected to this story. I came to Thunder Bay in the summer of 1971 fresh out of university. I worked as an analyst for the federal government. I wrote a critical report of their program in Thunder Bay. Ironically, my report was leaked to the Globe and Mail (not by me) and I was fired after the story was published. My next job was as reporter for the Fort William Times Journal. I was the instigator of the first major feature on urban renewal in Port Arthur. I quit/was fired by the editor over a disagreement on the coverage. After that, I worked for a special project called “Health and Community Information,” located on Cumberland Street in downtown Port Arthur. The focus was to bring health information to the streets. As often happens in Northern Ontario, the effort was funded by a federal grant which was not renewed.

In 1973, I started my newspaper in Sudbury, and in 1977 we bought Lakehead Living newspaper in Thunder Bay and ran it for more than 20 years. Thunder Bay is a great city. It is also troubled and it is being forced to face its darker side. We all have a stake in their success.

Cities are equipped to build arenas, fill potholes, schedule buses, provide police and fire protection, get rid of sewage, plow roads, deliver clean drinking water, and provide the physical planning that allows us to go about our daily life.

Cities are not in charge of health care or education or minimum wages, or immigration, or human rights, or climate change goals, or natural resource strategies, or welfare protocols, or taxation policies (well, property taxes), or energy grids, or the Crown’s relationship with First Nations.

In relative terms, cities are in control of not much, but accountable for almost everything.

Bill Mauro, the mayor of Thunder Bay, is a very experienced politician, having served in various cabinet and parliamentary secretary capacities in the provincial Liberal governments of the last 15 years. Nothing could have prepared him for those two major reports last December.

He’s been cautious, acknowledging shortcomings of the city but criticizing the two major reports and specifically national media (most particularly the Globe and Mail) for covering the fallout from those reports.

The accusations against the Thunder Bay Police Service were no doubt hard for him. Bill’s brother is a former head of the police union in Thunder Bay and was mentioned in the Sinclair report for a prank with racial undertones more than 10 years ago. No doubt a part of his antipathy is personal.

The mayor will have a choice to make soon. The chances are he can get re-elected by getting mad at external forces for being unfair to Thunder Bay. 

There is always a constituency for this sentiment in Northern Ontario because it is true. We often get screwed by senior levels of government and day-tripper journalism. It’s not that hard to work people up. It’s just under our skin ready to be mobilized.

The mayor could also get re-elected by showing more remorse for the racism that has been well identified and declaring it will not be tolerated on his watch. He can demand senior levels of government provide his city with the tens of millions of dollars required to confront these issues creatively over the next generation. Thirteen per cent of the population in Thunder Bay is Indigenous, and it is estimated the Indigenous economy is somewhere between 15 per cent and 20 per cent of Thunder Bay’s GDP. There is an economic and social return for a more proactive stance.

The opportunity for the mayor is to unleash the best in us. He has the most power – although, admittedly, the smallest purse – to make social change. 

He has the bully pulpit, he has the goodwill of his people and he has the ability to call meetings. He can have an enormous impact on the future of the North.

This is about people, about poverty, about sharing a land and its resources, about the clash or the fusion of cultures in the North and building sustainability for our children.

We all have a stake in Thunder Bay’s success. We all face the same uncomfortable truths to a greater or lesser extent. We need to help and we need to learn.