Tanya Talaga, The Star, September 26, 2017
Mike McKay knew what he was up against in this northern Ontario city when his grandson disappeared last spring.
He flew more than 500 kilometres to Thunder Bay to help mount a search for 14-year-old Josiah Begg who vanished May 6. McKay, a former police officer, was aware of the city’s track record investigating the deaths of Indigenous people. Seven First Nation students died between 2000 and 2011 — five of them found dead in city rivers. Authorities have been unable to explain how they ended up in the water.
During a public meeting Monday organized by the Office of the Independent Police Review Director (OIPRD) to discuss police racism, McKay spoke of the fruitless search for his grandson who was found dead in the McIntyre River nearly two weeks after he disappeared.
“Thunder Bay, you have a problem. Until you admit that, we won’t be able to solve the issues we have here today,” he said to the packed community hall meeting.
“I was a police officer for 16 years. I have lived it. I have worked it. If you want to be a police officer, no matter what colour (someone is), you treat people how you want to be treated.”
During the eight-month inquest into the students’ deaths, which finished in June 2016, Thunder Bay faced the airing of hard truths concerning racism in the city. Indigenous students say they routinely face jeers and garbage thrown at them from passing cars. Indigenous leaders have complained for years that police don’t take seriously First Nations deaths or disappearances.
Provincial authorities stepped in after the death of Stacey DeBungee, a Rainy River First Nations man who was found in the river in October 2015. His death prompted an investigation into allegations of systemic racism within the force.
Now, investigators with the OIPRD are re-examining more than 30 deaths — mostly Indigenous people — and another nine cases of murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls. That office is a civilian body operating at arm’s length from the provincial Ministry of the Attorney General.
While McKay spoke Monday night, across town at the Thunder Bay City Council chambers, councillors voted down a motion to support calling for the resignation of Senator Lynn Beyak, who has made a series of what First Nations chiefs call “racist” and “ill-informed” remarks concerning the residential school experience.
Beyak also recently posted on her website a call for Indigenous people to trade in their status cards to become Canadian citizens. The senator was seemingly unaware that all Status Indian card holders are Canadian citizens.
To add insult to injury, Beyak is a Conservative senator who hails from Dryden, Ont., a small city that was surrounded by nine former Indian Residential Schools. Canada’s residential schools, church-run and federally funded, were created to assimilate Indigenous people into colonial society. More than 150,000 Indigenous students attended the schools from the mid-1850s to the 1990s.
In his first day back at work from a personal leave, Thunder Bay Mayor Keith Hobbs — who is facing obstruction of justice and extortion charges and is expected in court in October — voted against the motion calling for Beyak’s resignation, as did six other councillors.
Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer has removed Beyak, a sitting senator, from all Senate committees. “She’s been censured. She’s been disciplined. I’m a firm believer in progressive discipline,” Hobbs told APTN National News.
“I don’t really think its council’s position to be disciplining people in upper levels of government.”
A city councillor had put forward the motion to support a resolution of the Northwestern Ontario Municipal Association, which represents 37 municipalities, that Beyak be asked to resign. The motion was narrowly rejected by Thunder Bay council.
Both Nishnawbe Aski Nation and Fort William First Nation condemned that move Tuesday.
“I was sickened when I heard,” said NAN Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler. “But I can’t say I was totally surprised by the outcome.”
Just last month, NAN and Fort William and the City of Thunder Bay signed a statement of commitment to fight racism and to come together for the safety of all the Indigenous students returning to school.
“They had a real opportunity (Monday) night to follow through on their commitment and sadly they failed,” said Fiddler, who added Indigenous groups will not start the Orange Shirt Day walk in remembrance of residential school survivors from city hall this year as they usually do. The walk is on Sept. 30.
William Waboose Perry, of the Fort William First Nation, said other municipal leaders have taken a stand against Beyak and it’s time for Thunder Bay did the same.
“If anyone should be taking a stand on this, it should be our city council. I don’t know what is with them. We clearly need Indigenous representation on the council in Thunder Bay,” Perry said.
On Saturday the body of Dylan Moonias, 21-year-old First Nations man, was pulled from the river. Police are investigating his death.
News another young Indigenous person had been found in the water, devastated McKay.
“My first reaction was, ‘No, no, not another one’,” he said. “You just never want to hear they found another in the river.”