A violent assault is shining a light on Thunder Bay’s history of racism
A recent act of violence that has left a Thunder Bay woman clinging to life is exposing once again the racist underbelly of the northern Ontario city, where Indigenous people say they’re often afraid to walk the streets alone.
Barbara Kentner was hit in the abdomen with a metal trailer hitch thrown at her from a passing car at the end of January. Her sister Melissa was walking with her, and she told the Toronto Star she heard someone yell from inside the vehicle: “I [expletive] got one of them.”
Since then, Kentner’s stomach has been filling up with fluids, and her kidneys are failing, Melissa Kentner told the CBC. There’s little more that doctors say they can do to save her.
Police are still gathering evidence to determine whether or not the act was hate motivated. So far, they’ve charged 18-year-old Braydon Bushby with aggravated assault. He is white. Kentner is Aboriginal, from the Wabigoon First Nation, but has always lived in Thunder Bay.
In 2014, one man was hospitalized after someone threw a brick at his head.
Three others were allegedly in the car at the time of the incident.
Many view the act as the latest example of a larger problem of racially targeted violence against the city’s Indigenous community, which made up about 10 percent of Thunder Bay in 2011, according to the most recent census data.
In 2014, one man was hospitalized after someone threw a brick at his head. Last year, a First Nations woman was found naked on a downtown street, saying a man had tried to kill her and drown her in the lake, but no charges were laid because she couldn’t identify her attacker. Disturbing accounts also emerged last year during an inquest into the deaths of seven Indigenous students in Thunder Bay, with a young woman testifying that she’d had food thrown at her from passing vehicles, and yelled things like, “stupid savage, go back home,” the CBC reported.
The city’s mayor, Keith Hobbs, who is himself a former police officer, spoke out in 2015 about the city’s racism problem, particularly against Indigenous people. “Every city — I don’t care where you are in the world — has issues with racism,” said Hobbs, who declined to comment on this story. “Don’t be afraid to say you have racism in your city. If you never admit it, you’ll never fix it.”
Deanne Hupfield, a friend of Kentner’s, said racially targeted violence is an everyday reality for Indigenous people in Thunder Bay, and that she’s seen it firsthand countless times.
“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,” said Hupfield, who now lives in Toronto.
“If you’re visibly brown, it’s common to have stuff thrown at you.”
“If you’re visibly brown, it’s common to have stuff thrown at you,” said Hupfield, adding that it’s more prevalent in low-income areas in the east end of the city, where Indigenous women will often get mistaken for sex workers.
Teresa Trudeau, a traditional healing coordinator at the Anishnawbe Mushkiki Aboriginal Health Access Centre, said things became so intolerable, her youngest daughter dyed her hair blonde to mask her Indigenous appearance and not “have to experience the racism and the hatred” at school, where other kids call her “bogan,” a derogatory term used to describe Indigenous people in Thunder Bay.
The Thunder Bay police acknowledged in February that they are aware of reports from Indigenous community members who say they’ve had objects thrown at them from passing vehicles, and that many such incidents go unreported.
“We deal with approximately 30 incidents a year, where hate could be considered as a motivating factor,” Chris Adams of the Thunder Bay Police Service told VICE News.
Hupfield said her own sister had a crowbar thrown at her from a passing car.
Rebecca Johnson, councillor at large in Thunder Bay, who serves on the city’s advisory committee on anti-racism and respect, suggested that Indigenous members of the community aren’t the only ones facing racism — it’s also the nearly 2,000 international students.
She noted there’s currently no statistics available on incidents of racism in the city. “Is some of it happening? Without question, I’m not going to defend that,” she said. “But I don’t think it’s like, every day, people are getting things thrown at them.”
Hupfield, who would often take the bus to get around because her family didn’t have a car, said it was “normal to have shit thrown at” her.
“There would always be men trying to solicit me,” she added.
Her own sister had a crowbar thrown at her from a passing car. According to Hupfield, police officers in an undercover car saw the whole thing, and apprehended the men, but didn’t charge them.
“They came back and told us: ‘Don’t worry, we scared them, so they won’t be bothering you again,’” she said. “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.”
Nishnawbe Aski Nation deputy grand chief Jason Smallboy said his organization has been trying for years to educate the public through anti-racism campaigns and rallies, but they continue to hear from members of the public that “it’s still pretty bad out there.”
Aside from the name-calling and objects being thrown, Smallboy said he’s also heard reports of ‘moonlight riding’ — the practice of locals picking up Indigenous people in cars and taking them to the top of Mount McKay, just outside of Thunder Bay, and abandoning them. Also known as the ‘starlight tour,’ it has been a frequent and consistent allegation made against police forces by Indigenous populations across the country.
“I don’t know a specific number, but I know it’s happened a lot,” said Smallboy.
Thunder Bay Police told VICE News they’re unaware of any such incidents.
“It’s not an isolated incident. We’ve been aware for several years of anecdotal reports of this kind of behaviour,”
Trudeau, with the Anishnawbe Mushkiki Aboriginal Health Access Centre, also echoed Smallboy and Hupfield’s assessments of Thunder Bay, saying the city was filled with “hatred.”
“It’s almost an expected social behaviour, and they’ve been living with it all these years,” said Trudeau, whose children endured name-calling and having eggs thrown at them in high school.
“It’s not an isolated incident. We’ve been aware for several years of anecdotal reports of this kind of behaviour,” said Thunder Bay City Clerk John Hannam, who runs the Aboriginal Liaison Unit.
He added that in 2014 the city worked with a filmmaker to create the Walk-A-Mile documentary series on issues within the Indigenous community, the first of which features someone speaking about having eggs thrown at them. The series is now used as a training tool for all city staff. The city also agreed to implement 31 recommendations that came out of the student death inquest, like setting up a mentoring program for students who are new town.
And it plans to launch a phone reporting system in June that will give somewhere for people who have experienced an incident to call it in, regardless of whether or not it’s criminal in nature. The incidents will be tracked and reported.
“I’m sorry, get with it, this is the new Thunder Bay, and if you don’t like it, you better figure out how you’re going to manage.”
Johnson admits the city has a long way to go in terms of eradicating racism.
“I think that we have made some steps, I really and truly do since the early 90s,” she said. “If nothing else, we are talking about it.”
And she has a message for residents: “I’m sorry, get with it, this is the new Thunder Bay, and if you don’t like it, you better figure out how you’re going to manage.”