Deaths of Indigenous teens puts Thunder Bay on edge
The Indigenous community in Thunder Bay is on edge after two teenagers were recently found dead in the city’s waterways, and people are becoming increasingly convinced that the police are missing something.
While investigators maintain that there’s no evidence to link the deaths, parents and First Nations leaders are offering theories about what may have occurred, even expressing fears that someone may be preying on young people.
“I’m terrified for my children,” said Kristy Boucher, who lives in Thunder Bay with her two sons. “I worry for my boys being First Nation because they’re at a higher risk.”
“I’m terrified for my children.”
Since 2000, seven Indigenous teenagers have been found in the waterways of Thunder Bay and many in the community feel the disappearances of Indigenous kids has not been a priority for the city’s police service. Two of the deaths occurred this month. The body of Tammy Keeash, a Junior Canadian Ranger who knew about water safety, was found in the Neebing-McIntyre Floodway. Days later, Josiah Begg was discovered in the McIntyre River. Keeash’s death is still under investigation, while police say Begg’s family has asked that the results of his autopsy remain private.
“There has to be more in-depth investigation as to how they deal with this. It might not be an accident. I mean, how many kids do you find in the river?” said Fort William First Nation Chief Peter Collins. “I just don’t get that. All I’m saying is there’s something very strange going on.”
Police have been unequivocal: “As far as a theory or rumor of a ‘serial killer,’ there is no evidence of that at this time,” Thunder Bay spokesperson Chris Adams police told VICE News in an email, adding that police patrols of river banks have been in place since the fall of 2016. “We’d like to add that all death investigations are open to any new information which comes forward.”
But the community’s faith in law enforcement has deteriorated amid allegations of systemic racism in the police force. In November, the Office of the Independent Police Review Directorate began investigating how the Thunder Bay Police Service has handled cases involving Indigenous people. The recent deaths, as well as charges of obstruction of justice and breaching trust against Police Chief J.P. Levesque, will now be part of that review.
Thunder Bay’s mayor Keith Hobbs encouraged parents to make sure their kids are going out in numbers and to stay away from the rivers. He’s also been in talks with Deputy Grand Chief Jason Smallboy of Nishnawbe Aski Nation about the possibility of starting a program that would ensure volunteers are patrolling the riverbank 24/7.
“I think there are a lot of theories, and as a former police officer, we’re always trained to think dirty,” he told VICE News. “So you always think the worst case scenario, and you can never stop thinking that, Even if the police have evidence to the contrary, they should always be thinking dirty and that something underhanded has happened.”
The inquest found the causes of four of the deaths were ‘undetermined’.
In November, the Office of the Independent Police Review Directorate began investigating how the Thunder Bay Police Service has handled cases involving Indigenous people. The investigation has now been expanded to include the cases of Tammy Keeash, whose body was found in the Neebing-McIntyre Floodway earlier this month, and Josiah Begg, whose body was found in the McIntyre River last week.
Their deaths, as well as recent charges of obstruction of justice and breaching trust against Police Chief J.P. Levesque, will now be part of the review of the force, which is under fire over allegations of systemic racism.
Last year, an inquest was held into the deaths of seven youth between 2000 and 2011 from remote First Nations who came to attend high school in Thunder Bay — five of their bodies were found in rivers around the city. The inquest found the causes of four of the deaths were ‘undetermined,’ although police were quick to say there had been no foul play in each one.
While police have also released a statement saying “there is no evidence to indicate criminality in this tragic death” of Keeash, First Nations leaders aren’t buying it, and have committed to raising funds for a private investigator to probe further.
“I still don’t believe this is coincidental and all these kids are just getting high or drunk and ending up in the river.”
“It’s just too coincidental, the river is always involved. The same river or a waterway is always part of it,” said Cindy Bannon, a mother of three in Thunder Bay. “Every one of them kids so far that died, the police have said there’s no foul play. That’s just impossible.”
“I can’t fathom it being coincidental that all these kids are going missing and there’s foul play, a serial killer, or somebody targeting them, a group even,” she continued, adding that there’s “so much racism” in the city, that there’s no way every incident is the result of drug or alcohol use. “No damn way.”
“I still don’t believe this is coincidental and all these kids are just getting high or drunk and ending up in the river,” she said. “No damn way.”
“They think of our people as nothing but drunks.”
Gerry McNeilly, director of the independent review body that oversees the city’s police, told the CBC he believed that investigations into the death of Indigenous youth haven’t been carried out in a “full and thorough manner.” McNeilly has already pointed out flaws, saying the investigation into Keeash’s death should be ongoing, while there wasn’t enough outreach into the community after Begg’s death, before his body was found.
Twenty-two year-old Thatcher Rose, who has grown up in Thunder Bay, said while she doesn’t fear for her own safety, she does worry for friends and family who are visibly Indigenous, and who have started being more cautious — avoiding going out at night and asking for rides after dark, for example — in light of recent events.
For Indigenous kids, it’s “especially scary because all these people ending up in rivers fit a profile,” Rose told VICE News. “They don’t fear the streets because people are ending up in rivers. They fear the streets because the people ending up in rivers look like they do. It’s a fear they can’t escape.”
Bannon, who is concerned about not just about Indigenous youth but the climate for young people in the city overall, said she doesn’t allow her 13-year-old daughter or 11-year-old son to walk anywhere on their own, and that she drives them wherever they need to go, unless it’s on their reserve.
Police in Thunder Bay need to “at least start with something,” she said, whether it’s patrols, cameras or more lighting around the river, as many in the community have called for.
“They think of our people as nothing but drunks,” she said. “I don’t really think the police officers really give a shit about our people or what happens to our kids.”
Cover: Thunderbay Police