Indigenous leaders are blasting the Thunder Bay city council for refusing to support a call for a Conservative senator who has made what they've called "insulting and racist" comments to resign.
This comes just days after a young Indigenous person's body was found in a city river, the third such incident this year.
Thunder Bay's police have been under fire for months for their handling of investigations into the deaths and disappearances of Indigenous people. Racial tensions have been high in the city over the past year, with municipal leaders also being accused of not doing enough to make the city safe for First Nations residents, who say they're regularly on the receiving end of racial slurs and violence.
Just last month, Nishnawbe Aski Nation, Fort William First Nation, and the city signed a trilateral statement of commitment to fight racism in Thunder Bay. The city has the highest rate of hate crimes in Canada, driven mainly by acts targeting Indigenous people, according to data released by Statistics Canada in the summer. Thunder Bay made up more than a quarter of anti-Indigenous hate crimes in the country in 2015.
On Monday, Thunder Bay's city council voted against a motion to support a call from the Northwestern Ontario Municipal Association for Senator Lynn Beyak to resign.
Beyak, who wrote on her website earlier this month that First Nations people should trade in their status cards for Canadian citizenships—seemingly unaware that they're already Canadian citizens—has already been kicked out of all Senate committees. In March, Beyak defended "well-intentioned" religious teachers at residential schools and said their "good deeds" had been overshadowed by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Mayor Keith Hobbs, on his first day back at work from a personal leave, voted against the motion to call for Beyak to resign, as did six other six councillors.
"She's been censured. She's been disciplined. I'm a firm believer in progressive discipline," Hobbs told APTN. "I don't really think it's council's position to be disciplining people in upper levels of government."
Rebecca Johnson, chair of the city's anti-racism committee, also defended Beyak, saying she was free to speak her mind.
"We don't have to agree with everything," Johnson said, making her case against the motion. "Whether right or wrong, she's at least expressing her own opinion."
In a statement on Tuesday, Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler called the move "unconscionable."
"Council's failure to act is extremely disappointing and goes against the spirit of that commitment," said Fiddler. "The excuses made by members of Council for their failure to act are cowardly and an embarrassment for Thunder Bay and northwestern Ontario. Reconciliation is meaningless without action, and Council missed a significant opportunity to stand with us."
This all comes just days after the body of 21-year-old Dylan Joe Francis Moonias was found in the Neebing-McIntyre Floodway by a kayaker—police identified him on Tuesday and are still investigating his death. In May, the bodies of 14-year-old Josiah Begg and 17-year-old Tammy Keeash, both Indigenous, were also found in the found, just weeks apart, but police quickly ruled out foul play.
These three deaths bring the total number of Indigenous people whose bodies have ended up in waterways since 2000 to seven. In inquest into the deaths of seven Indigenous students in the city, five of whom were found in the water, found that in four cases, the causes of death were "undetermined."
"Thunder Bay, you have a problem. Until you admit that, we won't be able to solve the issues we have here today," said Mike McKay, Begg's grandfather, during a meeting organized by the Office of the Independent Police Review Director (OIPRD) on Monday to discuss allegations of systemic racism within the city's police force, which has been under review since November.
Thunder Bay police have been accused of repeatedly botching investigations into deaths and disappearances involving Indigenous people, many of who say they're regularly targeted by racists, who throw objects at them from passing cars and yell racial slurs.
In July, 34-year-old Barbara Kentner died as a result of injuries she suffered in January, after being struck in the stomach by a trailer hitch, thrown at her from a passing car as she walked down the street in Thunder Bay. Her sister, who was with her at the time, told the Toronto Star that she heard someone yell from inside the car: "I [expletive] got one of them." Eighteen-year-old Brayden Bushby was later charged with aggravated assault, but the Crown and police are now reviewing the pathology report to determine whether or not to lay additional charges.
The deaths of Kentner, Begg, and Keeash put the community on edge, with locals becoming more and more suspicious that there's a serial killer in the city, targeting Indigenous youth, although police and Hobbs have dismissed that theory.
The death of Stacey DeBungee, a First Nations man who was found in the river in 2015, is what prompted an investigation into allegations of systemic racism within the force. The OIPRD is now looking into 30 deaths, mostly of indigenous people, and another nine cases of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls, dating back to the 1990s.
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