The Most Racist City?

Commentary, Aboriginal Futures, Brian Giesbrecht

Maclean’s magazine once declared Winnipeg as “Canada’s most racist city.” Now it is Thunder Bay’s turn, a city in turmoil after a report slammed its overstretched police force (if not the entire city) for alleged “systemic racism” towards its Indigenous population. Meanwhile, Thompson Manitoba deals with Indigenous men filling its courts to overflow while Saskatoon confronts a shocking incident of Indigenous children swarming a woman in broad daylight in a public park.  

These cities, and others, have troubled First Nations reserves nearby and thus residents flow back and forth between city and reserve. While these cities have growing successful Indigenous middle-class populations, it remains a sad fact that their nearby troubled reserves remain poor, marked by unemployment, crime and addiction issues. The cities remain under pressure to respond to the challenges of social problems that can arise as a result of migration of troubled Indigenous youth into the metropolitan areas.  

Labelling the cities and their police forces “racist” is unfair. They react as best they can with problems they have no part in creating nor little ability to solve.

Gangs from the east flock to Thunder Bay to sell amphetamines and other drugs to a largely poor and unemployed Indigenous clientele, providing a huge challenge for the city and its beleaguered police force. The city and its police and politicians lurch from one crisis to the next.

Lawyer Gerry McNeilly and Senator Murray Sinclair reacted to Thunder Bay’s Indigenous-centered problems by unfairly labeling the city’s police and non-Indigenous population “systemically racist.” Their one-sided report’s simplistic conclusions involve hollow symbolic gestures, further expenditure on a problem it should be now clear money cannot solve, and appointing middle class Indigenous people to government sinecures. Pursuing these recommendations would likely cause even more divisiveness and tension.

The mayor of Thunder Bay is under fire for having the temerity to defend the city’s citizens as good people and the police as doing as best they can. Neither deserve to be demonized with an easily affixed and toxic label of “racist”. 

Recently, a member of Thunder Bay’s police board was sacked because he sent a letter of support to Senator Lynn Beyak for her comment that ‘good’ as well as ‘bad’ came with residential schools (as acknowledged in the Truth and Reconciliation Report). Such is the current climate of divisiveness.

The long history of dysfunction within the reserves surrounding Thunder Bay cannot be fixed by what Thunder Bay’s elected officials and police force do. These are problems that are not within their power to fix. Even the billions of dollars spent by the government in pursuit of reconciliation cannot solve the city’s problems.

The only people that can bring about true and long lasting positive change are the Indigenous peoples themselves, starting by developing responsible leaders for their home reserves.  While the chiefs and councillors ask for more government money, they have yet to do what they were elected to do – start acknowledging and solving the many problems within their own communities. Neither the politicians of Thunder Bay nor its police force can solve problems that Indigenous chiefs have failed rectify to for generations.

Where is the much-needed personal responsibility in all of this? Why should the chiefs, the leaders of the Indigenous people who drift to Thunder Bay, be absolved of their own responsibility to deal with such social problems?  

Immigrants from war-torn and desperately poor countries receive help for a short time, but are subsequently expected to obtain employment and, once able, look after the needs of their own families. Why is it that our expectations of Indigenous people and their leaders are so low is the question. Is this not bigotry of low expectations?

Yes, cities such as Thunder Bay with a large Indigenous underclass, must do everything in their power to make their cities as safe and welcoming as possible – for everyone. Yes, the police must treat people with respect, even in situations where doing so may be practically difficult. But the primary responsibility should and must rest with individuals and their chiefs. Thunder Bay’s mayor, councillors and police cannot solve their problems.

Thunder Bay is no more or less “racist” than Winnipeg, Edmonton, Regina, Saskatoon, or Thompson, or Paris, France, for that matter. The leaders and residents of cities are being confronted with a reality they didn’t create, over which they have almost no control.  

Nevertheless, they must do what they can to treat troubled people with respect and to offer them what help they have in their power to give.

Ultimately, however, the foremost responsibility lies with the chiefs but primarily with the individual.