“When there’s only one race and that’s mankind…Then we shall be free”

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Webiquie First NationTHUNDER BAY – Editorial – Over the course of the weekend, after watching CBC’s the fifth estate and their documentary, “From the Water’s Edge”, I have been in silent thought. There were many issues raised in the documentary. That young people are coming to Thunder Bay to go to school, and some of them are ending up dead is a tragic situation. There have been seven deaths in as many years. There are only 300 students at Dennis Comarty Franklin School.

If you think of it, at Hammarskjold High School, there are 1500 plus students. If during the same time frame, there had been 35 students from Hammarskjold turning up dead, one wonders what might have happened over the same time period?

Reading the views of others has helped me to form an opinion on this documentary. In the comments on the CBC website for the fifth estate, James writes, “I attended DFC back in the day and lost 3 friends from what the police called “Accidental” I don’t believe it was an accident cause all three were found in the water. My last friend who was found from the Intercity area was probably the hardest ones I had to deal with as he was a very close friend, adopting him like a brother (as it is tradition in our native ways). I pray this doc will open eyes for those who don’t know how it is like to leave the community”.

Talking to some of the people involved in the filming of this documentary, there were twenty five days invested in the filming of the story. Likely condensing that amount of video footage to fit a relatively short 45 minute television program must have been an enormous task.

Several things were very striking to me in this documentary. First was how open the two students from Dennis Comarty Franklin School were. Those two young people opened up on camera and shared. It was a courageous thing to do. Second was a comment from a teacher at the high school that many of the students arrive at DCF with a grade three level of reading and comprehension.

Finally was the interview with Jordan Wabasse’s Grandmother. This lady has taken up the cause to find out what happened to her grandson. It is obvious in the documentary that she does not believe the official story.

Cathie Haigie writes on the CBC fifth estate page, “Why are the community centers in Thunder Bay locked and empty most days and evenings? Thunder Bay offers very little in the way of recreation for this age group (be they aboriginal or not.) If you can’t afford the usual diversions that affluent families use, like hockey, skiing, dancing etc …. your kids just hang out in the malls, on the streets, in back lanes and under bridges. It almost seems that cities like Toronto or Ottawa would be better equipped to handle these schools. At least race tolerance is better understood in our larger centers. Thunder Bay is openly racist. Racist letters appear in our paper on a daily basis. HELP!!!”

My view is that given the choice between hope and despair, we must fight for hope. In Thunder Bay, we can do a lot better than we are.

That is not a criticism directed at any specific leader, instead it is an expression that our federal, provincial, Aboriginal, civic, and community leaders start working together to make our city stronger, better and safer. It is not the time for another committee, it is time for action.

The message that travels back, at speeds far faster than many of the political leaders seem to understand, to northern communities, is that Thunder Bay is not a safe place. People can argue that is not true as much as they like, but perception is reality. The comments that our community is racist are ones that until you witness it yourself are unlikely to resonate. Once again it is the perceptions that form realities.

When young Aboriginal girls ask you why someone throws eggs at them from a moving car, or when you watch how a clerk in a store treats Aboriginal customers, or how some people are treated in local restaurants and bars, perhaps part of the problem is in Thunder Bay in our efforts to be seen as a more caring and progressive community those instances are overlooked.

So what are solutions?

Some of the solutions are already being done. The staff at DCF are clearly working hard to engage with the students. There is a residence planned at the school which will allow a more cohesive environment for students. The Regional Multicultural Youth Centre, and the young people under the guidance of Moffat and the Youth Council have stepped up at DCF School.

The students themselves are, in many ways a key to the solution. Increasingly students are starting to speak up, and share what is happening. That is critical.

Thunder Bay needs to start looking at the big picture, something Mayor Keith Hobbs has already started doing.

Our community is the defacto capital city of Northwestern Ontario. We need to start becoming that full and engaging positive place that embraces the people from across our region.

Provincially and federally, we should be investing in young people more. We should be investing enthusiasm, and money into education. The comment by the teacher on the literacy level of students coming out of the north should have the federal minister launching an inquiry. The money going into education is either not enough, or it is not being wisely invested.

Aboriginal leaders, from AFN National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo and NAN Grand Chief Stan Beardy and the Band Chiefs need to be a huge part of the solution. Many of the things that they are already doing are making a difference. Certainly however there is room for more action.

One issue not addressed fully in the fifth estate documentary was the subject of racism.

Together, in Thunder Bay we need to start addressing racism. There is, very bluntly put, no room in our society for racism. Those who cannot accept that we are all part of the human race need to start smartening up. Those in society who don’t accept racism might have to start making our voices heard ever louder. While there is an anti-racism committee, the facts remain that racism is still here in our city, and until we see greater action to rid our city of racism, we are going to continue to struggle with its evil ramifications.

Some of the racism is so deeply embedded in some of the people in our city that it is likely they don’t even realize it. There are some who use their racist attitudes like a shield that prevents them from letting their own humanity out of the cage they have jailed themselves inside. Some of the stereotypes that seem to stick around Thunder Bay need to be boxed up and tossed in the trashbin of history.

In Thunder Bay, CBC Radio’s Superior Morning turned the microphone over to students at Dennis Comarty Franklin School. You can listen to the interviews Click here. The old saying, out of the mouths of babes.
A striking comment was on “how easy it is here for students to get booze”. Think of it, if people are willing, for $5 to purchase alcohol for underage students, those individuals are a huge part of the problem.

The CBC documentary likely could have been a two, three or even four part feature. Often news from Northern Ontario doesn’t seem to make it to the Southern Ontario or Toronto media. It took months for word of Jordan Wabasse’s disappearance to garner a mention in the Southern Ontario media. By contrast a missing man who was later found in the United States made the national press in mere hours. Perhaps the message to Aboriginal people is that they don’t somehow matter as much as others.

The reality is that there is, to quote country singer Garth Brooks, “When there’s only one race and that’s mankind … Then we shall be free”.

James Murray

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