The ‘Thunder Bay’ series about Crave seeks the truth about aboriginal deaths in ‘Canada’s murder capital’
After the success of Thunder Bay Podcast for Canadaland, Anishinaabe journalist and award-winning writer Ryan McMahon brings the investigation to the big screen in a four-part documentary series about the deaths of Native Americans in Thunder Bay, Ontario (first two episodes available to stream on Crave, February 2) . 17).
This series, also titled Thunder Baynotes first that after the podcast was created, questions arose about why tribal peoples, including teenagers, continued to die in “the murder capital of Canada.”
That brought McMahon back to the northern Ontario city for a second season of the podcast and docuseries, which addressed racism and other issues in the community, the police service, and the police department. This includes looking at the deaths of Barbara Kentner and seven First Nations high school students in Thunder Bay, documented in Tanya Talaga’s book Seven fallen feathers.
In terms of switching the approach from audio to a screen series, McMahon was actually shocked that there was so much interest in people getting in front of the camera.
“People were so desperate in their demands for change in the city that they would do anything, even talk to me on camera, so I was surprised,” McMahon said Yahoo Canada.
“We were welcomed with open arms by the community itself. Those in power, not so much.”
“No one wanted to talk”
Notably among those in power who were not welcomed was the Thunder Bay Police Service. McMahon explained that since 2017 he has been “begging” the police to give him half an hour of their time.
That’s not where this tension ends. In January, journalist Jon Thompson shared internal communications from Thunder Bay police leaders on social media. It said officers should not “waste” their time and “resist the urge” to watch the documentation, citing “too many potential triggers”.
“Like so much of what we read on social media, this series is biased and includes only those people who can spread vile rhetoric,” the message shared by Thompson reads.
McMahon noted that Thunder Bay Police leadership was given the opportunity to be included in the series.
“We gave leadership within the Thunder Bay Police Service every opportunity to come out and say whatever they wanted to make their claims about the work they are doing to change the culture within the service,” McMahon said. “We’ve given the Thunder Bay Police Service Board the same opportunity, we’ve given the community and the mayor’s office the same opportunity. Nobody wanted to talk.”
“If you don’t speak to the media about certain issues, rumors become truth. My fear in Thunder Bay is that rumors have become true there that the record doesn’t exist yet. We tried it. We tried to be fair, just like we were with everyone else who sat with us. We didn’t have a trick up our sleeve. There wasn’t a secret “gotcha” moment that we had planned. But they didn’t speak to us and if I had had a wand they would have sat down and answered our questions.”
As part of this investigation, McMahon speaks to individuals in Thunder Bay whose family members died suddenly, prematurely, and often under unknown circumstances, with limited resources and support to seek justice. McMahon said it was “heartbreaking” to have these particularly emotional conversations.
“Grief is unspoken love, that’s grief, and when people grieve that deeply, they’re willing to sit in front of a camera and talk to a stranger,” McMahon said. “That’s because they have unspoken love for their loved ones who were taken in too soon, who died suspiciously and whose deaths were not honored with a proper investigation.”
“Having the privilege of viewing and collecting these stories to better understand how the story is told is fundamental.”
McMahon emphasized that each participant was provided with specific cultural care throughout production, including incense, medication, counseling, and other support before and after the interviews.
“We cannot live in a post-truth society where there is no truth”
While we’re talking about them Thunder Bay Podcast with APTN in 2019, McMahon emphasized that the podcast addresses whether the system is “broken,” or whether it’s working as it’s supposed to in a way that fails Indigenous communities.
“It is still true that when systems are failing certain communities and certain groups of people, and when those systems are deemed systemically racist because of the actions we apply within the systems themselves, they are systemically racist. They fail,” McMahon said. “The reports we received from the OIPRD in 2018 [Office of the Independent Police Review Director] and the OCPC [Ontario Civilian Police Commission] said there was abject failure on behalf of those systems.”
“I don’t think they don’t work. The system reports itself and said so. So people can get mad at me for saying this, but who’s mad at the OCPC for reporting that way about the police service itself? At some point we have to agree that there is a statement of fact or something that is true. We cannot live in a post-truth society where there is no truth, it is all fake news, nothing is real. … In these particular systems, the system itself said it wasn’t doing a good job.”
One thing journalist Jon Thompson says in the first episode of Thunder Bay Documentaries is that tribal deaths in Canada are mostly just a “blip” in a newspaper, and as they continue to happen it “remains socially acceptable not to believe there is any pattern.”
On this point, McMahon believes that “premature Indigenous deaths are accepted in Canada as a result of living as an Indigenous person.”
“That’s not to say that finding answers that work for communities isn’t complex and difficult, but it’s to say that we should hold these institutions, these organizations, these governments accountable for at least trying to be ours.” Making communities safe for everyone,” he said. “That we at least try to advance the issue of social and political responsibility in Canada.”
“I don’t even care about reconciliation. I’m not talking anymore about not being mean to tribal peoples on the bus anymore. I’m talking about expecting these organizations and institutions to work for everyone, because that’s what we do, taxpayers’ money does, because these institutions are designed to do that. If they don’t work for a specific group, that’s a problem.”
For anyone watching this series, McMahon hopes that with an understanding that Thunder Bay is a “microcosm” of a larger story in Canada and beyond, it can grow into a “global phenomenon.”
“I hope this becomes a global phenomenon, [not just] because I want the show to be successful for my own reasons, but because I think the conversation about safety is a living conversation in our communities,” McMahon said. “There isn’t a city in America where this conversation isn’t happening. There isn’t a city in Canada that doesn’t talk about policing and public safety.”
“We don’t judge on the TV series. We’re not telling you to devalue or abolish your local police service, but we’re showing you the implications of these systems failing, and it’s up to viewers to decide how their own community fares in this regard, and what needs to be done .”
Thunder Bay debuts on Crave on February 17 with the first two episodes, followed by the final two episodes on February 24.