Seven deaths were investigated through a coroner’s inquest in Thunder Bay. Courtesy of CBC.
Nine dead indigenous teenagers in Thunder Bay. No convictions. A new podcast tackles the town’s troubling problems.
By Aviva Lessard and Hussein Kamel
Between 2000 and 2011, seven indigenous teenagers died in Thunder Bay, Ont. Since then, two more have been added to the list. Seven of the bodies were found in the rivers.
In 2015-2016, an inquest was ordered by the Ontario coroner’s office after the families of the deceased students and the Nishnawbe Aski Nation lobbied for years. It looked into the deaths of Jethro Anderson, 15, Curran Strang, 18, Paul Panacheese, 21, Robyn Harper, 18, Reggie Bushie, 15, Kyle Morrisseau, 17, and Jordan Wabasse, 15. There have been no convictions for any of the deaths. Many feel that foul play may have been involved, but police have deemed most of the deaths as undetermined.
Over the years, lack of media coverage of these young murdered teens has left many wondering why more solid reporting hasn’t been done.
The coverage of the inquest was no exception. Jody Porter, senior reporter for the CBC based in Thunder Bay, said that she was often the only journalist attending the hearings in person each day. Other media, including national outlets, would come and go, or only show up on the last day.
“I was fortunate to carve out a space where I could attend the inquest on a daily basis. I felt that it was important to bear witness and show a commitment to their families that I wasn’t just dropping in and that I would be present,” Porter said. “Covering that inquest has been the hardest thing in my career by far.”
Small cities like Thunder Bay do not get much national attention unless something major happens. When the city is featured in the national news, it’s usually because something negative has occurred, such as the death of local resident Barbara Kentner – caused by someone throwing a trailer hitch at her from the window of a moving car – or the mayor being charged with extortion.
“I think there is a tendency of local media to be reticent to air dirty laundry,” Porter said.
This wasn’t the case for a new podcast from CANADALAND, an independent news site and podcast network funded by listeners. They didn’t hesitate to tackle the sensitive issues. The name of the show is Thunder Bay and it is hosted by Ryan McMahon – an Anishinaabe comedian and writer.
On the website, the show’s description sets the tone: “The highest homicide and hate crime rates in the country. A mayor charged with extortion. A police chief who faced trial for obstruction of justice. Nine tragic deaths of Indigenous high schoolers. Why does it all happen here?”
Thunder Bay is breaking the traditional mold of reporting. Its in-depth coverage and long form allows listeners to really dig into the city’s issues. Listeners hear many local perspectives and opinions. “We bring in [indigenous] people, a lot of people from Northern communities who have grown up in very uncivilised areas. And we’re throwing them into civilisation, they don’t know how to handle it,” said a resident interviewed on the podcast.
McMahon said he didn’t have to go digging for racist remarks. “We just talked to people. It wasn’t like a piece of tape where we got this nugget of gold. We just had to choose one to put in. We had a lot of choose from,” he said.
“The city of Thunder Bay could use more journalists. They can’t work fast enough to keep up with everything that needs to be reported on,” McMahon said.
Porter agrees. “Local media here is very barebones,” she said. When she went on leave from her job 18 months ago, no one stepped in to take over covering Thunder Bay on the national level for CBC.
“There’s a divisiveness between indigenous and non-indigenous people, specifically First Nations people in Thunder Bay,” Porter said. “The issues here are so big that they need lots of attention.”
Willow Fiddler, a video journalist from the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN) national news agreed. “What I often hear from everyone is just how blatant it is. Not only blatant, but expected,” she said.
The recommendations from the inquest came out shortly after Fiddler started working for APTN in Thunder Bay. She said that there was a lot of tension in the city after the inquest. “People were accusing the police of being racist for not properly investigating the student deaths,” Fiddler said.
Shortly after the inquest, two more bodies were found in the Neebing-McIntyre floodway, 14-year old Josiah Begg and 17-year old Tammy Keeash. Josiah had been missing for 12 days before they found his body and “police hadn’t started a ground search for days,” Fiddler said.
Porter thinks that the police have made many mistakes when it comes to these deaths. “We will likely never know because at least in part, the police didn’t do their jobs,” Porter said. “I think that the police service here in Thunder Bay has gone so long without being held to account.”
Both Porter and Fiddler experienced tension with the police. “I’ve had a rocky relationship with them,” Fiddler said.
Porter has had a long and difficult history as well. She claims that at one point the police stopped sending her news releases. “As media entities you need the police. It makes your job an awful lot harder if you are short staffed and you’re trying to get the latest news for an hourly newscast, if you can’t call the police and say ‘give me the details,’” Porter said. It’s useful to have a good relationship with the police but “that has been taken to an extreme in Thunder Bay.”
Fiddler added, “one of the things I think people in Thunder Bay – even media – are scared of is how everyone outside of Thunder Bay sees them.”
Fiddler intentionally chooses not to watch or read local media coverage. The Chronicle Journal published a story with the headline “Egg-Toss Incidents Have Police Scrambling.” Indigenous people walking in the streets face the constant fear of having projectiles thrown at them. Fiddler said that the headline was “completely insensitive and ignorant. That’s the local daily news. It’s so infuriating.”
The article was published less than a year after the horrific incident where somebody threw a trailer hitch out of a moving vehicle at Barbara Kentner who was walking down the street. She eventually died in hospital.
The headline did face some pushback – the Assembly of First Nations said it was “offensive and insensitive,” according to the CBC. The newspaper eventually issued an apology.
New media like CANADALAND professes to criticize the Canadian media landscape. They achieve that by operating as an independent organization. As an outsider, McMahon can challenge the status quo and not worry about the repercussions on his career. He was able to take previous media coverage further and ask even more probing questions.
The main advantage that McMahon and his team had when making the podcast was time. “If you’re working for a daily news outlet, time is always against you. If you’re pushing a deadline and your editor is texting you at 3 a.m. to file, how effective is that?” McMahon said.
Listeners seem to be responding – Thunder Bay has been on the iTunes charts for 49 days in Canada, and for 13 days in the United States. It has a rating of five stars out of five with more than 1,000 reviews.
“I think one of the best comments and reviews on iTunes… is that we treated these indigenous stories [as if they were regular news stories]. That we were presenting them as human stories, there’s no secret sauce. We treated these people as human beings,” McMahon said.
McMahon is hoping that the podcast will change how people talk about the problems in Thunder Bay. As an indigenous reporter he feels as though he provides the context and history necessary to talk about Thunder Bay. He can show the “deep-seated settler, colonial, racist attitude towards indigenous people.”
Fiddler feels the same way. She is indigenous as well, hailing from the Sandy Lake First Nation. “It’s about perspective. You need to understand First Nations, where they are coming from and the challenges that they face. The relationships they have with governments are different. Understanding the historical background for a lot of these things is so important.”
According to Fiddler, improving media coverage in the city is simple: “Hire and train indigenous journalists who have that perspective.”
Overt racism is not unique to Thunder Bay McMahon says. “We could have made this podcast in 20 other cities.”
Aviva Lessard’s passion for podcasts and background in anthropology has inspired her to tell stories in a compelling and accessible way.
Hussein Kamel is a Canadian-Egyptian junior engineer who aspires to one day become an international sports journalist.