THUNDER BAY – A panel of grandmothers on Wednesday challenged the community of Thunder Bay to re-imagine its approach to public safety, arguing it’s time to move beyond the use of police and security guards to control public space.
More than 70 people attended the hour-long discussion in front of city hall, dubbed "Tea with Kokum" and featuring elder Ma-Nee Chacaby, filmmaker Michelle Derosier, and former journalist Jody Porter.
The panel was convened by community group Not One More Death, which has raised concerns over the use of security guards at city hall.
It suggested in a discussion document the City of Thunder Bay should turn to community-based approaches, provocatively asking, "What if, instead of security guards at city hall, there was a team of compassionate and caring anti-racist grandmas present to care for those in need?"
The group says security guards have been used to kick homeless residents out of city hall bus shelters during extreme cold snaps, and highlighted a recent incident in which a guard was observed taking a picture of two men slumped on a bench at city hall.
The incident, caught on camera and posted to social media, prompted questions over why a more caring response hadn’t been offered.
It’s just one instance on a spectrum of discrimination Indigenous people – and particularly the homeless – face simply for existing in public space, speakers said Wednesday.
"One of the things I don't like about this city that I see... [people] get shoved out of here, they get pushed away," said Chacaby. "You can't just come [to city hall] and hang out and be yourself. Same thing in the other side in Port Arthur... in the waterfront area, certain people get pushed away from there."
The discussion ranged further, questioning how public space should be governed, and critiquing the Thunder Bay Police Service's request for a $56 million new headquarters funded by the city.
Moderator Tina Munroe said Indigenous, racialized, and homeless residents feel increasingly unwelcome in public spaces like the transit hub at city hall, asking panelists how it got to that point.
“I was thinking about the monument to how we got here that’s just outside of town,” Porter responded. “Some settlers here are really proud of the Old Fort [Fort William Historical Park]. I was thinking about how that’s a model for where we are now – it’s a fortress, there are fences, and one of the re-enactments they do has to do with someone in jail."
“Since that time, that’s what we’ve tried to do here as settlers: we’ve built fences and we’ve built jails. That’s why I really welcome this conversation that applies some creativity and some different ways of thinking about how people can be made to feel safe.”
Chacaby said she routinely sees Indigenous youth singled out by security guards, and that she had been asked to leave public space herself by security at Marina Park for no apparent reason.
Indigenous people regularly face violent and aggressive interventions from security and police, Derosier said, leading to everyday considerations others don't have to think about.
“I have to show up [to this event], because I have a 16-year-old grandson now,” she said. “He’s fortunate in some way, and I say that very lightly, because my daughter has a vehicle so she can drive him around, and she does so to keep him safe. You know, because he’s a brown teenager that likes to dress in black and have hoodies on, and be himself.”
Porter, whose work helped bring national attention to the inquest into the deaths of seven First Nations youth while attending school in Thunder Bay, said the city’s institutions continue to fail Indigenous youth and need to be re-imagined.
“All of the places where First Nations young people could turn for help – the police, security guards, the hospital – we’ve seen that those aren’t safe places, and that’s a big problem,” she said.
Porter pointed to the police force mulling a $600,000 fence around its headquarters as an example of a broken system.
“Not only do people who use the public spaces not feel safe, but we’ve seen recently the police themselves don’t even feel safe. People with guns and a headquarters to hide out in feel that they need a fence to feel safe."
“If the police don’t feel safe, and the people they’re supposed to be serving don’t feel safe, I think it’s long past time to come up with some new ideas.”
All of the speakers said it was time to move beyond symbolic gestures to real structural change.
Munroe pointed to the fact that city hall proudly boasted a sticker for the Wake the Giant campaign, meant to signal a welcoming environment for Indigenous youth.
“Isn’t that the most hilarious irony, [that] this campaign is here, and this is where we’re kicking people out of?” she asked.
Speakers praised groups like Not One More Death, the Regional Multicultural Youth Centre, and the Underground Gym, but said it would take a much broader movement of Thunder Bay residents to truly make the city safe for Indigenous people.
“These are individuals – we’re a community,” said Porter. “We need to step up and make sure kids are safe.”
Derosier called on residents to “re-imagine what a community can do."
“We have a lot of really beautiful people here, but change takes more than that," she said. "It takes more than just being nice… We have to keep pushing ourselves as a community. Pick an action.”
Calls for justice had been led by Indigenous people for long enough, she said, after decades of reports, from the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP) to the 2018 OIPRD report finding systemic racism within the Thunder Bay Police Service.
“I’m really curious to start seeing action in the community – from the settler community, from the non-Indigenous community. Because we’re doing our part – it’s happening all over.”
Porter expressed some hope Canada's reckoning with the discovery of unmarked graves indicating untold numbers of undocumented residential school deaths could open a space for new possibilities.
“Canadians are having a moment right now,” said. “We can seize this moment and think about what we’ll tell our grandchildren we did. Did we spend millions of dollars on a new police building, or did we finally answer the call for something as simple as a youth centre that we haven’t been able to do?”
Creating more community gathering spaces for youth, elders, and others should be a priority, agreed Chacaby.
She reiterated a recommendation Not One More Death made earlier this year, calling for the City to support the Indigenous-led construction of a longhouse in Thunder Bay. The structure would offer community space and social supports, and could be used for emergency shelter in the winter, Chacaby suggested.
“There should be no reason people are dying in Thunder Bay because of a lack of shelter,” she said.
The city’s general manager of community services, Kelly Robertson, who oversees public transit, said Wednesday she was interested in exploring alternative models to address safety concerns relating to the service. However, she added many of those concerns were legitimate, with drivers facing assaults in the course of their duties.
Other cities had pursued steps like posting a social navigator or other support worker along with security in public spaces, she said.
No other senior city staff or city councillors appeared to be in attendance at the event.
The City previously implemented a “care bus” offering warming and support workers over the winter, after Not One More Death called for increased support for homeless residents amid a COVID-19 outbreak and prolonged cold snap.
A recording of the event broadcast over Facebook Live remains available at Not One More Death's Facebook page.