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Event to question security presence at city hall

Tea with Kokum panel starts conversation on new ways to govern public space.
Thunder Bay City Hall

THUNDER BAY – A panel of grandmothers will question the use of security guards to monitor public space at Thunder Bay’s city hall, calling for alternative solutions focused on offering supports.  

The event, dubbed Tea with Kokum and originally planned for Tuesday evening, will now occur Wednesday at 7 p.m. due to weather. It will take place at city hall and be livestreamed on the Facebook page of community group Not One More Death.

The event “will feature a panel of grandmothers drinking tea and sharing thoughts about how to create grassroots community safety and care,” according to the group.

The discussion will feature elder Ma-Nee Chacaby, filmmaker Michelle DeRosier, and journalist Jody Porter.

The action comes weeks after a community member posted images to social media of hired security staff photographing two men slumped on a bench outside of city hall, questioning why there was not more of a caring and respectful response.

Not One More Death Spokesperson Kate Rookes said it’s an example of the treatment the group is pushing to change, but more aren’t caught on camera.

The event also comes as the City of Thunder Bay considers a request from the Thunder Bay Police Service to fund a new police station estimated at $56 million, and after city council recently approved a major expansion to its Eye on the Street surveillance program.

“With the police now requesting another $50m for a new headquarters it's time to call the question," said Rookes. "We know from countless studies that, to really solve the problems police are asked to respond to in our community we have to address the upstream issues of colonialism, trauma, poverty, addiction and lack of care. It’s the elders in our community whose wisdom should guide us, not politicians and police.”

The Tea with Kokum discussion will envision alternatives focused on directing people toward services, supporting those suffering from addiction, de-escalation, and mental health first aid training.

“The event is really intended to open the door for a better conversation about public safety, something that goes beyond just throwing more money at policing and surveillance,” Rookes said.

“We’re not taking issue with security guards [personally], it’s the city’s policy and how they want to treat this public space. The question really is why are they protecting it, who are they protecting it for, who are they protecting it from?”

The concept is modelled in some ways on the “care bus” the city implemented to offer warming and social supports to those in need during the winter, after Not One More Death called for the program.

Specifically, Not One More Death asks whether teams of elders could better monitor city hall.

“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?” asks a draft discussion document from the group.

It envisions a “grandmothers’ roundtable” that would serve as an advisory and decision-making body on matters related to community safety.

The idea of bringing together a “think tank” of grandmothers draws on Anishinaabe traditions that hold elders in high regard, said the group. 

Following community feedback, they may formally present recommendations to Thunder Bay’s city council.

“We’re working on concrete proposals, but we want to first open a space for the imagination,” said Rookes of Wednesday’s event. “We wanted to do something a little bit different… there’s some lightness and some seriousness to it – it’s a serious issue, and we’re serious in wanting to implement something different.”

However, she said city council should be moving toward progressive solutions on its own.

“I’m hopeful they’ll feel a little bit of shame that they didn’t think of this before, and that they’ve used methods of punishment in an ostensibly public space for so long,” she said. “Whether they implement this or not, I’m hopeful it will start conversations at the city about the fact we need to care for other people.”

In-person attendees at Tea with Kokum will be required to physically distance from others and wear masks. The group will have some masks on hand for those without.

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