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Repairing bridges

The James Street Swing Bridge fire ignited a racial outburst on social media last year, but now a newly formed panel is looking for ways to repair the damage.
Fort William First Nation chief Georjann Morriseau speaks at Monday's Building Bridges panel at Lakehead University. (Matt Vis,

The James Street Swing Bridge fire ignited a racial outburst on social media last year, but now a newly formed panel is looking for ways to repair the damage.

The bridge between the City of Thunder Bay and the Fort William First Nations caught fire on the evening of Oct. 29. The blaze led to a racial backlash on Twitter, with many local users mocking the First Nation as firefighters continued to try and snuff out the flames.

The Building Bridges panel, assembled by Lakehead University Student Union vice-president Charmaine Romaniuk, on Monday attempted to start a conversation to address the racism that was revealed that October night.

“Instead of being reactive, let’s be proactive and really think of a means to collaborate and put measures in place,” said Fort William First Nations Chief Georjann Morriseau, who was one of the speakers on the panel at Lakehead University’s Agora building. 

Morriseau likened the tone of some of those racist tweets to the 1988 film Mississippi Burning, a movie that focused on deep-seeded hatred and racism in the southern United States.

“Racism in this fashion seems so archaic,” she said. “It’s just moved onto the Internet … it’s shocking that we’re still dealing with racism.”

But Morriseau said she was elated to hear the student union was taking the initiative to open up a dialogue about the issue. She added that she sees current students and the youth as being instruments of an ideological shift.

“I believe the younger generation will be key and they are fundamental in moving forward with this change,” she said. “I think that young people have not only the energy and passion, they have the intellect and desire to move beyond generational racism, hate or the limitations they face.”

Joining the Fort William First Nation chief on the Building Bridges panel was Coun. Rebecca Johnson and the City of Thunder Bay’s Aboriginal liaison Ann Magiskan.

Magiskan discussed her desire, as a grandmother, to try to provide her grandchildren with a life where they aren’t subjected to racism like she had been. Achieving that starts with education, she said.

“I think it’s very important we broaden our understanding of First Nation people and develop and recognize the history and contributions that were made to Canada as it is today,” Magiskan said.

While a conversation is a great way to promote awareness, Morriseau admits there is a need for real action, and the First Nation chief has an action plan.

Morriseau and Thunder Bay Mayor Keith Hobbs held a media conference in the immediate aftermath of the fire to show solidarity. The two leaders pledged to work to improve relations between both communities.

“We’ve had many discussions since then and we’ve worked on defining the declaration between the City of Thunder Bay and Fort William First Nation,” Morriseau said when asked what has happened in the three months that followed that news conference.

“(The declaration) has to encompass not only the business and economic side, but the historical issues … social aspect and educational needs.”





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