You can listen to a podcast of this essay here.
There are three reasons why an international audience should care about the otherwise insignificant Canadian city of Thunder Bay, a community of 120,000 souls 100km North of the American border right in the middle of the world’s second most spacious nation-state.
The first is that, as Canada’s murder and hate-crime capital, with the vast majority of these terrors directed at Indigenous people, roughly 13-20 percent of the population, its example has a lot to teach us about the dire failure of the Canadian model of liberal capitalism, corporate multiculturalism, and half-hearted “reconciliation.”
Second, as a troubled (post-)extractive and logistics-based economy in a “first-world” country — a country that exports and finances extractive industries around the world — its patterns of racist violence reveal something profound about capitalism today.
Finally, Thunder Bay’s problems demand, and are generating, the kind of radical, grassroots solutions that point towards the kind of transformations all communities need to embrace in the years to come to overcome the dangerous intertwined orders of contemporary colonialism and capitalism as they descend into, or perhaps simply reveal themselves to have always been, gangsterism.
Recently, within Canada, Thunder Bay is much in the news. Anishinaabe journalist Tanya Talaga’s national bestseller, Seven Fallen Feathers, details the shocking case of seven Indigenous youth whose bodies were found in the city over the past decade. A devastating coroner’s report into these deaths in 2016 revealed widespread failings on the part of nearly every institution and level of government in the city. A recent high-profile investigation of the city’s police service and its municipal oversight board, one of them by noted Anishinaabe judge and Canadian Senator Murray Sinclair, found gross incompetence in these institutions as well as systemic racism against Indigenous people.
One of the country’s most popular podcasts released a five-episode series, co-produced by celebrated Anishinaabe journalist and comedian Ryan McMahon, detailing this ugly side of the city, including the abuse and human trafficking of Indigenous women and girls by parties that include senior city officials. Indeed, in what appears to be a case of a heavy-handed metaphor for racial strife coming to life, the bridge connecting Thunder Bay to the nearby Indigenous community of Fort William First Nation burnt down in 2013 under suspicious circumstances. No one was held accountable and the bridge has not been repaired.
The city has become a shameful icon of the ugly truth of colonial dispossession and violence hiding just under the surface of Canada’s buffed image as a benign force in the world. While not as dramatic as the courageous Indigenous-led resistance to pipelines and mining projects in Canada, Thunder Bay is where the logics of extraction and racial violence play out in agonizing slow motion. And it has a lot to teach us.
The coldest night
We’re on a busy highway: transport trucks that ply the arterial Trans-Canada highway speed by, snow whirls behind them in the slipstream. About a dozen of us, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, have walked here from up the hill, site of a monument to Canadian folk hero Terry Fox, shielding small candles in plastic cups from the frigid wind that whips off Lake Superior, the largest body of freshwater in the world. While Fox is commemorated in national legend, and even pictured in our passports, we’re here tonight to remember others: Indigenous boys and girls who have shared stories that they have been dropped here by police over the years, on the outskirts of Thunder Bay, to die in the cold, so-called “Starlight Tours.”
“We have to show the youth somebody is listening to them, someone cares” says the Anishinaabe who has been invited by the organizer’s of tonight’s memorial: the Bear Clan, an Indigenous-led volunteer foot patrol that has arisen to generate a culture of solidarity in the city in the wake of extreme violence and police indifference.
As we stand by the highway, honoring the dead and the stories of the living, a large truck looms behind us, watching. We’re jumpy. Recently, white citizens of Thunder Bay have been threatening the Bear Clan online and more than once patrols have been circled and threatened by trucks full of jeering, angry men. High-profile members of the police force and city government have taken time to warn the Bear Clan that they’re in danger of reprisals.
As we finish the vigil, a man climbs down from the cab of the truck and greets us: he came for the vigil, but chose to use his huge vehicle to shine a light on us to illuminate us to passing drivers for our safety. He was waiting for his friends to also show up, but they never came. They’re all sick and tired of what’s happening in the city. It’s all they talk about. Maybe his friends got scared, he wonders.
Thunder Bay is a city built on forgotten resistances. The indigenous Anishinaabe people, including those of Fort William First Nation, a community just outside Thunder Bay city limits, have for centuries refused to be annihilated — even when the Canadian government abducted their children and forced them into notorious church-run Residential Schools, where traditional languages and cultural and spiritual practices were forbidden and inmates were subjected to systematic sexual and physical abuse by staff.
Acts of Indigenous resistance, as dramatic as armed standoffs or as subtle as the tenacity to continue to practice traditions and speak the Anishinaabe language, define the struggle over the land here. In 1850 a compromise came in the form of the Robinson-Superior Treaty, which allowed “settler” communities like Thunder Bay to be built in the late 19th century. But Indigenous presence on the land, and profound connection to the land, continue to thwart the colonizing agenda that, as the late Secwepemc strategist Arthur Manuel illustrates, is at the heart of Canada’s essence: to transform the entire territory into private or public property for the profit and enjoyment of settlers (preferably white settlers) and international capital.
This logic of extraction and elimination at the meeting point of capitalism and colonialism is sewn into the fabric of Thunder Bay. Settlers first came to this city, at the end of the chain of Great Lakes, seeking to trade with Indigenous people for furs. One of the most lucrative “natural resources” of the 18th and 19th centuries, furs fetched high prices as fashion articles among the wealthy of Western Europe, whose pockets were full of looted wealth from around the world. In the contact zone of the fur trade, many ethnicities met and new ones emerged. As the fur trade declined thanks to changing fashions and over-harvesting driven by insatiable European demand, the railway opened new horizons of extraction and colonization to the West. Thunder Bay became a major transportation and logistics hub, shuttling new settlers West and the resources they produced — or stole — back East. The city became the world’s largest freshwater port, with lumber and grains flowing through its train yards and docks.
The ports, like the lumber camps and mines surrounding the city, became key zones of labor struggle as migrant workers, many of them Finns and Italians, mobilized under radical unions like the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). The state responded with violence: riots, the murder of labor organizers, and the deportation of leaders were common as the entrenched Protestant Anglophone elite bent or broke Canada’s fabled “rule of law” to protect the accumulation of capital at all costs. From the beginning, these actors studied and employed a devastatingly effective technique inherited from the British Empire: divide and conquer. Ethnic migrant communities were pitted against one another to prevent them organizing together. But in turn, everyone was pitted against the Indigenous people.
Belonging with the land
Years ago I knew a man, let’s call him Jerry, who kept the fire burning at Indigenous-led protests and gatherings, a sacred task that appears to me to require someone who had patience, perseverance and that unnamable quality of a person with whom everyone feels comfortable. He was key to creating a bridge between indigenous and non-indigenous protesters, with a warm smile for everyone. At the time I was thinking a lot about labor and work in capitalism, and he helped me realize how profoundly unjust and dangerous it is that our society does not value the kinds of gifts Jerry had to offer. But even while Jerry exuded a deep and generous peace with himself and his role, he had no idea who he was. In the 1950s he had been apprehended from his family as an infant and given to a series of white foster parents, some of whom were kind and some of whom abused him. He was, at the time I knew him, successfully fighting off the addictions which had almost murdered him in the past.
Jerry had travelled around Turtle Island (the Anishinabe term for North America — an accurate description of the shape of the continental geography developed long before satellite imagery) learning various Indigenous traditions. But he had no idea what community he had come from, and he would never know: the records had been lost by a careless bureaucrat, if records were ever kept. The kindly foster parents, with whom he still spoke, had no idea who his birth parents might have been — even what area of the country he might have come from. They regretted that they had tried to hide Jerry’s past from him when he was a child. The best among them had thought to raise him as their own white son, benignly ignorant of the depth and scale of the daily racism he faced in school and society at large that caused him to act out and retreat inwards.
When I met him, Jerry had recently been adopted into a nearby indigenous community and tasked to be a fire keeper at these kinds of events, and he was prized by many because of his vast knowledge of the traditions, stories and cultures of the many Indigenous nations he had visited trying to get home. He told me, in regard to an ongoing land dispute his adopted community was engaged in, “it’s not that the land belongs to us. That simply doesn’t make sense in our language. We belong to the land,” he corrected himself, “We come with this land. They can never get rid of us.”
Policing a city of tears
Photo by Maciej / Flickr
The isolation, the economic marginality, and the history of extraction and racial resentments all contribute to, but cannot completely explain, the staggering degree of racism in the city. Every Indigenous person I have spoken with, from jetsetting university professors and lawyers to people living on the frigid winter streets, has stories. These include everyday microaggressions like nasty comments from nurses or civil servants or being suspected of shoplifting at the supermarket. But they also include profound physical violence, threats or peril.
Like many police forces in Canada, officers in the Thunder Bay Police Service (TBPS) have been known to drive Indigenous people out to the outskirts of town, take their shoes and coats, and leave them to walk back or freeze to death. Unlike most police forces in Canada, the TBPS has recently been found to be plagued with profound “systemic racism” by two independent and high-profile reports. These happened to have been published just days before a video circulated on social media of an angry Indigenous teenager being slapped by a police officer while strapped to a stretcher awaiting ambulance service to a local hospital. The Police union, unsurprisingly, vigorously denies racism is systemic.
The real reason for the investigations was the deaths of seven Indigenous youth, most from remote Northern communities, most in the city to access high school education or medical services denied to them in their communities. Most of them were found in or near the city’s rivers and waterways. One report found gross police incompetence in the investigations of these deaths, which were ruled accidents. The dismissive belief among the police and many if not most of the white citizens of Thunder Bay is that these children got drunk or high, fell in, and drowned. Almost every Indigenous person I have spoken to suspects there are gangs of men, who may include police officers, preying on isolated and vulnerable youth, abusing them, and murdering them, making it look like an accident.
As scholars Damien Lee and Jana-Rae Yerxa note, many precedents stand behind these fears. Indigenous people end up dead in Thunder Bay at staggering rates. It is one of the Canadian hotspots for the epidemic of murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls, and also for human trafficking, which have been condemned by Amnesty International and the United Nations, among others. Court cases from the ‘80s and ‘90s have revealed that past generations of city leaders — including mayors, city councillors, judges, lawyers, and police — regularly availed themselves of the services of Indigenous sex workers, many of them underage, forced into the trade by a combination of addiction, marginalization, racist policies or practices, histories of abuse, or dire poverty. Just before the most recent police reports were issued, the mayor (a former Police Association president), the police chief (a fool) and the city’s most successful lawyer (a convicted child molestor) were all implicated in a scandal involving a blend of sexual abuse, extortion, and breach of trust.
Meanwhile, just as I moved to the city in early 2017, an Indigenous woman was fatally injured in the street when one of a gang of white teenagers out joyriding threw a heavy metal trailer hitch at her from their speeding car. It took her several agonizing months to die from her internal injuries. Almost every Indigenous person I have spoken to has a story of having something thrown at them from a speeding car — sometimes just insults, sometimes forks or kitchen knives, other times eggs or liquids (in the depths of winter, getting wet can actually be very dangerous), other times glass bottles.
You don’t give us time to grieve
“I don’t believe in reconciliation” an indigenous friend tells us. We’ve called a public meeting to discuss racism in the community. “How can there be reconciliation when the crimes continue, when the hurt continues.” Everyone present, Indigenous and settler alike, nods, solemnly. We find ourselves in circles like this more and more frequently these days, though our optimism that they’ll change anything is running thin. Still, sometimes it’s enough to simply be able to look around a mixed room of people and see everyone nodding in sorrow. Not enough of us, though.
“You don’t even give us time to grieve” she says. The violence comes in relentless waves. Even those of us settlers in the room are part of that ‘you.’ Our presence on the land makes us colonists, even if we fight within, against, and beyond it. My friend isn’t blaming us exactly. How could “we” be responsible for a ten-year old Indigenous girl who takes her own life in a remote community because she sees no future? And yet the grave lies open between us. Indigenous youth succumb to suicide at a staggeringly elevated rate of five to six times the non-Indigenous average. As Tanya Talaga explained in a recent series of nationally-broadcast lectures, the reasons are clear: systematic denial of basic human rights. When a child dies unnecessarily in any community it ruptures the order of space and time, the relationship between generations, the narrative of existence. In many indigenous communities such deaths are unrelenting. Grieving is, for many, an unchosen way of life. Only the colonizer can afford to deny the presence of ghosts.
The response from the “white community” to the recently revelations and news stories about Thunder Bay has been one of highly aggrieved shock and hurt. A few weeks ago the new mayor — who replaced the one felled by the scandal — announced his top priority would be defending and restoring the city’s reputation, and indeed most citizens feel that the biggest problem in the city is “negative media attention” and people who “play the race card”: complaining about racism to escape taking responsibility for their own problems.
One beer later and most white citizens will proudly tell you the heroic story of their ethnic ancestors arriving, suffering racism, and overcoming it through hard work, never asking for a hand-out or complaining. After a second beer they will tell you that Thunder Bay’s problems come “from the outside” by which they mean the high number of Indigenous people in the city from remote Northern communities who, in their estimation, “bring trouble” with them when they arrive “from the bush.”
Perhaps, this might be a reference to the kinds of social and psychological challenges that Indigenous people in Canada disproportionately face as a direct result of they and their ancestors surviving a 400-year unrelenting war of genocidal annihilation, of which the Residential Schools were only one part. Perhaps they are referring to the chronic and disastrous underfunding of health, education and social services on reserves. But I think not: their opinions are typically echoes of the fabled “garrison mentality.”
It goes something like this: we, loyal subjects of the British Queen, that icon of an empire of civility and progress, are stuck here, together, in a savage landscape surrounded by savage natives, banding together in our diversity to apply ourselves to the hard but morally rewarding work of transforming a virgin land into a modern economic bounty. Whiteness in Canada, as critical-race theorist Sherene Razack has explained, is marked by transforming geographic spaces into racializing places where certain bodies — typically white — are seen as normal and beneficial and others — especially Indigenous — are seen as interruptions, threats or hindrances.
Razack has elsewhere explored the perpetual cultural production of beliefs in — white — Canadian innocence and generosity which is constantly being betrayed or abused by ungrateful Others. In this racist worldview, white civility is constantly being jeopardized by the barbarism of non-white Others. Indeed, during country’s last Federal Election the panicked then-ruling Conservative party hired notorious far-right election strategist Lynton Crosby to — unsuccessfully — pivot the election discourse towards the “barbaric cultural practices” that non-white immigrants were allegedly importing into the colonial settler state.
It’s their our culture…
The rank, racist and reactionary hypocrisy so common in Canada and in Thunder Bay is, unfortunately, often mistaken for merely a cultural anachronism, which can be solved through better public education, greater cultural sensitivity and more opportunities to celebrate diversity. This has, for instance, been the approach to the problems of racist policing in the city: another “cultural competency” workshop ought to clear up that unsightly blemish. It has also, by and large, been the approach of the ascendant heartthrob Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, son of one of Canada’s most famous politicians (or, allegedly, of Fidel Castro) whose Liberal Party swept to power in 2015. Trudeau has pledged to implement the recommendations of the country’s profoundly influential Truth and Reconciliation Commission that addressed the legacies of Residential Schools, naming them a form of “cultural genocide.”
Trudeau’s government has taken many steps towards what is branded as “reconciliation” with Indigenous peoples. While this has largely taken place in the areas of rhetoric and culture, as Manuel and others including Mohawk theorist Audra Simpson and Anishinaabe writer Leanne Betasamosake Simpson illustrate, there are profound political and economic barriers to any substantial rapprochement. And without understanding these barriers we cannot understand why tensions persist throughout the country, and why Thunder Bay remains the most racist and dangerous city in the country. It is not simply that Canadians are racist because they do not know any better. Racism serves a systemic and structural function.
My friend Billy Lewis, an Mi’Kmaq elder in Halifax, is often invited to speak to high-school classes, especially following the Canadian government’s embrace of the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation report on residential schools. As a teenager, Billy ran away to become a dock worker. When he arrived on the first day the workers were on strike and he became a lifelong anarchist labor agitator, as well as a prisoner’s rights activist.
“Don’t ever let them tell you that youth are this country’s most important natural resource,” Billy jokes to the students, “you don’t want to know what Canada does with its natural resources.”
Photo by Tony Webster / Flickr
This process sometimes took the form of direct state violence, other times by allowing settlers themselves to murder or displace Indigenous people. Later, in large part thanks to militant and often armed resistance from Indigenous people, the nascent Canadian nation state developed a set of policies dependent on incarcerating Indigenous people on small parcels of their lands — called Reservations — imposing a foreign system of government on them — called Band Councils — and declaring Indigenous people essentially wards of the state or second-class citizens: registered by number with the government, governed by the notoriously punitive Indian Act, and — until recently — overseen by an all-white Ministry of the government. All these structures remain in place, though they have changed in significant ways.
Today, as Dene political theorist Glen Coulthard makes clear, the purpose of these systems is to strip Indigenous people of their sovereignty, which is to say their collective holding of the land in common. The goal is the assimilation of Indigenous people as Canadian citizens, one part of a multicultural capitalist mosaic. In spite of a great deal of rhetoric about “nation-to-nation” negotiations by the Trudeau government, it is profoundly clear, as Mi’Kmaq lawyer and professor Pam Palmater warns, that the State does not and cannot accept the idea that Indigenous people would be allowed to say “no” to, for instance, mines, forestry, corporate fishing or pipelines on traditional Indigenous lands.
The Canadian government, which has recently signed on to the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous People after refusing to do so for years, constantly circumvents the requirement for Free Prior and Informed Consent on such projects. For instance, the federal government usually refuses to consult with traditional Indigenous governments, preferring instead to deal only with the state-imposed Band Council system, who, as Arthur Manuel points out, are essentially the employees of the same Canadian government. As with all forms of colonialism, the Canadian state’s approach, though no one would explicitly state it as such, is to eliminate Indigenous sovereignty and replace it with a system of Indigenous dependency: nominally “self-governing” Indigenous populations are almost completely economically reliant on the Canadian government remitting small portion of the revenues accrued from the exploitation of their own lands, with many strings attached.
Fascistic colonial poisons
Thus it has ever been in Canada, and thus it will always be unless there is some very radical change. Colonialism and capitalism arrived, grew hand-in-hand, and continue to define the political economy and culture of the territory. In another context, anti-colonial thinkers like Albert Memmi, Aimé Césaire and Frantz Fanon all noted that colonialism not only chokes the life of indigenous people, it also poisons the soul of the colonizer. The colonizer’s fundamental reliance on the stolen labor or lands of the colonized and the violence needed to uphold it leads to a pathological resentment. The colonizer begins to see himself — and let us stay with the gendered language because it is revealing — as the victim of colonized peoples’ ungratefulness, duplicity and failure to thrive. A cultural and moral rot sets in which, as Césaire points out, ultimately arcs towards an appetite for fascism: the kind of spiteful, racist authoritarianism that wants to “fix” the “indigenous problem” once and for all.
In Thunder Bay I help facilitate a few initiatives that seek to empower settlers to confront racism in their families and communities, as well as to understand its deeper roots. A great number of people I work with tell me that at least one of their close friends or family members has espoused the belief that what Canada needs is a strong government who will come in and tear up the treaties signed with Indigenous people, liquidate the far flung communities and force their populations into cities and make these populations “work hard like everyone else.” This radical and genocidal opinion is not rare, but far more common is the mistaken grievance that Indigenous people pay no taxes and are entitled to all sorts of free government services, an argument belied by the fact that, on a per capita basis, Indigenous people by some measures receive significantly less funding for health, education and social services than non-Indigenous citizens of Canada. As with anti-Black racism in the United States, the vast inequalities and structural violences Indigenous people in Canada face are frequently explained as the result of a outdated “culture” which is allegedly unable to adapt to the modern world.
In Thunder Bay this colonial resentment is palpable in the wake of the recent scandals, deaths and police reports: I hear it nearly daily at the bar, from my students and from local professionals. If only the “Natives” would disappear, the problem would go away. Meanwhile, calmly pointing out the fallacies of these opinions, let alone identifying their profoundly racist underpinnings, is met with accusations that one is barbarically curtailing “freedom of speech.” This reaction once again positions the privileged racial subject as the victim of savages who fail to understand civilized debate.
Romanticization and resentment are two sides of the same colonial coin in this realm. A lot of settlers who show up at Indigenous protests and events have a lean and hungry look in their eyes. We are the products of a deeply alienated, commercialized and reactionary culture, and plenty of white people gravitate towards Indigenous struggles, which appear to us as the most noble incarnation of the “noble savage” myth. We arrive claiming we want to help. We actually arrive wanting to be saved from ourselves. We are the vampires that we are running from; vampires can’t see themselves in the mirror. As a result, there is a lot of well-placed distrust in Indigenous communities towards well-meaning white people, based on 400 years of betrayals.
I was once part of a group of well-meaning graduate student activists who went to an Indigenous blockade near where we were going to school. We were all nervous: police and white supremacists were active in the area. Nothing at the blockade matched our understanding of order. We couldn’t figure out who we were supposed to meet with and, when we did, she was busy for hours before we could talk. Some of us had classes to teach.
“Go back and find your own indigenous ancestry.” The elder, a protest leader, told us. “Your ancestors had their land taken and that’s why they came here. Now you’re taking our land. Maybe you don’t have to go back to those lands, but learn who your ancestors were and their struggles and then we can talk eye to eye.”
We were a diverse bunch. Some of our ancestors were the victims of the enclosures in Scotland and England, where peasants were stripped of their lands to transform them into the industrial proletariat or cannon fodder for empire. Some of us were descendents of Indian or Chinese “temporary” workers brought to Canada as cheap, disposable labor, never intended to remain. Some of us were refugees or the children of refugees from Vietnam, the Balkans or from Palestine. For some of us, our people’s attempts to reclaim an indigenous, land-based identity has gone horribly wrong, for instance in Israel where claims to ancestral belonging have been wielded to legitimate a new settler colonialism. We’re all in exile, somehow.
Photo by Tony Webster / Flickr
In Thunder Bay, in spite of all the nostalgia for the good old days of hard and honest work, extractive and logistics industries today account for a relatively small percentage of the economy and workforce: we are today primarily a city of public sector, health care and education workers, all of which are undergoing austerity, cutbacks and rationalizations in various ways. Thunder Bay may indeed be a regional hub for the vast and sparsely populated area of Northwest Ontario, but a highly significant number of the public services that employ us are oriented towards either the 13+ percent of the city’s population who are Indigenous and to the the many Indigenous people who fly or drive into the city periodically for medical care, education, shopping and recreation.
In other words, the underlying political economy of Thunder Bay is, ironically, dependent on Indigenous people. This trend will only grow given high birth rates among Indigenous populations and relatively low birthrates among the broader community. This unspoken dependency is one source of the violent culture of colonial resentment at work. It is not Indigenous people who are dependent, it is settlers, and the reality will soon be unavoidable.
But this current economic and demographic reality reveals a more profound underlying truth. It is becoming more and more obvious that cities like Thunder Bay and indeed the entire country is built on stolen Indigenous land. The treaties were typically signed under duress and sometimes without even allowing time for them to be translated to or negotiated by Indigenous leadership. The political-economic foundations of the country are based on a form of colonial theft and pillage directly at odds with the notions of “peace, order and good government” at the core of the national mythology, directly at odds with institutions such as the “rule of law” and “human rights” that Canada boasts so proudly on the world stage.
Plenty of nation-states have dark histories and perhaps the hidden history of any political community — certainly any political community to emerge in the crucible of capitalism and empire — is a kind of hidden originary violence at odds with its stated values. In the Canadian context, these unquiet ghosts are not simply consigned to the history books.
To this day Canada is a key player in a global capitalist imperium that specializes in extractive industries and extractive forms of debt. The Mining Association of Canada reports that “the Toronto Stock Exchange (TSX) and TSX Venture Exchange accounted for 57 percent of the global mining equity raised in 2016.” As Alain Deneault and William Sacher have noted, Canada has historically structured its laws and commercial norms to empower the theft of indigenous lands to be violently transformed into “resources” for export, a specialization that is now itself exported around the world as Canadian-owned or -funded corporations are called upon to “develop” mines and extractive projects globally.
Every Canadian with savings is necessarily complicit: almost all pension funds, banks and other investment vehicles here are wrapped up in the TSX and therefore the extractive industry. Meanwhile, as Peter Hudson illustrates, Canada also has a long legacy of renovating national, municipal and personal debt into a tool of neocolonialism, notably in the Caribbean where Canadian banks have enjoyed profound influence, even monopolies.
In other words, the fundamental foundation of Canada as such, as a political and economic entity, is rooted at the intersection of extraction, racism, colonialism and capitalism. It has always been based and expanded on the basis of exploiting racialized migrant labor and other workers on stolen Indigenous lands. The ruling class and international capital, working hand in glove, have consistently used divide-and-conquer techniques to sew the seeds of racism that undermine solidarity. Thunder Bay is only a particularly poignant example, a place so small and marginalized that it cannot sustain the veneer of polite, civil, cheerful liberalism that is the country’s brand.
As in most conventional abusive relationships, the abuser blames the abused for their abusive actions. In this case, Indigenous people are framed as responsible for their own misfortune. Whiteness, as a social construct, is framed as not only innocent but exploited, the victim of its own generosity towards “savage” people who, because of their choice or destiny, cannot adapt to the “modern” world.
The Trudeau government swept to power on the promise that, through cultural integration, through more “civility” and more “generosity’ the Indian Problem will finally be solved without in any way imperiling Canada’s bottom-line: remaining a “first world” G8 power with one of the world’s highest qualities of life, except of course for Indigenous people, who, by the same problematic statistical metrics, have among the worst health indicators in the “developed” world. Based on this promise, many Canadians have committed themselves in a kind of misinformed good faith to a government-led process of “reconciliation.”
Settlers are increasingly enthusiastic to see Indigenous stories and culture represented in cultural venues (literature, music, film), to celebrate Indigenous “contributions to Canada” and even for face up to some of the demons of colonialism unleashed in the past in the pursuit of “peace, order and good government.” There is even some grudging acceptance of Indigenous protests, at least compared to the nationalistic enthusiasm of the past where, white citizens celebrated the obliteration of Indigenous resistance.
Meanwhile, however, Canada’s primordial agenda of dispossession and extraction must proceed. When faced with massive Indigenous-led protests and blockades to prevent major projects, especially pipelines, Trudeau and his ethnically diverse Cabinet find themselves siding again and again with national and international extractive and logistics corporations eager to export the “resources” Canada claims as its own to American or overseas markets — in spite of recent oil and commodity price depression. The national police force, the Mounties, who were established to “protect” Western settlers from Indigenous people, and its secret police have identified Indigenous protesters seeking to use non-violent means to halt extractive and logistics projects, as key threats to national security. Promises to develop watchdog groups and methods to hold Canada’s mining and extractive corporations operating overseas to account for environmental and social destruction have been delayed and watered-down, thanks in part of the power of these corporations in the nation’s political capital, Ottawa and, more importantly, its financial capital, Toronto.
Trudeau and other senior officials as well as unmuzzled former employees of the central Bank of Canada, have been trying to gently break the news: if settlers want to maintain their nation-state’s competitive position in global capitalist markets, and therefore their own access to what we understand as a “first-world” consumerist society mostly based on importing food and manufactured commodities, they will have to accept that the extractive agenda and the attendant colonial violence are here to stay.
Thunder Bay is a patchwork segregated city. There are neighborhoods where an Indigenous person is almost certain to have the cops called against them within five minutes. There are neighborhoods where middle-class white people fear to tread. When we moved into our house on the border of these zones many white professionals tried to reassure me that, though the area had a bad reputation (a block away from the site where outside sex workers wave at cars in the depth of winter, nearby are several methadone clinics and addiction rehabilitation centers) gentrification was ensuring it would be a “good investment” in the long run. Our settlement on that land would be of profit to us.
On Christmas morning, out for a walk, a young Indigenous woman stopped us outside our house asking for help: her house, she told us, had been robbed. Her daughter’s presents had been stolen, even the tree. She was shaky and panicked, crying. The story really didn’t add up. We gave her what money we had. Down the street we saw a twitchy white kid, probably 17, pacing angrily. He was waiting to get paid; the woman owed him money.
We hear it works like this: drug dealers in town offer free heroin or meth to women, mostly indigenous women, get them hooked, then force them into prostitution to pay for their habit. Often these women are trafficked via the highway, the railway or the ships. Showing that entrepreneurial frontier spirit, the dealers work even on Christmas. It is rumored they pay off the police, but in any case the police don’t seem to care. Almost every indigenous person I’ve met in Thunder Bay has lost a loved one to some kind of structural or needless violence, usually a woman or girl. Sometimes the police don’t bother to notify the families of the disappearance or the discovery of a body for weeks, or ever.
Scholars including Andrea Smith tell us that sexual violence is a devastatingly effective weapon because it destroys women’s power in their communities. It sows the seeds of patriarchal resentment when men cannot protect their loved ones. It tears up families and relationships from the inside, like a landmine left in a garden long after men have declared an end to open hostilities, signed their treaties, and shaken hands. It turns communities against themselves and makes them appear to be the authors of their own victimization—the right in Canada are fond of trotting out misleading statistics on rates of abuse within Indigenous communities to justify greater policing. It has been perhaps the most crucial and regular weapon in the settler-colonial arsenal. Ever since the colonizers arrived sexual violence has been used, whether enacted by soldiers in conquest, clergy in residential schools, bureaucrats and politicians taking advantage of of vulnerable populations, or twitchy white kids who become drug dealers and human traffickers because it beats working a minimum-wage job in the service sector.
While many Indigenous cultures are matrilineal and have traditionally been centered on women’s leadership, the colonial administrators, when they imposed their order of violent mutual dependency, would only speak to and transact with men. This was intentional: they knew what they were doing even if they weren’t smart enough to express it in words. So do the human traffickers. So do the police.
The longest road
There is no easy solution, either in Thunder Bay or in Canada as a whole. The unspoken liberal consensus is that if “we” — and here the construction of this “we,” and who is included and excluded from it, is worth thinking about — open our hearts and admit the pain caused by colonialism, reconciliation will arrive. We will once again be the truly multicultural capitalist country — with a modicum of socialized healthcare — that we never really were.
The far-right reaction, which is gaining momentum, is that this bleeding-hearted approach pumps more and more “taxpayer dollars” into Indigenous communities, perpetuating a culture of entitlement and dependency that can be better solved by “tough love”: privatization, free market shock therapy and rigorous law enforcement.
Meanwhile, radical left responses are having trouble articulating a cohesive vision of a post-capitalist, post-colonial future that might have a hope of convincing even a single-digit percentage of the settler population to risk their privileges. While we have developed a sophisticated discourse around the inherently intertwined character of capitalism, racism and colonialism, and while grassroots solidarity efforts between Indigenous and non-indigenous protests are vibrant, and while there is a growing awareness that Canada and all countries need to radically break with capitalism in the name of preventing global ecological collapse — we remain without a compelling vision.
Perhaps no such vision will arrive. Many thinkers, including Dene political theorist Glen Coulthard, suggests that the radical imagination will emerge on the barricades, in the real, significant and difficult work of building solidarity between Indigenous and non-Indigenous inhabitants of the territories we, for now, call Canada. Migrant justice organizer and theorist Harsha Walia likewise is skeptical towards top-down paradigms and suggests that solidarity and direct action change the real circumstances of struggle. She and many other prominent commentators some years ago, in the lead-up to the last Federal Election, heeded famed Canadian journalist-activist Naomi Klein’s call to promulgate the LEAP Manifesto for “jobs, justice and the planet” with a strong decolonial focus — thanks in large part to the presence of Indigenous militants and their allies at the initial meetings.
The view from Thunder Bay likewise encourages a focus on direct action, solidarity and relationship building. I volunteer sometimes with a local autonomous Indigenous-led organization called the Bear Clan, which draws on traditional practices of Indigenous governance to develop gutsy grassroots solutions to the epidemic of danger facing Indigenous — and, it might be added, marginalized and racialized non-Indigenous — people in the city. Several nights a week, often in the frigid depths of winter, they patrol the city’s hotspots, handing out food and hot drinks, giving people rides, intervening when we can in conflicts and — perhaps most importantly — watching the police and collecting people’s stories of abuse, neglect and racism. In what feels sometimes like an impossible, uphill struggle, groups like these are taking inspiration from the prison abolitionist movements in the US, who seek to not only to criticize social institutions but actively build, from the grassroots up, a society where the prison and police as we know them are unnecessary. They are only one of a small but mighty collection of grassroots movements struggling with all their hearts to turn the tide in Thunder Bay.
And yet the question that haunts me is how we could develop a proposal for meaningful decolonization and anti-capitalist transformation that would appeal to a plurality — if not a majority — of the settler population in Thunder Bay and in Canada at large. I cannot fathom such a process that would not include dismantling the ecologically suicidal order of individualistic, consumerist neoliberalism that is, paradoxically, the source of most Canadians’ relative wealth and also their existential sorrows. 400 years into a colonial project, we settlers, have forgotten how to live any other way. Fealty to the state, obedience to the dictates of global capital, and competition with one another for dwindling “resources” appears to be the grave we have dug for ourselves.
There is certainly no consensus within Indigenous communities about what decolonization would look like — for some conservative forces, it would simply be indigenous-led resource extractive capitalism. Nor should non-Indigenous people wait for their marching orders from some impossible Indigenous political consensus yet-to-come.
And here the problems of Thunder Bay, and of Canada, touch all our problems, around the world. We must undertake the impossible task of developing and establishing a radical new global paradigm of peace, ecological care and real, just, unalienated, and egalitarian prosperity within our lifetimes. My stupid hope is that, somehow, in a place like Thunder Bay, based on the grassroots solidarity we can generate here at the heart of the troubles, some new visions might emerge.
Source URL — https://roarmag.org/essays/colonial-secrets-canadas-racist-city/