Aboriginal leaders in Thunder Bay are criticizing the media’s role in creating a “climate of fear” underlined with racism in the city, following the high profile given to the latest death of a young Native man and recent media reports of Thunder Bay being the “murder capital” of Canada.
Leaders in the city are also cautioning the public against reacting with racism against the Aboriginal community in the city, noting that crime rates continue to fall and a number of programs are having success dealing with underlying social issues.
“Overall, our crime rate is going down in Thunder Bay,” said Wendy Landry, Thunder Bay President of the Métis Nation of Ontario. “The average person is getting a blanketed perception (of the Aboriginal community). It’s not right and it’s not fair.”
During the past few weeks a number of letters to the editor have been published in Thunder Bay’s Chronicle-Journal pointing the blame for Thunder Bay’s high murder rate and crime in the city at the Aboriginal community.
Meanwhile the tragic death of Jimmy Robert Monias, 21, on Oct. 30 has exacerbated the problem of the public perception linking Aboriginal people to murder.
Monias passed away after suffering head injuries in an assault at a residence at Limbrick Place in Thunder Bay.
Landry, who also serves as chair of the Thunder Bay Crime Prevention Council, noted the death of Monias was the result of a fight between friends who had been drinking, not pre-planned murder.
Four of the five deaths of 2010 that resulted in Thunder Bay being tagged “Canada’s murder capital” were also a result of altercations between people who knew each other, and also involved drinking.
“The message needs to go out that yes, these were awful incidents, we’re not trying to downplay the crime, but these were five deaths, not five murders,” Landry said.
Thunder Bay mayor Keith Hobbs said everyone in Thunder Bay has to work together to target the social issues that lead to crime, rather than pointing blame at one population.
“People always want to turn crime into a race issue,” Hobbs said. “But crime is crime. You can’t put a race to it. Why are people committing crimes? Nobody has been able to solve that problem.”
Thunder Bay’s Crime Prevention Council was established in 2010 with the intent of educating the public on the root causes of crime and creating strategies for dealing with those causes.
The council, made up of representatives of 28 organizations plus public and youth representatives, started its work by completing a preliminary audit of crime in Thunder Bay.
As Sheila Hendrick, acting coordinator for the council noted, the causes of crime often relate to social issues like drugs, alcohol and poverty that affect Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people alike.
“A lot of things are happening to address those social issues, but the interpretation is often that nothing is being done,” Hendrick said.
The preliminary crime audit found that most crime in Thunder Bay is either domestic cases or public intoxication, and that stranger to victim crime remains extremely rare.
The audit also states that people in conflict with the law “typically have histories of childhood abuse and neglect, and very low education and employment levels.”
Landry added that when it comes to Aboriginal people committing crime, the effect of residential schools cannot be overstated.
“The loss of parenting skills due to residential schools is a big factor,” Landry said.
Thunder Bay’s Aboriginal community has been growing over the past decade, making up over 10 per cent of the total city population in 2010.
Hobbs said that growth is something the city wants to encourage.
“The Aboriginal population is a big economic driver for Thunder Bay,” the mayor said. “They buy homes, cars and groceries, and they help the economy of Thunder Bay. Just because a small percentage are involved in crime, the whole population is getting labelled and that’s not right.”
Landry said that much of the growth of the Aboriginal population in Thunder Bay is due to Native people coming into the city for education opportunities, either in high school or post-secondary education.
“What’s the best way to get people away from crime? Give them an education,” Landry said. “We now have the most ever Aboriginal people going to post-secondary education.”
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