Questions arise over personal alarms given to Thunder Bay teens after alleged racial attacks

Steve Mertl
National Affairs Contributor
Daily Brew

Officials in Thunder Bay are wrestling with how to keep young aboriginals safe after a spate of racially motivated attacks in the northwestern Ontario city.

But some are questioning whether giving aboriginal teens personal electronic alarms is the best way to go.

The alarms, which emit a high-pitched noise at the press of a button, were handed out last month at Thunder Bay's Dennis Franklin Cromarty First Nations high school during an assembly at the beginning of the new term.

“It’s really scary that we have to have these now,” Grade 12 student Marsha Kennedy of the Sandy Lake First Nation told CBC News.

"My first day coming back to Thunder Bay, I went to Mac's, and it's like a five-minute walk there and I just felt scared."

[ Related: Witness comes forward in alleged Thunder Bay hate crime ]

The alarms were distributed by the Ontario Native Women's Association, apparently without notifying school officials in advance, the National Post reported.

“They brought the alarms with them. They handed them out as an added safety measure for our students,” Norma Kejick, executive director of the Northern Nishnawbe Education Council, told the Post.

“It was a surprise at the assembly. They didn’t tell us they were bringing them, they just came in with the gifts for the students. It wasn’t discussed with us before hand.”

In late December, an aboriginal woman was pulled off a Thunder Bay street into a car, beaten and sexually assaulted before being dumped on the side of the road. The woman told a friend her attackes were two white men who called her "squaw" and "dirty Indian," the Globe and Mail reported.

Last month, a young aboriginal man told CBC News two men in a van tried to run over him as yelled racial slurs and threw things at him, which also happened to the woman victim in December.

And the Post said a Dennis Franklin student claimed he was picked up by police, dropped off outside city limits and forced to walk back.

The alarms were an apparent response to the fear.

“I think that with the rape, the students and the community were feeling a bit more of a threat than usual," Jackie Alto, director of the Aboriginal Awareness Centre at Thunder Bay's Lakehead University, told the Post.

"I think there’s always that kind of threat, when you look at Dennis Franklin’s history with the families that have lost children in Thunder Bay, that there is a reason for always feeling kind of nervous about sending your kids here to school."

But Alto wonders if the alarms are the answer.

[ Related: Mother of First Nations sexual assault victim wants public inquiry ]

“I don’t really know what the alarms are going to do though,” she said.

“I think the kids took [the alarms] light-heartedly. I was there at the Dennis Franklin school when they gave out the alarms. They were playing with them … realistically if someone’s trying to shove you in a car what are those alarms really going to do?”

Thunder Bay Police executive officer Chris Adams worried that carrying the alarms may actually make students feel more fearful.

“I think that is true that you have to be careful in creating an apprehension that goes beyond what should be normal,” he said.