First Nations student deaths in Thunder Bay inquest raise questions about racism

A "swirling storm" of racism and discrimination is killing indigenous people in Thunder Bay, Ont., says Patty Hajdu, an MP for the northwestern Ontario city and minister for the status of women.

Hajdu said her experience running a homeless shelter in Thunder Bay, before becoming a Liberal cabinet minister last year, showed her the deadly consequences of racism.

Speaking outside the inquest into the deaths of seven First Nations students in the city, Hajdu said racism is a sad reality of life, and death, for indigenous people in the city.

"There's a swirling storm of racism and discrimination against people who use substances and people who are in poverty, and it all comes together in a perfect storm where people are actually dying, because they can't access the services they need," she said.

Several friends and classmates of the students who died have testified at the inquest about experiences of racism in Thunder Bay after they moved from their remote First Nations to attend high school in the city.

'It's very scary'

Skye Kakegamic testified in October, telling the inquest that several times food was thrown at her from passing vehicles, and people made a war-whooping noise and yelled things such as "stupid savage, go back home."

"It's very scary," Kakegamic told jurors. "To them, we are just savages, they think it's funny. Like some people when they pick on a dog, or torture it, they think it's funny. They treat us like that."

The racism experienced by First Nations students in the city can stop them from taking part in more positive aspects of city life, said Christa Big Canoe, a lawyer representing families of the students who died.

"There's opportunities in the city and events and places and venues where kids could be participating in recreation activities and otherwise engaging," Big Canoe said. "But if they're made to feel unwelcome, if they feel like outsiders and they're treated in a racist fashion, it makes it very difficult to build those bridges."

'Overtly racist'

Hajdu said individuals come to believe it is OK to behave in a racist fashion when they see institutions employing racist policies.

"I think that's the challenge … that when we have systems and structures that are overtly racist in the way that they offer services, that is an endorsement to the everyday citizen that in fact they must be more important than the person beside them," Hajdu said.

First Nations leaders hope the inquest can move from hearing individual stories of racist experiences to policy and institutional changes that will save lives.

Many chiefs believe First Nations education is significantly underfunded.

"We need to hear from the government of Canada [about] the policies they have imposed on our communities and how that's impacting our communities and in some cases jeopardizing the health and well-being of our students," said Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler said.

January is the final month of testimony at the inquest about the details of each student's death. In February, jurors will hear evidence expected to provide more context about why First Nations teens in northern Ontario have to leave their remote reserves to attend high school.

Watch live streaming video from the First Nation student deaths inquest here.

Follow CBC Thunder Bay reporter Jody Porter as she tweets from the inquest.

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