The Connection to Place: A Spirit Within
The smell of a place, the crispness of the air, the way the sun only comes out at the end of the day to illuminate a city of darkness. These are my first recollections of the city I was raised in, the city known as Thunder Bay. I am not positive why the landscape and the natural beauty of the city are the first memories that come to me when I could easily recount discrimination such as being followed in a store out of fear that I will steal something. I like to think that I am a part of the earth there, as my ancestors originate from this area and my adolescence and young adulthood were formed there. Jackson 2bears (2012) cites Vine Deloria Jr. in saying that “our ancestors did not think of the land as something they owned but rather as an animate entity that possessed or inhabited the people” (p. 1). In other words, it is wise to ask oneself not how you live on the land, but how it lives in you and is intertwined with your spirit. I also like to think that my mind and spirit were shaped, in positive and negative ways within the confines of this space, and these imprints made me who I am today.
I believe that the youth who tragically lost their lives in Thunder Bay by drowning in the River of Tears or the Mackenzie River are connected to the place too. Not only that, I believe that their spirits, as well as many others, are in a state of unrest in Thunder Bay. This paper will discuss how Thunder Bay is a haunted place because of these unrested spirits, how Indigenous people live in an almost haunted third space on their own homelands that casts them as outsiders and how Indigenous people must watch out for themselves and other Indigenous people, a form of sousveillance as survival. The paper begins with a section on my experience with a haunted past in Thunder Bay and how the podcast Thunder Bay served as a medium for me to communicate and remember this past.
My Hauntological Imprint from Thunder Bay
When I first considered crafting this paper, I wanted to respond to the podcast Thunder Bay by Ryan McMahon, an Anishnaabae man from Couchiching First Nation who has ties to the city. His parents, like many other Indigenous families, would travel to the hub of Thunder Bay from their communities to shop, or to party, as it was the only city close to northern reserves. My original idea was to discuss how the podcast acted as a conduit for McMahon to communicate with the dead (YIKES, thanks John Durham Peters) and how he can be an advocate for the youths who died by reshaping how their stories are being told. However, I realized that after listening to the first chapter that the podcast shed light on the crooked leadership of the city, the sex ring industry in the city, and the corruption among police and authorities in criminal cases. McMahon touches on the fear, isolation and normalized violence that Indigenous youth from Northern communities’ face when they attend high school in Thunder Bay. After listening to the entire podcast, I shifted my focus to include my personal experience with a haunted past in Thunder Bay, and how it effects my memories, my feelings of being an outsider in my own hometown and my experience with sousveillance, or how Thunder Bay is a place where Indigenous people are always looking over their shoulder to make sure they’re safe from the hands of cold blooded murderers. I will be tying in my experience to what I believe the youth who were murdered may have experienced.
I recall choosing to write about the topic at hand out of a desire to face my fears about Thunder Bay. Although I grew up there and the city is a place where my most cherished memories are, there is an unnerving anxiety that overwhelms me whenever I visit. Thunder Bay is a place that haunts me. I came close to getting involved in the sex trade there, when an addiction to opiates consumed and took over my life. I have a mother whose death seems to lurk around the corner of her run-down house because of her reliance on substances. Jackson 2bears (2012) cites philosopher Gregory Cajete in saying that in “many Native cultures, their landscapes were seen as metaphoric extensions of their bodies…[and therefore they] experienced nature as part of themselves and themselves as a part of nature” (p. 28). I think Thunder Bay may be a place that houses transient spirits. These spirits are neither in the spirit world nor in the living world. They do not have peace as their deaths were done so in such a dishonorable way, that they have no choice but to haunt the city. In McMahon’s podcast, he speaks of how there is a metaphorical dark cloud that looms over the city. Regardless of the aesthetic beauty, a gloomy residue of hate blankets the city. I feel this residual negativity when I am in Thunder Bay. This fear is what I call a hauntological remnant of space, where the spirit of the land built on violent deaths, racism and repulsion haunts me today.
Indigenous peoples’ bones are encrusted into the landscape of Canada. Our spirits and our blood memory have seeped in its underground roots, causing certain spaces in Canada, like Thunder Bay to be haunted by its violent colonization. Cameron (2008) notes that “it is assumed that Aboriginal ghosts are all that remains of the ‘disappearing Indian’, and that settler-Canadians have inherited this rich land from those who have now ‘passed” (p. 384). The podcast turned out to be a medium to connect with my haunted past and with spirits that are housed in Thunder Bay. The podcast also allowed me to experience and almost relive the ongoing issues in Thunder Bay from afar in a safe manner. I do recall, while listening to the podcast, being transported back to Thunder Bay, my body being placed by the river of tears, watching helplessly as Ryan told the story of a high school student who was thrown in the river and begged a bus driver to cover the story up. Peters notes that “by preserving peoples’ apparitions in sight and sound, media of recording helped repopulate the spirit world. Every new medium is a machine for the production of ghosts” (p. 139) and I think that the podcast reopened connections to spirits who I thought moved on.
I suggest that my concept of the hauntological remnants of space can also be experienced by newcomers, or Indigenous youth who attend high school in Thunder Bay. The ghosts of Indigenous youth, men and women whose lives were taken suspiciously in Thunder Bay are embedded into the soil and the air. The Mackenzie river no longer holds the power that water is supposed to hold, which is to heal. The rivers remnants haunt the city like a bad spirit who has cursed a place because of unimaginable deaths occurring near it. Indigenous youth who move to Thunder Bay are welcomed with anything but open arms. In Chapter 3 of the podcast, Ryan McMahon tells the story of the grandson of famous painter Norval Morriseau, Kyle Morriseau. Kyle was found dead in the McIntyre river with abrasions on his body and blood in his throat. He was the sixth student from the Indigenous high school, Dennis Cromarty Franklin High School who went missing. This high school runs specifically for students who fly in from communities without high schools. Talaga notes that Kyle’s father went to the river after hearing about his death and gave thanks to it. He said, “Miigwetch. Thank you. That is it. It was not easy to thank the river for taking my son” (p. 264). Therefore, the spirit in the water, houses all the spirits who have been subsumed by its flows, and it deserves acknowledgement of how it acts as a vessel between the spirit and physical world.
Lost Souls in a Third Space
At the beginning of the podcast, McMahon says that “Thunder Bay was never supposed to be anyone’s home in the first place” (Chapter 1, 12:11-12:15). It was a place to extract from and leave. Thunder Bay was a place to pass by. He goes on to say that outsiders are met with skepticism because they do not want anyone “coming here to kick up a storm and make a great story and burn the city to the ground” (Chapter 1, 14:15-14:17). McMahon describes that it is inevitable for people to act differently in a place that they know they are not staying in. Moreover, McMahon’s friend, John Thompson says that people in Thunder Bay have a sense of Northern alienation. They feel as if they are left alone with their devices and that outside views are dangerous to their inner circle. It is evident that residents in Thunder Bay are just as exclusionary to Indigenous people who come from Northern community’s vis a vis outside media that write about the issues the city faces. Hirji (2011) cites Bhabha when she discusses the notion of the third space. This is a place where peoples’ realities are made up of being “neither here nor there [and where] the third space can also signify loneliness and alienation” (p. 18). Indigenous people, myself included, often feel lost and like strangers on our own lands, as we navigate our existence through this constructed, and at times haunted, third space.
Indigenous people in Thunder Bay, my mother included, experience racism in the forms of yelling and taunts from moving vehicles. Sometimes this racism ends in death. This was the case for someone that I knew. Someone who was best friends with my first cousin. Barb Kentner was murdered by a white man in Thunder Bay when he threw a trailer hitch out a moving vehicle at her. Her ghost and her blood memory are still remnant in Thunder Bay. Barb’s story contributes to the haunted nature of colonization and extermination of Indigenous women’s bodies. The ironic thing is that the Kentner family was not an outsider family, or a family that moved from a reserve to the city but she still existed in this third space. McMahon questioned non-Indigenous residents about the normalized racism. Most of the responses were leaning towards the idea that every city has problems or that it is Indigenous people who cause problems for themselves. Indigenous youth who move to Thunder Bay for high school also exist in a third space that casts them as outsiders. Even the former Mayor, Keith Hobbs has been known to say that Indigenous people are dumped into Thunder Bay as lost souls (Chapter 3, 6:23-6:26). They are thrown into a city that doubts their success, judges their every move and sees them as passerby’s unworthy of respect.
Indigenous youth who go to high school in Thunder Bay usually get onto a plane, sometimes for the first time, and as the principle of DFC explained, that you simply hope for the best. She also says that, “you only have your circle of friends who are going to help you” (Chapter 3, 8:44-9:00). These youth come from small communities where the roads are not paved and where everyone knows everyone, to a city with bus routes and traffic lights and strange people. Indigenous youth who move there are forced to live in the third space of walking between their past life on the reserve and their present life in a fast-paced city. In this third space, they will even face discrimination from other urban natives, who, from what I have witnessed first-hand, will compare the northern natives as not as advanced or accepted in Thunder Bay as they are. In this space they will feel nostalgic for home, for peace and quiet, for a familiar face. Therefore, many youths turn to alcohol and drugs for comfort, for a way to haze over the constant ridicule from the people of the city.
It seems that as the number of Indigenous youths who go missing increases, that the more the residents and leadership of Thunder Bay resist responsibility. Countless stories are told by Indigenous people that they have been victims of attempted abductions, assaults, racial profiling and the list goes on. Whether Indigenous youth are aware of it or not, this third space that they live in makes them a target for violence and discrimination. “In 2013, Statistics Canada crowned Thunder Bay the hate crime capital of Canada” (Talaga, 2017, p. 268). I suggest that because the racism is so normalized, it encourages an outsider/insider perception in Thunder Bay. If you are an outsider to this one-horsed town, you are undeserving of respect. One Indigenous youth named Darryl Kakekayash believed his life was over when he walked down by the river alone at night. He was assaulted, thrown in the river, dragged himself out of the river, then got thrown in again. Darryl proceeded to ask a bus driver to keep quiet about the situation out of fear that his attackers would find him but next time he wouldn’t be so lucky. If that’s not outsider vs insider I don’t know what is.
Watching with the Ancestors
When I was growing up, I recall that it was normal for us to talk how to stay away from Simpson Street, which once used to be the main drag for John’s, pimps and hookers. It is now desolate and ghost town looking. Every time I drive down Simpson Street, I feel as if I have just entered a time machine and have been transported back to the 1940’s. The street where prostitutes now frequent is Mackenzie Street, where Barb Kentner was assaulted. Now that I think of it, my own sousveillance as a child was a regular thing to talk about. However, if a youth from a Northern community moves to Thunder Bay for school, in most cases they are not aware of the history of these spaces, they are not aware of the haunted past that the streets possess. This section discusses how Indigenous people engage in their own sousveillance, as we watch from below, by acting and behaving in ways that are deemed acceptable by the white mans standards. Watching ourselves and others for our own survival.
Those in control of the city are corrupt and are fully aware of the city’s haunted past. I suggest that Indigenous people in Thunder Bay have conditioned themselves to almost be their own protectors. They partake in a form of sousveillance where they watch out for themselves on the streets on Thunder Bay. McMahon’s podcast discusses the corruption, the sex rings, the violence and other illegal activity. In Chapter 2, McMahon discusses stuff between a lawyer and the Mayor and how a leaked YouTube video showed important details of an extortion case. The Thunder Bay Police have been known to abuse their power with Indigenous peoples, as I have known of first-hand stories from other Indigenous people of police brutality, police involved in drugs, prostitution and tampered investigations. It is because of stories like this that Indigenous people have little faith that the police in Thunder Bay have their safety in their best interest.
In Chapter 4, he tells the story of Brigette, an Indigenous woman who grew up in an adopted family who was recruited into sex work. She describes Thunder Bay as a place where sex brothels and the underaged, sex trade on ships was normal. Brigette knows the ins and outs of the sex work industry and she also knows of how people who are allegedly high up in society in Thunder Bay who abuse their power. On one of the ships, Brigette recalls telling one woman to calm down after being assaulted otherwise the men would throw her overboard (Chapter 4, 9:00-13:00). Brown discusses how for the slave trade; sex ships were a “sea going mobile prison at a time when the modern prison had not yet been established on land” (p. 17). Therefore, what we see is a watching and controlling of Indigenous bodies, a version of the panopticon where authority figures in Thunder Bay “would abuse their power by engaging in the sex worker industry” (Chapter 5, 16:00-17:00). This distrust between Indigenous peoples and the police, and the need for us to provide our own safety for ourselves and each other is not something new. Countless youth hide their stories of violence, attempted abduction, rape, taunts, and yelling and throwing objects from cars out of fear that their abusers will return because involving the police only causes more problems.
Out of reasons for safety and survival, Indigenous people engage in their own sousveillance. I grew up, some would say too fast, in Thunder Bay and I watched as the evil past of the city consistently haunted and followed it like a shadow that clung on, especially at night. My own sousveillance trained me to be more than aware on those streets. In one case, Talaga (2017) tells the story of an Indigenous mother, who fled Thunder Bay after running into her abuser in a mall after a group of them “grabbed her, threw her into the back seat of the car, and took her far out of town. Once in a secluded are, they viciously beat and assaulted her. As they were raping her they told her she liked it because she was Indigenous” (p. 269). This fetishization of the need for men to take Indigenous bodies without fear of consequence is because they are aware that the police are in on the activity too. Endless stories are told about cab drivers denying Indigenous people rides, floor walkers following us in the stores, and police partaking in physical, sexual and mental abuse but are unreported. It is because of stories like this that the Bear Clan Patrol Thunder Bay group was created.
According to their Facebook page, Bear Clan Patrol Thunder Bay simply wants to help keep Thunder Bays’ streets safe. It is haunting to know that this form of sousveillance, vigilantism and self-protection was created because of how Thunder Bay is known for its increase in the number of murdered youths. Traditionally, people from bear clan are supposed to be the protectors among the clan system. We are like the police officers of our people because we have power to lead, to govern in a good way and to mediate. Sadly, the first and most recent post that has been posted is a story about Braiden Jacob, a 17-year-old Indigenous youth found dead in a place where I used to jog, in Chapelle’s Park. Scrolling down, there are trigger warning for posts of screen shots. Collections of stories from Indigenous youth who have had encounters with the police who used force or flat out humiliated them are submitted to the page. My mind races with the image of the road that I ran on in Chapelle’s park. I see the path that goes toward James Street and I remember that the Dennis Franklin Cromarty School is in this area. However, a Go Fund Me page for the Jacob family says that Braiden was in Thunder Bay to go to counselling. Now, whenever I go back to visit Thunder Bay, my own sousveillance will instinctively tell me not to go near Chapelle’s park out of fear for my own safety.
A Home of Heavy Hearts
I began this paper discussing my connection to Thunder Bay and the land, the water and the air there. It is so refreshing for me to visit home and to walk down Lake Superior, the largest fresh water lake in the world and breath it all in. The waters off Lake Superior are chilling and crisp. For me, Thunder Bay is a sacred place. I cannot speak on behalf of any of the youth who died in Thunder Bay and what their connection to the place was, but Jackson 2bears notes that the “Indigenous experience of life involved a belief in the “sacredness, livingness and the soul of the world . . . all things being animate, space/place, renewal, and all things being imbued with spirit” (p.14). Sleeping Giant, or Nanabush, a huge rock formation in the distance shaped like a man wearing a headdress and sleeping with his arms on his chest, casts a mixture of good and bad spirits onto the city, he may let some rest with him, but other spirits roam.
The streets of Thunder Bay feel like a ghost town after a certain hour. Jackson 2bears (2014) said that there was “something almost hauntological and spectral that is etched into the grooves of the record” (p.15) when he discussed that as a child, the song Ten Little Indians haunted him because he had a “life changing experience” that “caused me to re-confront some memories of a long-forgotten past” (p.15). I experienced something similar while listening to McMahon’s podcast. The podcast brought out thoughts, fears and memories that I repressed. The podcast reminded me of the importance of my story. However, Indigenous youth who are strangers to Thunder Bay are not afforded the opportunity to move cities like I was. “Indigenous women have spoken and written powerfully from experiences that they have lived or have chosen to relive through the stories they choose to tell” (Million, 2009, p.54), therefore, I believe that the podcast allowed me to relive a haunted past and to liken it to my haunted feelings I experience when in Thunder Bay. I believe that Thunder Bay is a place that houses transient spirits who have not made it or do not want to go to the spirit world. Just the thought of visiting Thunder Bay gives me an eerie feeling. I suppose that Creator had a different plan for me, one that escaped the depths of darkness on city streets filled with intoxicating terror.
Brown, Simone. (2015) Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness. Durham: Duke University Press.
Cameron, E. (2008). Indigenous spectrality and the politics of postcolonial ghost stories. cultural geographies, 15(3), 383-393.
Hirji, Faiza (2011). Dreaming in Canadian: South Asian Youth, Bollywood, and Belonging. Vancouver. UBC Press.
Leween, J. T. B. (2012). Mythologies of an un]dead indian (Order No. NR94720). Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (1442476138).
Loft, S., 2bears, J., Loft, S., & Swanson, K. (2014). Coded territories. University of Calgary Press.
McMahon, R. (Host). (2018, December 7) Chapter 1-5. [Audio podcast]. Retrieved from https://www.canadalandshow.com/podcast/thunder-bay/
Million, D. (2009). Felt theory: An indigenous feminist approach to affect and history. Wicazo Sa Review, 24(2), 53-76.
Peters, John Durham. (1999). Speaking into the Air: A History of the Idea of Communication. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Talaga, T. (2017). Seven fallen feathers: Racism, death, and hard truths in a northern city. Toronto: Anansi.