Unpublished: Thunder Bay Note

Last week, on the same day a gunman opened fire on people along the Danforth in Toronto, Statistics Canada released crime numbers for 2017. The release was obviously overshadowed by the attack – and so went largely unnoticed. But digging through the numbers, we find that once again, Thunder Bay ranks as Canada’s murder capital with a rate of 5.8 murders per 100,000 people. 

Last year, I visited Thunder Bay to look at this issue – and saw that if anything, the reported murder rate is low. I looked at the case of Marlan Chookomolin – a 25-year old Native man, who was killed shortly before Canada Day 2017. The Thunder Bay Police Service haven’t ruled on his cause of death, and so his killing wasn’t part of the death toll reported to Statistics Canada’s. That isn’t an unusual situation in Thunder Bay, and is the reason for a provincial government investigation of the police service.

But a year after his death, with these numbers reinforcing how dangerous the city is for Native people, I wanted to take a look back at the case. There have been developments since my visit to the city, which show the magnitude of the ongoing crisis there.

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June 25th, 2017 was a cool, overcast day in Thunder Bay. It was about 13 degrees with light showers off and on throughout the day. In the north end of the city there’s a small park with good tree cover where you can hang out in that kind of weather without getting too wet – the park is situated next to the Landmark Hotel which has the added benefit of having an LCBO liquor store in its lobby. On this June 25th, a 25-year old Anishinaabe man named Marlan Chookomolin met up with several friends near the Landmark – 2 men, 1 woman, all First Nations. Like a lot of people do in summer, they went to the park to hang out and have some drinks.

Marlan’s family conducted their own investigation in to what happened next. I spoke about the investigation with several members of the Chookomolin family last year, and from those interviews, I end up with the following very rough approximation of the events of that day. This is not an official account, but a fictionalized version, with gaps filled in with speculation where need be.

The other men were Shawn Smith and Peter Jones (not their real names). Like Marlan, Shawn and Peter loved wrestling – judging from their social media feeds, they had the sport in their blood. With a few drinks in them, they decided it would be fun to wrestle. The young woman there was named Miranda – and that is her real name. Maybe she was keeping up with them drink for drink, maybe she found watching a bunch of overgrown teens wrestle boring, but for whatever reason, early in the evening, her memory grew hazy, and she left the scene.

The boys were seen by others in passing, play wrestling, maybe getting a bit rough with Shawn ‘spearing’ Marlan – spearing is a move when you double over and use your shoulder like a battering ram.

This next part is a best guess, it’s based on what happened after, and from the reports of a woman who overheard Peter talking about it to his friends. The young men continued wrestling, drinking. Perhaps Marlan gets the wind knocked out of him and reacts, punching a little too hard. Maybe Shawn responds and it escalates into a real fight. They replicate the moves they’ve seen in wrestling matches on YouTube and PayPerView, but on regular people – not trained athletes – and the results are devastating. As the rain grows heavier, two young men flee the scene, the third remains, in a growing pool of blood on the park’s gravel walkway.

Hours pass, night falls, and a man is walking through the park. He finds Marlan just barely alive. He calls the police. There are pointed questions about the man’s identity.  The man presents himself as an innocent passerby to the police. They take his statement and release him. Marlan is taken to hospital.

Safely away from the scene, Peter kept drinking, and was overheard by a woman named Kory, telling friends what he saw Shawn do. By coincidence, Kory had dated Marlan, and so the next day she went to Marlan’s family to tell them what she had heard.

On that day, June 26th, Marlan’s family is still scrambling to assemble at hospital. Some are off on distant reserves and need to be flown in. The doctors have told them the damage is too extensive, that Marlan won’t live. As his family sits by his side, bruises begin to darken all over his swollen body. His cousin Joyce describes the scene: “there were so many bruises so many lacerations, it was like every 2 or 3 inches on his arms, his face … we also noticed the bruising around his neck, we found it very suspicious, there were fingernails around his neck, like a claw to his throat”.

Marlan’s family asks the police to follow up with Kory to get her statement – the police talk to her briefly, but dismiss her testimony, telling Marlan’s father: “people are just talking when they’re drinking.”

On June 27th Marlan is taken off of life support, and dies with his entire family at his bedside.

A few days later, on July 3rd, Kory dies, aged 22 – one of two victims in an unrelated murder. Her last comment on Facebook: “RIP Marlan loved you always.”

When I visit the Chookomolin family in October, they tell me that Miranda is in hospital for undisclosed reasons. They tell me she wants to work with the family, and is desperate to remember what she saw happen to Marlan. The family asks police to put her under hypnosis, to pull out the full story. But, like with Kory, they run out of time. Miranda dies December 19th. She was 24 years old and a mother of 2 young boys. Her last facebook post is a photo of them, in a run down commercial area, seen from behind, holding hands.

Peter, in the midst of all these deaths seems to turn his life around, and focus on his family. Shawn, on the other hand, went to ground. I tried to get in touch with him to ask questions for an article on Marlan, but every time I found him on a different social media channel, he closed the account or locked it down. I gave up and published my article on Marlan here in the Walrus.

That article was titled: The Deadly Racism of Thunder Bay. Without the ability to interview Shawn, I had to leave out the family’s theory of the crime, and instead focus on the structural issues surrounding the police investigation of Marlan’s death. As of today, a year later, the police investigation appears to still be stalled, with no official statement on Marlan’s cause of death.

After the article was published, I checked back in from time to time, to see if progress had been made in the investigation. That’s when I learned of Miranda’s death. And shortly after – that’s when I learned of Shawn’s. (NB: I’ve not been able to confirm, 100% that this is the same person. Just the same name, same location, same age range)

A year after that summer get-together, of the 4 young Native people there, the 1 other roped in as a witness, of these 5 people, only 1 is left alive today. One died of an illness, the others were all murdered. If it had happened over 1 day, instead of 1 year, we’d be holding prayer vigils across the country.

Around the time I was visiting Thunder Bay, there were in fact prayer vigils in nearly every city in Canada. These were for Tragically Hip lead singer, and semi-official interlocutor for First Nations people, Gord Downie, who died of cancer on October 17th. He had glioblastoma – that’s an aggressive brain tumor with a 1-year survival rate of 25%. By comparison, the 1 year survival rate for these 5 Native kids was 20% – deadlier even than cancer.

Looking at all this death, you can’t draw any obvious conclusions from it, other than to say that a lot of things are wrong. Because it would have to take a lot for this amount of death to happen to one small group of young people over such a short period of time. People will say all of this death is due to racism, and yes that is a real thing, but racism isn’t an action, it’s a motivation for actions. But what number of different actions took place here that resulted in 4 out of these 5 young Native kids dying?

It’s so big that it’s hard to understand. But while deadlier than cancer, it isn’t cancer – it’s public policy, which means voters, which means you.

I don’t know why Kory was killed, or why Shawn was killed, but I do have a good idea why Marlan was in a place where he could be killed. Marlan wanted to go to college, but it is hard for a man with a last name like Chookomolin to get a job in that city to save up the money to make it happen. So to go to school, Marlan needed funding from his First Nation. However, three years after it was supposedly abolished, they are still suffering under the 2% funding cap.

The 2% cap was imposed on First Nations by the Chretien regime in 1995, and limited growth in funding for First Nations programs to no more than 2% per year. With a rapidly growing population, this means that each year for the last 20 years, per capita funding for First Nations services has been cut. In spite of the vocal Native opposition, Canadian voters rewarded Chretien for these budget-cutting measures with majority victories in the 1997, and 2000 elections.

Because of the cap, the funding that Marlan needed to go to school wasn’t there, and he had to wait 2 years before any was available. That money finally came in, and Marlan was due to begin his studies in September.

I asked Marlan’s father if he believes that his son would be alive today if he had received funding earlier and been in school: “Yes. If he was in school, I believe he would still be alive.”