Locals call it Murder Bay. It might be the most dangerous city for Indigenous youth in the world. But to others, it’s their white nirvana.
Host Ryan McMahon wants to know – not who killed all those kids, but what killed them. This is Thunder Bay.
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HIGH SCHOOL ANNOUNCER:
Sorry for the interruption. I just want to let all the students know that there will be music lessons today in the music room with, uh, Daryl.
First day of school at Dennis Franklin Cromarty High. Orientation assembly. A teacher takes the stage.
HIGH SCHOOL TEACHER:
Okay. Good morning everybody. Nice to see everyone. Nice to see tons of familiar faces, lots of people that are back. The first thing that I want to mention is that here at DFC we have a technology policy. It’s really important that you put your headphones in your pocket, okay? But it’s still… It’s a sign of respect that your ears are open, and that you’re listening to the person up in front of you. So, if you have some headphones… (continues indistinct)
At first, it’s a mixture of rules and motivational advice that’ll be familiar to anyone who’s ever sat through a high school assembly.
HIGH SCHOOL TEACHER:
Students are treated with respect and dignity and, in return, are expected to demonstrate respect for themselves, for others, and for property.
Then comes a warning you won’t hear at other high schools.
HIGH SCHOOL TEACHER:
But the thing that you need to remember is that in the… What are we? Eighteen years DFC’s been open now, I think? There’s been students that have left their homes, their Northern communities, to come to school here and haven’t gone home. Their bodies have gone home in a casket.
My name is Ryan McMahon. I come from a small Anishinaabe community not far from the city. And to us, Thunder Bay was the big city. Over the past two decades in this city, nine Indigenous teens were found dead. Usually their bodies were found in rivers and marshes. They were all from remote First Nation reserves. I’m going to say their names now: Jethro Anderson, Curran Strang, Paul Panacheese, Robyn Harper, Reggie Bushie, Kyle Morriseau, Jordan Wabasse, Josiah Begg, and Tammy Keeash. Five of them went to school here at DFC. Their deaths hang over their school like a dark cloud. Everybody knows about them, including Megan. Today is her first day of high school.
Um, I’m kinda scared. <nervous chuckle> I’m nervous. Making friends, <chuckles> and keeping my grades up are some things I’m worried about.
New school, new kids, new teachers. But Meghan is also living in a new home with new grownups looking after her, who she’s never met before.
And I am from Grassy Narrows, but now I live here, so… I just moved here, just a couple of days. Like, yeah.
Megan, like her classmates here at DFC, comes from very far away. The Ojibwe reserve where she grew up has just 950 members and no high school. Same with 48 other remote rural communities scattered across Northern Ontario, some over a thousand kilometers away from here, most of which you can’t get to by car. Many kids flew in just a day or two ago on tiny prop planes. First time in a plane, for most. First time away from home. Anyone is vulnerable at the age of 14. But these kids are especially at risk. Many of them have never even set foot in a city before. And their first city happens to be this city. Thunder Bay has repeatedly had the highest homicide and hate -crime rates in the country. It might be the most dangerous city for Indigenous kids in the world. They keep turning up dead. Some by accident from alcohol and drugs, and some we just don’t know. There’s been evidence of foul play, of suspects who had motives to harm these kids, but nobody has ever been arrested or charged. A provincial inquest, one of the most expensive and wide -reaching ever held, opened up these cold cases, reinvestigated each one, and solved none. Police reporters, private detectives. They’ve all come up empty. There are podcasts that try to solve murders. This isn’t one of those podcasts. The question I’m trying to answer is not who killed all those kids. It’s what killed those kids. Because something strange has been going on here. I started noticing it a couple of years ago. I have a personal connection to this town that goes back generations. So when Thunder Bay makes the news, I take note. And this town just keeps making the national news.
MALE NEWSCASTER #1:
According to Statistics Canada, there are more murders committed here per capita than anywhere else in the country, making Thunder Bay the murder capital of Canada.
FEMALE NEWSCASTER #1:
The city’s mayor and his wife, Marisa, have been charged with one count each of extortion and obstruction of justice.
MALE NEWSCASTER #2:
Court documents show the target of the alleged extortion was former lawyer Sandy Zaitzeff.
MALE NEWSCASTER #3:
Zaitzeff did show remorse, saying he is humiliated beyond belief, and that his actions were grotesque to the extreme.
FEMALE NEWSCASTER #2:
City Police Chief J.P. Levesque has been charged with breach of trust and obstructing justice.
MALE NEWSCASTER #1:
For years, the city’s cops have faced accusations of systemic racism.
FEMALE NEWSCASTER #1:
The evidence is clear that an evidence-based proper investigation never took place.
So, how big of a concern is human trafficking in Thunder Bay and in northern Ontario?
I think it’s a pretty, uh, huge concern.
FEMALE NEWSCASTER #1:
In fact, almost a third of all Indigenous hate crimes in Canada are reported in Thunder Bay.
None of this is a secret, but it’s disconnected. Why does it all keep happening here? What’s with this place? What I want to find out is, what do all of these things have to do with each other? This is “Thunder Bay.”
I need you to know there is an activity down by the river that involves throwing Indigenous people into the river when they’re too drunk to defend themselves. You tell me, doesn’t that sound like bloodshed?
You never hear about convictions and there’s always bodies in the river, so it’s like…
Nobody’s pushing them in. They just go to the water. It’s a natural progression when people are sick. When moose are sick, when animals are sick, they go to the water.
One time, I dealt with one of the Thunder police officers. And that fucker told me, “I can’t wait to tell your parents you’re murdered. I can’t wait to knock on their door and tell them you’re dead. “ Like, who says that to a 16-year-old? You know, mind you, at the time he was charging me for armed robbery because one of the johns wanted his money back.
Missing people don’t have a high priority. And Native missing people? <scoffs> Fuck, they’re always running around. I’m surprised even their parents would call in that they’re missing, ‘cause most of them don’t. Another missing female… Who would have guessed it? “Native.” “This is her name.” Okay, whatever.
When I got sexually assaulted here, the police, they asked me what I was wearing, they asked me if I was under the influence, and they asked me if I tried to, like, engage the person. I just remember thinking, “These are people that are supposed to protect me.”
I hate to sound like a racist, but it’s the northern population. We just harbour them in and nobody is in control of their behaviour. They don’t know civilization.
I am… I am… (chuckling) Sandy <laughs>
Shut up, Gerald! Alexander Zaitzeff.
Thunder Bay, just… I don’t have an answer. It seems to just breed hate.
Thunder Bay is fucking… Murder City.
It’s the safest city you’ll find in Canada. Really.
These last two years have been such a clusterfuck. What the hell is going on in Thunder Bay?
This place is a shit-show down here.
Cross the city limits and the sign says “Welcome to the City of Thunder Bay, superior by nature. Population, 110,000” “Superior” is a reference to Lake Superior, the largest freshwater lake in the world, which the town hugs the northwest corner of. “By nature” is a reminder of the city’s pride, its proximity to rugged natural beauty. On the horizon to the east, across the water, is a formation of huge volcanic rocks called “The Sleeping Giant,” or, as the Anishinaabe call him, “Nanabozho.”
Because when you look at it from the city, that’s what it looks like: An enormous man in the water, flat on his back. The town itself is low and flat and sprawling. The sky is just enormous. It’s relentlessly bright here. Crystal clear. There’s no relief from the sun. Or, in the winter, from the ferocious cold winds coming off the lake. It’s hard to tell which side of the tracks is the wrong one because there are train tracks all over, just as there are rivers winding haphazardly through the city. It’s a bad idea to use them as points of reference because they’re so easy to mix up.
I’ve been coming here since I was a kid. I ended up in Thunder Bay most winters for hockey tournaments, high-school sports, and for family visits. For my parents, Thunder Bay was the city where they came to party. It’s also the city they came to dry out. They remember the fun, but also the division, the tension. Like at 1:30 a.m., when the Native bar closed and everybody would pile out across the street to the other bar. That’s when the street fights would start. So, yeah, I was attracted to this place, but the way my folks talked about it, it always carried a certain sense of menace.
I still have family here. I still care about Thunder Bay. I was fixated on it as a kid, always looking forward to my next trip here, my next chance to eat pancakes at Perkins and shop for sneakers at the mall. And I’m fixated on it now. I keep coming back. Something about it remains unsolved for me, and I’m not the only one. Jon Thompson grew up in Thunder Bay. He left it, lived elsewhere, and then, somehow, it pulled him back in. His hometown is his fixation. He covers it as a reporter for TVO, the public broadcaster. He’s my friend and he understands this place better than most. Here’s how he would explain it to somebody who’s never heard of the place.
You’re really in the middle of nowhere, by global standards. The next city of comparable size would be Sault Ste. Marie, which is probably six or seven hours travel to the east. Out west, going to Winnipeg is probably eight hours, and then down to Minneapolis is probably about eight hours. To the north, you’re looking at roads for probably about 500 kilometres or so. And after that, it’s all flying. It’s a lot of marsh and bog, and there are a number of First Nations all the way to James Bay to that… To the north. Thunder Bay to them is the service hub. All First Nations that are remote, but one to my knowledge, high school is not available.
The highway that takes you coast to coast in Canada runs right through it. Thunder Bay is literally unavoidable.
Your population traditionally might have been more transient. So, you know, obviously, if you’re having a transient population, it is more prone to vice.
People behave differently when they’re just passing through than how they behave when they’re at home. According to Jon, Thunder Bay was never supposed to be anyone’s permanent home in the first place. It was a trading post for the fur trade, then a way station for lumber and mining. A place to take things from the land, and then move on.
There wasn’t an expectation that this was settled. The expectation was, in most of these towns, “We’ll log what we can and then we’ll shut it down. We’ll mine what we have to, and wait until it’s not profitable anymore, and then we’ll get out.” What happened was a lot of people settled down and stayed.
Specifically, Scandinavian people.
Finnish people settled here because this area, ecologically, is very similar to Finland. What there was to do here for work, in terms of the bush, was something that was very familiar to them and, following a loss in the Civil War, a lot of Finns fled the country and came here. They developed the population here that is the largest Finnish population, outside of Finland, in the world.
For generations, life here revolved around the work of extraction.
Well. traditionally you would have finished Grade 10 and you would have got a job in the mill. When the forestry collapse happened in the 1990s, it forced the Ontario government in particular to have to step in and provide services and governance. Not having wanted to do it, they didn’t really know how to do it, and it was met with, and it continues to be met with, resistance.
The settlers who came to Thunder Bay were immigrants. But they stayed here against the odds, built it up, fought for it to survive. Now they look at others who come here as the outsiders. Even people like me.
You have this question that we always refer to as “northern alienation,” a sense of being alone to our devices. And when power comes to town it’s… There’s a sense that it’s interfering. Ideas from elsewhere are dangerous. People from elsewhere are not welcome. And so you will frequently hear counsellors and the mayor condemn outside media who are coming here to kick up a storm and make a great story and burn the city to the ground: “They don’t understand us.” “They don’t care about us.” “They’re not telling the good part of the story because they don’t get us.”
Jon is walking the thinnest line. On the one hand, yes, he is blasting the insular closed-minded attitudes of people who don’t want media here… Who don’t want me, an outsider, to tell the story of Thunder Bay. But he’s also warning me: “Don’t fuck this up.” “Don’t fuck me over for talking to you.” “Don’t take a dump on this place and then just walk away.”
Because inevitably, when this comes out, people are going to be upset about the story you’re gonna tell from here. So, the question that they’re always asking is “How do we save Thunder Bay? How do we make it better?” It’s hard to hear, year after year after year and get windburn with how much trouble this city is in. However, that doesn’t absolve you from the responsibility to do something about it.
I don’t know if I have a responsibility to do something about Thunder Bay, to fix it. I don’t know if it can be fixed. But I’m also not here to condemn it. I’ve been coming here all my life and I want to keep coming here. I called in a lot of favours to tell this story. I asked a lot of people to trust us. And I don’t want to burn them, or this place. So, I’m just going to try to tell it to you as best I can. And I can’t tell it to you without telling you about Barbara Kentner.
There were tears, and there was anger.
<moans> I can’t believe you’re gone. I love you so much!
It was standing room only today at the funeral service for Barbara Kentner .
She’s taken to us too early. We all know that. Today they focus on remembering Barbara and seeing her off one last time
Late on a Saturday night in the middle of winter, 2017, a 34-year-old mother named Barbara Kentner was walking to a relative’s house with her sister Melissa in the east end of Thunder Bay on McKenzie Street, just one street up from Simpson Street. A few days after the incident. Melissa gave an eyewitness account of all of it to the CBC.
It was about 1:14 in the morning. We were leaving my sister’s house and we were heading to my son’s house, just the next block over. This road is where there’s a lot of hookers and everything that walk up and down those streets late at night.
You’ll hear a lot about Simpson Street on an upcoming episode. It used to be Thunder Bay’s red light district.
We were… We were walking along there. I seen the car, um… Like, it looked like he was going to go straight, but then he turned on to McKenzie Street towards us. And the guy was hanging like halfway out the window, like his whole… half his body was sitting outside the window. And then I heard him. He swore and said, “Oh, I’ve got one of them,” and then he starts laughing. And then I turned back and then I look and I see my sister bent over. She was like, “Melissa! I got hit with something.” She goes, “Look, see what it is!”
It took a moment to figure out what had happened. The guy had hurled a rusted metal trailer hitch at them. And it hit her sister Barbara in the abdomen, rupturing her intestine.
And then I look on the ground and there’s a trailer hitch. It was like, it was black. It’s kind of rusty. The… The ball on it’s rusty. There’s the hitch and the ball.
I put a new hitch on my SUV this summer. They’re heavy. They’re weighted to pull 3,500-pound boats and camper trailers. So, to throw one out of a moving vehicle would take strength and purpose. It would mean cocking your arm back awkwardly, finding an angle in which to throw. You’d likely have to take off your seatbelt, shift in your seat, turn your body.
In that moment she was still bent over in a lot of pain, and she wanted to drop right then and there. And she’s was like, “I want to lay down, I want to lay down.”
It would take six months for her to die. Brayden Bushby was one of the four teenagers in that car. He was the one who allegedly threw the hitch. He was charged with aggravated assault, which got bumped up to second-degree murder when Barbara died.
Look, the majority of the people that do walk down that street are Native, you know I mean?
How did it not occur to him that this was a bad idea? When he felt the weight of the hitch, why didn’t he reconsider? Why didn’t his friends stop him? Maybe because in Thunder Bay, throwing things from moving cars at Indigenous people is sort of normal. Just ask them.
It’s actually not uncommon for something like that to happen.
That’s correct. The ladies are getting more targeted than the guys.
Sometimes when I’m sitting at the bus stop, they will just yell “Indian,” or whatever. I just kind of ignore it.
Um, yes, it is like a regular thing.
When I walk the streets, somebody throws stuff out like that, eh? I see them throw the stuff out. To me, and to some other people. Sometimes they yell.
It happened to me a couple of times. Walking down the street, people throwing beer bottles at me. I don’t know what for. Maybe because I’m native, or… I don’t know.
Ask non-Indigenous people about the attack on Barbara Kentner and many are just as certain of the opposite.
I don’t know if that’s normal. I think a lot of our crime in the city right now is all race-on-race.
Not that I’ve seen but I’ve heard that happens sometimes. But Thunder Bay’s not the only place. You go anywhere, lots of other places, Canada and the States, and you’re gonna find, I’m sure, the same thing.
I think that’s a one-off situation, a most unfortunate situation, and I think that situation just reflected a bad image on First Nations populations as well as other populations in the city.
It might sound absurd to suggest that getting a trailer hitch thrown at you by a stranger while walking to your nephew’s house, and then dying, reflects badly on your community. But the fact is, it did. It was made to. The discussion of Barbara Kentner’s attack and death focused on her alcoholism. Local news in Thunder Bay is pretty sparse these days, so a lot of people here get their information from a handful of Facebook pages and amateur news sites. The comments sections are filled with rumours and rage. A story spread online that Barbara was no angel herself that she had viciously attacked a young white man years earlier. It was a lie but no matter.
After that came threats to Melissa Kentner’s kids. She had to leave the city. It was Barbara’s picture, not Brayden Bushby’s, that made the news. You Google him and her face comes up. The only shot of him is with his hoodie pulled up and his head slung low, hiding himself during his perp walk. Barbara was savaged online. Someone dug up a video that had been secretly shot and uploaded to YouTube, months before the attack. It’s an eight-second clip titled “Thunder Bay Zombies” on Brodie Street North, and it shows Barbara stumbling, her shirt off, arguing with her teenage daughter. Text on the clip reads, “They just scrapped it out ha ha.” It was uploaded by a user called Thunder Bay Dirty.
“Thunder Bay Dirty” was a popular website and Facebook page. Whoever was behind it would post clips of Indigenous people stumbling around drunk, fighting or getting arrested, along with mocking comments. These videos have thousands of views. Most of it was supposed to be “funny.” Like this, where the anonymous uploader sings in his best “drunk Indian” voice.
THUNDER BAY DIRTY UPLOADER #1:
(singing) If I was “Anishinaab” / I tell you what I’d do / I head down to the fucking liquor store / And pick up a case of Blue, yeah / Joy to the rez / That’s what all the Whiteys sez…
But some clips are just straight-up rage, like this angry commentary about how filthy the city is.
THUNDER BAY DIRTY UPLOADER #2:
Look at this shit. Look how fucking dirty that is. Look at the sidewalks! I can’t even fucking roller blade. That’s how fucking pathetic it is. This city is shit. Look at it. How the hell am I supposed to rollerblade in this? Look at this. This is complete shit. Clean this shit up! Fuck!
“Thunder Bay Dirty” is one of many sites like this. There is the “Real Concerned Citizens of Thunder Bay,” a Facebook group of locals. The self-described “Real Citizens” complain about panhandlers and convenience-store robberies, and a host of other problems that routinely get blamed on the same root cause… the Natives. There are over 23,000 members of that Facebook group. There are only 110,000 people in Thunder Bay.
Is there a difference between yelling racial slurs at people from your car and yelling at them on the Internet? I suppose so. Just like there is a difference between throwing fast food wrappers at a young mom from your moving car, and throwing a trailer hitch at her. But it’s all of a piece, and it happens here every day.
Months after Barbara’s death, there was another attack. A guy was taken to hospital bleeding after he had eggs chucked at him from a moving vehicle. The front page headline of the local newspaper joked that “Egg toss incidents leave police scrambling.” It’s all a joke… to the press, to the cops. Racism is like this phantom that only half the city can see. Those who see it feel haunted by it everywhere. It colors every part of their lives. Everyone else thinks you’re foolish or crazy, just for believing that it exists.
The racism and Thunder Bay has many levels, though. You have to realize it’s not just you know encountering someone who’s going to outwardly you know say you know I don’t want to serve you coffee because you’re Indigenous. There’s lots of more subtle things here.
This is Mae.
Yeah, my name is Mae Katt. I’m a nurse practitioner at the Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School in Thunder Bay.
Mae sees the challenges in Thunder Bay very clearly.
I go into a star I can fall and. I’m. BROWN Yes but like I’m not going to steal right so you tell them now you tell the clerks well you know I’m just gonna look around. And sure enough I mean they’re gonna follow you in the star you see it systemically with the interactions with the police so there’s not systemic racism and then just the outward racism where people say really nasty things and throw things at an indigenous people and start walking.
It’s hard work making the phantom visible to people who don’t want to see it. Julian Falconer does that work. He’s a human rights lawyer who goes after the police on behalf of Indigenous clients. He’s been a constant thorn in the side of Thunder Bay’s leadership: The police, the police board, even the mayor. He doesn’t hold much back.
They represent… That is, the indigenous population represents a threat to the Scandinavian way of life that Thunder Bay represented. This was their white nirvana. This is a community who is proud of who they are. They are proud of who they are, and that’s the challenge. In the South, when there is an allegation of racism, you spend forever swinging at shadows in an argument about whether it was racist, or whether anything was intended, and whether it was really attributable to something else. In the North, it’s interesting… I don’t spend a tenth the time having to prove that it was a racist incident. They will pretty well embrace that, “Yeah, these indigenous people are a problem, and here’s why.” I have never seen anything like it.
Thunder Bay is utterly immune to shame. They are immune to the facts being disclosed. It literally causes them to dig in, and they continue, and it’s reminiscent of the Deep South.
On the next episode of “Thunder Bay,” The mayor, his wife, their accomplice, and their one-time friend, multi-millionaire lawyer and convicted sex offender Sandy Zaitzeff.
I have absolute fucking proof that they tried to fraud me. They have a forged fucking will, where, where, where they claim, they allege, I left my fortune of 50 million dollars to them!
Thunder Bay is produced by Jesse Brown and hosted by me, Ryan McMahon. This episode was written by me and Jesse Brown. Additional research by Brigitte Noël. Reporting assistance by David Crosbie and Jolene Banning. Music by Kris Dirksen. Mixing and sound design by Chandra Bulucon. CANADALAND’s managing editor is Kevin Sexton. A special thank you to the staff of Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School. Special thanks to the Canadian True Crime podcast for helping spread the word about this show. You should check out that podcast, too. We are able to make this show only because of listeners like you. You can help us keep going by
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