With First Nations families and young people continuing to move into urban areas, the demographics are changing in cities like Thunder Bay, Ontario. This has led to racism, aboriginal youth suicides and increased crime, as First Nations young people struggle to live in a diverse urban society very different than their remote home reserves in Northern Ontario.
To break down racial barriers and improve relations, Thunder Bay and First Nations leaders are working together to shape an inclusive environment, particularly one that welcomes aboriginal youth arriving in the city to further their education.
To help make that happen, the Thunder Bay campus of Lakehead University has launched The Gichi Kendaasiwin Project, a multi-layered initiative to increase the number of aboriginal students acquiring a university education. The university also hosted a recent lecture, "Aboriginal and Non-Aboriginal Relations in Thunder Bay: Our Shared Future," at which none other than Mayor Kenneth Hobbs himself apologized for racist remarks he’d made years earlier during his time as a police officer.
The four-point Gichi Kendaasiwin Project includes building a centre dedicated to aboriginal culture.
“It will be a dynamic place where the traditions and beliefs from childhood are honoured, where career paths are carefully considered, and where students may seek wisdom and guidance through their professors, elders, counselors and peers,” said Lakehead University President Brian J. R. Stevenson in a statement.
“Education is the most important piece of the puzzle,” Hobbs told Indian Country Today Media Network after the forum. “Aboriginal people need, deserve and have the right to the same level of education as anyone else in Canada receives, and that is not happening in Canada today.”
Moving forward means that “all communities should embrace our aboriginal neighbors,” Hobbs said. “They are our friends, our family, our neighbors and our future.”
The Gichi Kendaasiwin Project is just one example of how education could help reduce racial tension in this 120,000-population city in Ontario.
Thunder Bay is also combining education with public awareness by encouraging public dialogue to identify, discuss and suggest solutions for racial issues. The message was loud and clear: Eliminate racism, respect people, work together, and increase educational opportunities for aboriginal youth. More than 200 people attended the March 20 forum at which Hobbs spoke and reaffirmed that racism will not be tolerated in Thunder Bay.
The forum was part of the 2012 Ken Morrison Lecture Series, funded by the Lakehead Unitarian Fellowship and held at the university to honors the life and work of a prominent philanthropist.
The forum panel included Hobbs, Fort William First Nation Chief Peter Collins and Lakehead University President Brian Stevenson. Also speaking were Tammy Bobyk, Executive Director of Shkoday Abinojiiwak Obimiwedoon, which administers the Thunder Bay Urban Aboriginal Strategy (a federal government project that partners with local agencies to address the needs of the urban aboriginal population), and Wendy Landry, president of the Thunder Bay Council of the Métis Nation of Ontario.
At the forum, Hobbs apologized for past racist comments that he had made during his career as a police officer. The apology was accepted by Charlotte Neckaway, an aboriginal person in the audience.
“The City of Thunder Bay is on a path to eliminating racism in our city,” Hobbs told ICTMN after the forum. “Not only are we traveling to northern aboriginal communities to learn about the culture and traditions but we are also traveling within our own city to teach the lessons of tolerance and respect. It's all about respect and treating people like citizens.”
Hobbs is paying more than lip service. The City of Thunder Bay has launched a bold initiative called “respect.” to promote dignity and respect.
“We hope this initiative encourages residents and businesses to create a more positive community that celebrates our differences and builds respect in all aspects of city life,” said Hobbs in a news release.
Over the past year, Collins and Hobbs have been working closely together on economic and social issues.
“For us, and for all the people attending, it's about closing the gap between First Nation and non–First Nation communities,” Collins said at the forum. “It is a work in progress.”