Thunderbay is one of a small but important group of true crime podcast, which use the medium of true crime to highlight wider societal or political issues. It is true that while the idea of a person being wicked or evil gives us an easy simplicity with which to view the world, crime never happens in a vacuum, but is always layered in individual phycology, community, society and institutional structures. This makes the why of crime complex, but it is a complexity that we need to explore if crime prevention and violence reduction are aims we are serious about.
Thunderbay is a city in Ontario, Canada which started out as a fur trading post and now has a population of roughly a hundred thousand. If you hold the image that many international listeners will do of Canada being a friendly, cosy place, kind of like a super chill version of America, then Thunderbay will put that image to rest. Journalist Ryan McCann takes us through the deaths of indigenous children in Thunderbay, many whom are turning up drowned in local rivers over a period of decades.
For the true crime enthusiast the immediate response to this might be to question the possibility of a serial killer. The answer to that is both yes, and no. Not in the way that we imagine serial killers, as single individuals, but the killer here is not just the people who push the youngsters in (some of whom openly confess and are still not jailed), but an apathetic police force, rampant unrestrained racism, appaling neglect of children’s rights, and a lack of infrastructure for indigenous people that is mind boggling in an advanced western country. This isn’t new either, it’s pretty much been going on since the founding of the modern Canadian state by Scot, John McDonald who put in place the Indian Act, and policies which attempted assimilate indigenous children in brutal ways. The recent uncovery of 215 bodies of children, some as young as three, at an indigenous residential school, and the white fragility of Justin Treadau (once poster boy of the left) in response to an indigenous teenager asking about suicide plans which is covered in the podcast, all point to a country that has essentially assisted in genocide and is still to come to terms and make amends for it’s behaviour.
It is always easy to point at other countries racism and tut and shake your head but Thunderbay has also had me questioning my responsibility in this. Scotland has deep roots to Canada, and many Scots who travelled there had been turfed out their own homes in the Highland and Lowland Clearances, which some people here consider genocide too. It appears as though we may have crossed the sea to escape an oppression which we then recreated and subjected others too. It isn’t all historic either, only two generations back I had relatives emigrating to Canada. Given how anti-indigenous racism is baked into the modern states history it is more than likely that at least one of my ancestors will have been responsible for racists words, attitudes or acts that have compounded the issue. Does it make it my problem? I’m not responsible for the actions of others, but what I can be responsible for is trying to help right those wrongs.
Therefore I am urging my listeners to take some time to learn about colonialism and the part your own country did or did not play in it, and then act accordingly. Personally I have set up a donation to Bear Clan which is an indigenous activist organisation that patrols the streets of Winnepeg to create a safer environment for indigenous people, and if you have ancestral links to Canada, you might want to check them out too.
I think Thunderbay is a testament to Ryan McCann’s, persistent yet somehow still gentle focus on this issue, and for pulling back from the true crime trope of focus on individuals, and looking at the bigger picture of how crime intersects with literally everything else. As humans we are messy, and complex and unpredictable, and our desire to want crime wrapped up neatly and quickly is probably a reflection of the fact crime gives us a sense of a lack of control. Which is why so often the knee jerk reaction can be something along the lines of how the victim did something to deserve it. Because to really look at how drug addiction, misogyny, racism, colonialism, even things as simple as lack of infrastructure like bridges and roads all feed into crime, we run the risk of feeling overwhelmed, by our lack of power, and the random nature of existence. Yes, it is scary, but Thunderbay is just one of the places where what other people deserve from us, is not the transference of our own fear onto others, but a toleration of the uncomfortable realities of humaness.