Thunder Bay: Canada’s first post-truth town

Canad, Thunder bay

“To speak only to the extent to which we have lived or experienced.” 

This is the meaning of ‘debwewin’ – the Ojibwe word for ‘truth’ – explains host Ryan McMahon in the latest episode of the Thunder Bay podcast. This small northern Ontario city, home to the highest population of Indigenous people in Canada, is also the homicide and hate crime capital of the country.

The lived experiences of Indigenous people, particularly those featured in this series, are shocking. Their stories of racism, abuse, violence and trauma in Canadian colonial systems can be traced back for generations. The federal government has only recently acknowledged these truths through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the National Inquiry into the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG).  

But after a hugely popular podcast, an award-winning book, inquiries and investigations into the deaths of Indigenous youth in Thunder Bay: what happens next? I spoke to McMahon, an Anishinaabe1 journalist, about the next season of the podcast, and what he means by Canada’s first “post-truth town.” 

Rejecting the white imagination 

“I set out to make a podcast to fight for Indigenous youth,” he told me. “We are centering Indigenous voices in a story that has only been told by white people for far too long.” 

Season one revealed the ways in which systems are failing Indigenous youth through neglect, abuse of power, systemic inequality and a racism that is “baked into the schools, the police, city hall and … its citizens.” Perhaps nowhere are the findings of the TRC and the final report on the MMIWG more apparent than here: in addition to recording the highest rates of murder, Thunder Bay also experiences the most opioid-related overdoses in Ontario, and seven times more missing persons than elsewhere in the province.

“What you get is a climate that is ripe with all of the systemic failures created by the colonization project in Canada,” said McMahon. “And it’s complicated. It’s nuanced.”

Throughout the series, many of these failures are brought out by centering the voices of Indigenous people and providing them with a platform to take back their history and storytelling that have been denied through Canadian colonialism. The rejection of the white imagination in media representation of Indigenous experiences is also a way of building solidarity within the community, as well as outside of it. And the podcasting medium lends itself well to these conversations.   

Artwork depicting Thunder Bay, Canada

Podcasting for engagement and education

“There’s a thing that happens when you say you’re a podcaster,” said McMahon. “It comes with an eye roll … we’re not taken seriously.”

But over the course of the first five episodes released in 2018, McMahon and his fellow executive producers Miranda de Pencier and Jesse Brown uncovered unbelievable stories about a mayor charged with extortion, a police chief who faced trial for obstruction of justice, and the nine tragic deaths of Indigenous teenagers. 

It’s a brilliant piece of investigative journalism with all the elements of the popularized true-crime genre, “but when it’s happening in your own backyard,” McMahon says, “it’s hard to stand by and watch it.”

As an Indigenous person in media, McMahon says he is often asked to present decolonial theory as it relates to reconciliation in Canada. He’s made films, written blog posts and been featured in countless interviews. In 2017, before Thunder Bay was released, he wrote a 12-step guide for decolonizing Canada. But he says that oftentimes, when these conversations take place outside of everyday life, or in strictly academic spaces, they get bogged down in inaccessible language and concepts, become sidetracked or ‘stop in the fields’ altogether.

“What I like about the podcast medium in particular is … it presents the work as it is and you’re allowed to react to it however you want,” said McMahon. In other words, it serves as a placeholder for returning to the conversation, however uncomfortable it may be, and engaging with the material in an informal and inclusive space. 

The series is also used as an educational tool: it is taught in colleges and universities in Canada and around the world, and it’s currently being developed for television. The series is entirely listener-funded through its production company, a news media site called Canadaland. It was the high ratings from season one, which garnered over a million downloads and widespread media attention, that enabled McMahon and his team to produce the final three postscript episodes of Thunder Bay. 

Indigenous representation in the media

McMahon is also the founder of Indian and Cowboy, a podcast network of Indigenous-made and Indigenous-focused storytelling in digital media and podcasting. He hopes to build on some of the progress made in representation in Canadian media and journalism, but he says this work can’t be done in isolation: “We need the cowboys to come in too.”

McMahon says that when it comes to discussions around reconciliation in Canada, it’s important to bring everyone to the table – particularly in the media.

“Having Indigenous colleagues in the newsroom will make the stories sharper and will save the headache of the way we tiptoe around each other … In this space as journalists, as writers, as creatives we can’t be worried about making mistakes. We have to work through that.”

Jon Thompson, a journalist who has been covering Indigenous issues in Thunder Bay for over 20 years, supported much of the research and production of this season. Also featured is CBC reporter Jodie Porter, who covered the inquest into the deaths of seven Indigenous high schoolers, and is covering the trial of Brayden Bushby – a man facing charges of manslaughter for throwing a trailer hitch at an Indigenous woman. 

Post-truth in Thunder Bay

Upon returning to the city earlier this year, McMahon recalls someone saying to him: “If you think Thunder Bay hit rock bottom, you don’t know Thunder Bay.” 

It’s an ominous message, and whether much has changed over the past two years remains to be seen. But McMahon says the most important part of this project was to give Thunder Bay an opportunity to reckon with its failures and make real, impactful changes.

“We want to give everyone a chance to say what they need to say. We’re coming in to give Thunder Bay a fair shot.”

And while the series certainly doesn’t purport to be the lone voice of the Indigenous experience in Canada, it situates the unique historical and contemporary challenges of the city – many of which persist today. It also delivers a narrative of decolonisation and reconciliation that resonates around the world. 

“If Canada is serious about reconciliation … we need to hear from the voices most affected by the colonial project in Canada. And when we get comfortable hearing those voices, I will say we have made progress. But until then, Canadians and people interested in this conversation should not be looking for a soft place to land.”

Thank you to Ryan McMahon for speaking to me.

Thunder Bay is available for download and streaming on all major platforms including Spotify, Apple Podcasts and acast.

Maxine Betteridge-Moes is a SOAS Digital Ambassador pursuing an MA Media in Development. Born and raised in Canada, she has worked in Asia and Africa as a journalist, podcast producer and occasional music blogger. Follow her on Twitter @maxine_moes

1 Anishinaabe refers to a group of culturally and linguistically related First Nations that live in both Canada and the United States, concentrated around the Great Lakes.

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