'Thunder Bay' Podcast Investigates Canada's Colonial Impacts On Indigenous People NPR's Ailsa Chang talks with Ryan McMahon, host of the podcast Thunder Bay, which looks at the high number of deaths of young indigenous people in Thunder Bay, Ontario.
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'Thunder Bay' Podcast Investigates Canada's Colonial Impacts On Indigenous People

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'Thunder Bay' Podcast Investigates Canada's Colonial Impacts On Indigenous People

'Thunder Bay' Podcast Investigates Canada's Colonial Impacts On Indigenous People

'Thunder Bay' Podcast Investigates Canada's Colonial Impacts On Indigenous People

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NPR's Ailsa Chang talks with Ryan McMahon, host of the podcast Thunder Bay, which looks at the high number of deaths of young indigenous people in Thunder Bay, Ontario.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

We're going to spend some time now in Thunder Bay, Canada. The city has some unenviable distinctions, a dark side that is the subject of an unsparing podcast called "Thunder Bay."

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: There are more murders committed here than anywhere else in the country...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: As the city's cops have faced accusations of systemic racism...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: A third of all Indigenous hate crimes in Canada are reported in Thunder Bay.

CHANG: The series dives headlong into some of the most disturbing corners of Thunder Bay and how those corners shape the daily lives of much of the town's Indigenous, or First Nations, population. The episodes look at the city's high number of opioid deaths...

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "THUNDER BAY")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Obviously, I can't do it out here, so that's why I want to go back to detox and...

CHANG: ...The violence against First Nations residents...

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "THUNDER BAY")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: People throwing beer bottles at me.

CHANG: ...Thunder Bay's sex trade...

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "THUNDER BAY")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Because one of the Johns wanted his money back.

CHANG: ...And the unsolved disappearances of Indigenous teenagers, many of whom have to live far away from home just to attend school.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "THUNDER BAY")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: You never hear about convictions, and there's always bodies in the river.

CHANG: A driving question behind this podcast is how did those kids die? And why do so many of their cases go unsolved? For the host of "Thunder Bay," Ryan McMahon, the issue is personal.

RYAN MCMAHON: I was born and raised in a community called Couchiching First Nation, which is in the northern tip of Minnesota. You know, being close to Thunder Bay and having spent a number of years of my childhood playing hockey around Thunder Bay and having, you know, relatives in Thunder Bay, close friends and peers in Thunder Bay, I've sort of - Thunder Bay has always just been a part of my life.

CHANG: But McMahon says telling this story required confronting some uncomfortable tropes about the Indigenous community, like the use of alcohol.

MCMAHON: It's the darkest thing I've ever had to say on radio. It's the darkest thing I've ever had to say professionally in 21 years of my career. And it's something that I was really hesitant to talk about.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "THUNDER BAY")

MCMAHON: You don't walk the streets with your backpack of bottles - too risky. You take the backpacks.

We're talking about young people getting off of high school and finding themselves some alcohol to go and party and drink and have some fun just to relieve the stress of their situation.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "THUNDER BAY")

MCMAHON: You're looking for somewhere safe where you'll all be left alone. There are spots like that - under the bridge, beside the river. And once you get there, you drink hard, and you drink fast.

It's a stereotype. It's a trope that you see, you know, the drunken native person, the wagonburner, right? We've heard these tropes and these stereotypes used so often against us. And I was very hesitant to talk about the use of alcohol in Indigenous communities for that reason, but I also can't ignore it.

CHANG: So after that monologue, you told the story of several Indigenous youths who turned up dead. Could you tell me the story of one of those youths that really stuck with you?

MCMAHON: Yeah, definitely. There's the story of young Jordan Wabasse who, by all accounts, was a magnificent young man with huge potential, you know, great at school, a very respectful young person who was also a hockey star. And when he wound up dead, people recounted the fact that these people were chasing him across a frozen river.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "THUNDER BAY")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: I know Jordan Wabasse got thrown in the river. He was trying to get away from some people, and he actually ran across the ice, and he didn't realize that he was running across the ice, and he fell in.

CHANG: So in Jordan's case, the police concluded there was no foul play. But there's a lot of belief in the community that there was foul play.

MCMAHON: Yeah, yeah. The search for Jordan took too long, and it was called off, and the system failed him in so many different ways.

CHANG: I noticed that with many of the white people from Thunder Bay who show up in this podcast, they show up in kind of, like, these fragments. Like, in one episode, you include a range of voices across the city, including some interviews with residents who blame the deaths of the First Nations youths on the victims themselves.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "THUNDER BAY")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: 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.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: We bring in people, a lot of people, from northern communities who have grown up in very uncivilized areas. And we're throwing them into civilization. They don't know how to handle it.

CHANG: I notice you don't even name a lot of these white people, these white people who are talking about the Indigenous people. Why did you make that decision - to present these white voices as sort of this anonymous clump?

MCMAHON: Well, we made the choice because we had the receipts. So, you know, had anyone called us on it and said, well, you know, you're picking sort of the hits, you know, you're picking the most dramatic of your tape and playing it throughout the series, we had the receipts to show that, no, this was a general sentiment. Some people didn't want to be named, you know, for fear of their, you know, their employer hearing it or whatever it was. We had to make a decision on how we would use that tape. And we decided because we had so much of it that was in that same light that we just wouldn't name names, and that's what we decided.

CHANG: It seems as though your team set out on this ambitious goal to use real deaths and disappearances as sort of this jumping-off point for a broader conversation about systemic violence, racism, colonialism - right? - these huge ideas. In one episode, you say that, quote, "it's hard work making the phantom visible to people who don't want to see it." Have people seen the phantom, you think? Like, once your podcast came out, have you heard people saying you put a face on the phantom in a way that I didn't know how to articulate before?

MCMAHON: I think if you listen the podcast series, you will see the phantom. Once you have the information, it's up to you to decide. And that's really kind of the best we can do. You know, we can tell these stories. We can share these stories. We can connect some of the dots, but I don't know how else to ask people to see our humanity as Indigenous people other than through storytelling. And, you know, I could host lectures. I could travel around North America, you know, begging people to reconsider, you know, the uglier parts of the colonial projects of North America or I can just show you the current day impacts and then give you some of the context and some of the nuance and some of the complexity. And then we can attempt to have the conversation about whether we should be trying to fix it or not.

CHANG: If "Thunder Bay" tells a larger story about Canada, what is that larger story?

MCMAHON: A lot of people point towards Canada as this beacon of democracy and hope and, you know, a pluralistic society and a multicultural haven for ideas and dreams. But, really, it's - you know, this podcast is a doorway for the world to walk through to learn a little bit more about, you know, the troubled history, the darker corners of this country. You know, Canada just turn 150 years old. And as far as I'm concerned, the story of Canada is only half complete, and it'll be complete once the world considers Indigenous voices and our experiences here in this country. And I think "Thunder Bay" is a small part of that story.

CHANG: Ryan McMahon is the host of "Thunder Bay." The podcast is produced by CANADALAND. Thank you very much for joining us.

MCMAHON: Yeah. It was my pleasure. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE TRAGICALLY HIP'S "GRACE, TOO")

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