(Courtesy of Michah Dowbak)

Thunder Bay Podcast Returns for a Second Season

By Susan Goldberg

In 2018, Ryan McMahon, a comedian and broadcaster from Couchiching First Nation, set out to explore possibly the most urgent question plaguing the City of Thunder Bay: why were so many Indigenous kids dying here, their bodies showing up again and again in the city’s waterways?

That exploration became the podcast Thunder Bay. The five-part series didn’t shy away from delving deep into the seedy backrooms, basements, and behind-closed-doors manoeuvring of the city’s powerbrokers, bringing to light the systemic racism (not to mention the entrenched misogyny) that allowed police, politicians, judges, attorneys, and other so-called civic leaders to thrive in and perpetuate a culture in which Indigenous youth keep dying, with untold numbers more of their Anishinaabe kin exploited, trafficked, addicted, or missing.

The series, part of the Canadaland platform of podcasts, didn’t diminish Thunder Bay’s notoriety as the murder and frequent hate crime capital of Canada. Nor did it serve to soften the harsh gaze on the city’s racism and corruption prompted by, among other things, the 2017 publication of Tanya Talaga’s Seven Fallen Feathers: Racism, Death and Hard Truths in a Northern City. What Thunder Bay did do, say McMahon and producer Jon Thompson, was further open up a frank, painful, and long-overdue conversation—within Thunder Bay but also across Canada—about systemic racism. 

And now, they’re continuing that conversation. Return to Thunder Bay picks up where the first season left off, with three new episodes airing in November and December 2020. The timing is prescient. Since the original season dropped, two independent investigations have found systemic racism in the city’s police force and oversight board, castigating them for grotesque incompetence and indifference in the handling of Indigenous deaths in the city. The second season’s final episode will air during the time that the Ontario Superior Court of Justice is scheduled to issue its verdict in the trial of Brayden Bushby, charged in the death of Barbara Kentner, the 34-year-old Anishinaabe woman who died after Bushby struck her with a trailer hitch from a moving car. And the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 have prompted international scrutiny of corrupt and violent police practices and a call to defund forces.

McMahon wanted to revisit the city, to dig deeper into troubling reports of increased gun and gang violence, new deaths, and the local police force’s request for increased funding in response. If, perhaps, too little has changed in Thunder Bay, then at least McMahon and Thompson have been met with more openness on the part of interviewees. In Season 1, “people refused to talk to me,” says McMahon. “I was basically laughed out of most spaces I dared to show my face in.” The second season, however, contains interviews with mayor Bill Mauro, city councillor-at-large Aldo Ruberto, and Greg Giddens, the managing editor of the Chronicle-Journal. It also features Talaga, veteran CBC journalist Jody Porter, and Senator Murray Sinclair, retired judge and chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, appointed by the Ontario Civilian Police Commission to investigate the Thunder Bay Police Services Board in 2017.

With nearly two million listeners, Season 1 of the podcast blew apart the “isolation myth”—the idea that Thunder Bay, so geographically distant from other urban centres, can operate according to its own, secret, stubborn timetable and agenda, untouched by change or perspectives from “away.”

“Thunder Bay doesn’t get to play the isolation card anymore,” says McMahon, pointing at the privilege inherent in assuming that the city, a hub of commerce, education, travel, and health-care services for dozens of surrounding smaller communities and First Nations, was ever isolated. “From my point of view, as someone who grew up in Fort Frances, Thunder Bay was the big city. It’s not isolated—it’s the destination. Bro, you have a Boston Pizza! We’re not a million miles from somewhere—we are somewhere.”

And, he and Thompson make clear, if we want to live up to our potential, we need to own our problems. “Thunder Bay can be a leader,” says Thompson. “We can be the first city to tackle, head on, the post–Truth and Reconciliation conversation throughout Canada. We can be the reason why young people are motivated to go to Lakehead University, why young families want to move here and buy starter homes, why people can champion and celebrate this place for working through this moment. But to do that, we have to be present for the conversations.”

“By presenting this conversation,” says McMahon, “I hope we’ll encourage people to be brave, and to move intentionally and purposely toward building a good and just place for everyone who calls Thunder Bay home.”