River of tears

Facing systemic racism and finding God amid the suffering of Indigenous youth.

As a chaplain who lives and works in Thunder Bay, I’ve had the privilege to provide spiritual care and grief counselling to Indigenous youth from Northern Ontario reserves suffering the intergenerational trauma of residential schools. This trauma includes years of witnessing and experiencing sexual and physical abuse, extreme violence and the resulting addictions that ensue and continue when Indigenous youth arrive in Thunder Bay for high school.

Some have referred to these youth, as our scandal-plagued former mayor Keith Hobbs (a 34-year veteran with the Thunder Bay Police) did, as “lost souls” who arrive in Thunder Bay with baggage of their own making. The narrative, so it goes, is that Indigenous youth (who are clearly in crisis and exhibiting signs of deep trauma) are damaged goods beyond help who are infamous for consuming copious amounts of alcohol and falling into rivers to their demise. Unfortunate accidents, but not unsurprising given who they are and where they come from. Kind of their own fault, but at the very least not ours.

A very clean and tidy explanation for the cause of many tragic Indigenous youth deaths in the city over the past 20 years. Case closed. Hands washed. Except . . . none of it’s true.

Anishinaabe comedian Ryan McMahon explains why such a narrative is highly problematic and deeply troublesome: “To blame it all on preexisting problems is to ignore what it’s actually like for kids when they first get here. When other outsiders, immigrants and refugees come to Thunder Bay, faith groups and other community organizations welcome them officially with suppers, household items, bus schedules, directions to essential services; not so with native youth that come from away. For them, they’re on their own” (podcast series Thunder Bay).


After a two-year probe, Ontario’s independent police watchdog recently released a final report into allegations of racism in how the Thunder Bay Police Service investigates Indigenous deaths and missing persons. The report, entitled “Broken Trust,” found that “systemic racism exists [in the Thunder Bay Police Service] at an institutional level” (Globe and Mail, Dec. 14, 2018). It goes on to say that the “failure to conduct adequate investigations and the premature conclusions drawn in these cases is, at least in part, attributable to racist attitudes and racial stereotyping.

Officers repeatedly relied on generalized notions about how Indigenous people likely came to their deaths and acted, or refrained from acting, based on those biases.”

The CBC’s Fifth Estate produced a documentary back in 2016 called Death in Thunder Bay: No Foul Play, where they investigated how police handled the death of a young Indigenous man named Stacy DeBungee. They found that “police in Thunder Bay never bothered to find and interview two key witnesses who were with [Stacy] the night before he was found dead last year.”

There are many other cases just like this one where there is evidence of foul play but police never conducted a proper investigation. Even though in some cases there have been suspects, motives and even confessions, no charges have yet to be laid.

This is Thunder Bay. A city unceremoniously deemed the murder and hate crime capital of Canada. A former police chief who faced trial for obstruction of justice and a former mayor who faces trial for extortion. And now a police force infamous for cultivating systemic racism against Thunder Bay’s Indigenous people.

Welcome to Thunder Bay’s apocalypse.


So how do those who consider themselves Christian live in a city where the most vulnerable are being systemically dehumanized? The German martyr and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer – whose theology and ethics were forged in the crucible of Nazi Germany, World War II and the Holocaust – offers us a way forward.

Bonhoeffer’s understanding of God is rooted in the reality of the cross. For him, God is most “God” at the cross of suffering love. This is what is most true about God’s core nature. God’s heart beats with passionate love for the most lowly among us, especially if they are being systemically dehumanized by the brutal forces of our fallen world.

The suffering Christ is the concrete love of God; the incarnate One who came into the real world of human beings and opened his heart to our wretchedness. It is the only way to reach us. At Golgotha – where the Roman Empire crushed the weak and the rebellious on the outskirts of Jerusalem – God reveals his solidarity with suffering humanity, especially the outcasts. This is the definition of true empathy and compassion: to lower oneself into another person’s pain and affliction (especially those we consider our enemies) so we can truly understand their struggles in ways that bring forth relief and reconciliation, not racial scapegoating and rejection.

The incarnate One driven out of the world by the unholy matrimony of Religion and Empire and onto the cross of the margins – Golgotha.

Just another “rebellious criminal” being crucified.

Just another “drunk Indian kid” who died in the river.

“Where reason is indignant,” Bonhoeffer explains, “where our nature rebels, where our piety anxiously keeps us away: that is precisely where God loves to be. […] God is near to lowliness; he loves the lost, the neglected, the unseemly, the excluded, the weak and broken.”


In the suffering Christ of vulnerable love, God validates and seeks to understand the afflictions of Thunder Bay’s Indigenous youth. God knows the truth about their reality; about the intergenerational trauma passed down from residential schools, the feeling of alienation and loneliness when they arrive in a new city with little support or familiarity, and how all these struggles combined, past and present, can affect the frail human soul and lead to debilitating addictions and chaos in their lives.

Unlike us, God is not ashamed of Indigenous people in their struggles because he knows the root of their chronic addictions is woundedness. The historical afflictions of “cultural genocide” perpetrated by the unholy matrimony of Church and State. But God, in the tradition of Bonhoeffer’s theology from below, marches right in and reaches down in the figure of the despised and rejected criminal on the Cross. At the “river edges” of Rome, the God-Man Jesus reveals God’s heart for the lowly and rejected.

Thunder Bay’s apocalypse has come. God is in the city in the figure of the despised and lowly outcasts who have perished on the margins of Rome’s river edges.

If we consider ourselves Christians, and believe ourselves to be part of the true Church, we must realize that we have become part of a true apocalyptic drama here in Thunder Bay (and elsewhere) where Indigenous people (and others) have been systemically dehumanized by the colonial and demagogical powers of the world unto death and indignity.

“Bonhoeffer’s theology thrusts us into the middle of an ongoing apocalyptic drama,” writes Bonhoeffer scholar Barry Harvey, “a place that enables us to see all that is happening in the world around us as implicated in God’s work of judgment and reconciliation in Jesus Christ. He lives and speaks to us as a witness to the fact that to participate in Christ, and thus to be performers in this drama, is to belong to those ‘on whom the ends of the ages have met.’”


  • Josh Valley

    Josh is a long-term care Chaplain in Thunder Bay, Ont., and an award-winning writer.

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