River of Tears

I used to be able to talk to you all, back when the paper I worked for was in greater circulation. I had column space now and then, so I shared stories or lessons I learned. I tried to talk honestly about them.

I haven’t been able to share words with you lately, not in the way I want to. So I do it this way now, in a blog-post, and hope someone will read it. I still try to share my voice as an Ojicree woman born and raised in northwestern Ontario.

I spent a few years in a remote fly-in northern community living with my beloved grandparents and surrounded by my family. Surrounded with love, life. That close proximity to relatives pulled me through such a shitty time, too. I had a family again after losing mine.

And I experienced a life on the rez, like the way you have to wait for the water truck to come by, those bumpy dirt roads, how you can’t drink directly from the tap because you’re on a boil water advisory, the mosquitos that can be so relentless especially when those spring puddles don’t dissipate, random power outages and candlelight, the arrival and departure of an airplane that always seemed to attract the whole community (and the hugs that came with it), the smell of fresh moose meat being butchered on my uncle’s table, the delayed or cancelled flights during snow storms, my grandfather building fires to keep us warm, freight day at the store, that wonderful winter road season, the slow slow slow fucking Internet. The same familiar faces every day.

There was also a lot of drinking, and drugs, yes I saw that. I saw the broken families and the cycles, but also the hope. The love. The kindness. The laughter. The feeling that “hey, tomorrow will be okay.”

And those things I just mentioned? The drugs and alcohol? You see them everywhere. Addiction is rampant throughout society. It’s never been limited to just a certain people. It’s latched on to all people. Addiction also doesn’t just manifest itself out of nowhere, there are often reasons behind it, but that’s a subject for another post.

So now here I am. I have since moved away from the reserve, and I started up my own family. I have a son. I often long for that immediate closeness though of family all around. I don’t see my own family here much. I miss that about the reservation, but I try my best for my child.

I look at him sometimes and I think about this place, this city we are living in, and I think about all the horrible things I’ve heard and witnessed that go on regarding racism and hate, and I am fearful. I hate feeling that, but it’s true. I want to walk safely and with confidence in this place. I want everyone to be able to, but unfortunately that’s not ever a given.

I am scared for what may come when my son grows older, especially when I think about a fellow mother and the search for her son here in this city.

I take my son for walks. We live in an area right beside a walking path adjacent to a floodway in the city.

The Neebing-McIntyre Floodway. Infamous.

I’ve been seeing it dubbed “The River of Tears.

We walk along that river a lot, my son and I. Many people do. It’s usually calm and peaceful. Lately, it’s been full, crowded with debris, and the mud has been stirred up from the river floor by the current, clouding up the water. We had a thunderstorm and some rain this past week, so it’s full and deep. I went walking out there the other day thinking about someone as I looked into that water.

I was thinking about Josiah.

14-year-old Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug-youth Josiah Begg went missing on Saturday May 6th here in the city. He was in town with his father for some appointments. People from remote communities often have to leave their homes to access certain services we more than likely take for granted here in Thunder Bay.

So I thought about Josiah since he’d gone missing. I wasn’t the only one either. I just watched an amazing video of a poem by a Thunder Bay youth named Thatcher Rose, and in it they describe the plight of the Indigenous youth and people here in the city from their eyes. And they make mention of Josiah, and how they hope he is not in the river.

I went walking out there on the path a couple of days ago. I stared down at that water, it was really deep and murky. The banks are very steep. I took some photos of the water, and it started to rain harder. That water was being stirred up. I couldn’t help but hope, like Thatcher, that Josiah wasn’t in that water. When I read today that they were finally conducting underwater searches on that river, I went out to the path again around noon and looked around. I didn’t see anything, just the deep, cloudy water.

This evening, I was told that people were searching the river. I can see the floodway from my doorstep, it’s a stones throw away, and so I went out to take a look before running an errand at around 9 pm. The walking path was cordoned off with crime scene tape. I checked social media, there wasn’t anything mentioned about anyone being found. I assumed it was just to keep people out of there while they searched. I could see some figures walking around the grassy areas near the train tracks. It was quiet. I went on my way to complete some late evening grocery shopping. Within an hour as I was checking out with the cashier, I saw the “RIP” posts on social media.


Earlier today at around 6 pm, yet another body was pulled from that River of Tears.

While the police have not identified who the male was just yet, social media posts are speculating that it was Josiah Begg – the young man who had to come to this city as a visitor. My head started to hurt when I read those posts.

This wasn’t the ending anyone was hoping for.

And there are so many questions that need answering. It’s still early. I am unsure of what will happen, and what will come out. Sometimes I cringe thinking about upcoming comments on any issue regarding Indigenous people here.

There are horrible people who say horrible presumptuous things about situations like this. It doesn’t help at all. It’s such a sad reality, the hatred and racism geared towards First Nations people in the comment sections.

I am sorry any of you have to read all of that. I am sorry you have to hear all that.

The hashtag #thisisthunderbay has been sharing common experiences. And many are scary, especially when it comes to how many have actually been forced or almost been forced into that river.

I’ve been reading stories of insults, of assaults, of random graffiti comprised of racist or vile words. These accounts from those sharing are frightening, but they show that there is a problem here that needs to be addressed, that this isn’t something that is being made up. I have also heard stories of young people who are approached by older men who offer them alcohol. Please let your children know that that is not normal. That is not okay. There is something wrong with that picture and I don’t even know where to begin to talk about that. It is definitely something that needs to be looked into. I do not know of any functioning normal healthy adult who offers alcohol to young people. That is dangerous.

Certain people in this city can be so heartless sometimes. Certain people in this city hurt our people so much sometimes. Remember that we don’t deserve it. You don’t deserve it. You deserve to be treated with respect. With love. With kindness. You and your family deserve to be safe. And remember that there is a lot of good about this place, too. There are good people here. It’s a goodness that’s worth fighting for and standing up for.

I walk with my son. I hold his hand. He’s just young right now. I can hold his hand and be with him. I don’t have to part with him. If he needs help, I can be there.

To all of the parents in the north, I am sorry you aren’t able to walk with your sons here, with your daughters, to hold their hands too if you wanted. I am sorry you aren’t able to scoop them up and tell them you love them and that they’ll be okay because you are so far far away from each other.

I am sorry you have to be separated from your children sometimes so they can work for their education, and at times for appointments to access services that you don’t have in your communities.

I am sorry you sometimes can’t trust this place to keep your kids safe when they want to venture on their own, as they will do. And we all did. We all wandered on our own as teenagers. Maybe we didn’t realize the amount of danger that was out there.

Right now, my heart is heavy in my chest; it is soaked with tears, tears from that river, and it is weighing my spirit down. I am so sorry for your loss.

While this one joins the many other brothers and sisters who have also met the same fate in the waterways, there is an uneasy feeling that this isn’t right. That there may be something more to it than what they say, no foul play, and also that we need to have open and honest conversations again and again with our youth and our people in this place. Maybe we here in the city need to do more, too, to help keep them safe.

Maybe we here need to form our own big brothers and big sisters.

Maybe we here need to open our lives and time up for them, so we can offer support when our brothers and sisters up north aren’t able to.

Take care of each other out there.

I am sorry for your loss.


4 thoughts on “River of Tears

  1. Stephanie, your post is a beautiful tribute to ones who have been lost in “The River of Tears”. I feel as if something is amiss, this is extremely tragic and extremely difficult to wrap one’s head around. My heart aches; too many unanswered questions, too much pain and sadness for these families and their communities.

  2. I saw this shared on facebook and I’m glad I found it. This is beautiful and just so sad. I’ve cried about the news and I cried reading this. It hurts so much to think about how we fail these youths and what the families are going though. These families and children deserve so much more. The attitudes here are despicable and I can’t wait to see change.

  3. Not all Caucasian people think the same way. I’ve had the pleasure of working with many different First Nation’s communities and people and find the culture and languages fascinating. They have nothing compared to the rest of us, 12 people live in a home built for 4, children have to be sent to cities to attend highschool, clean drinking water not available, affordable nutritious food not available, health care is an hour away in some places. This is happening Northwestern Ontario, not a third world country and it is sickening to not be able to do much to help. Some of us really don’t think this is fair and want to do something to help, why should only a certain population of people have to live this way? Our question is how do we really help? What can the citizens who don’t agree with this treatment of Aboriginal communities do?

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