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Review: 'Thunder Bay' podcast tells a story of violence, racism and scandal

Nine dead teenagers. Bodies found along rivers, missing-persons cases, city officials and business leaders mired in scandal. No, it's not a Hollywood thriller; it's not the latest Nordic noir novel; it's not the new season of "Serial" -- though i...

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Nine dead teenagers. Bodies found along rivers, missing-persons cases, city officials and business leaders mired in scandal.

No, it's not a Hollywood thriller; it's not the latest Nordic noir novel; it's not the new season of "Serial" - though it easily could be any of these. This is Thunder Bay.

Or, rather, it's "Thunder Bay," a five-episode podcast that focuses on issues facing Duluth's neighbor to the north, produced by Canadian news site and podcast network Canadaland.

Host Ryan McMahon explores why northwestern Ontario's economic hub, home to nearly 110,000 people, repeatedly has the highest homicide and hate-crime rate in Canada.

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"Locals call it 'Murder Bay,'" reads the description for the podcast's first episode. "It might be the most dangerous city for indigenous youth in the world. But to others, it's their white nirvana."

McMahon details what appears to be widespread systemic racism, mostly directed toward Thunder Bay's First Nations residents and students who come from dozens of far-flung northern communities to attend high school.

The story is filtered through a prominent Thunder Bay lawyer's fall from grace amid allegations of physical and sexual assault, and the bizarre web of allegations among the lawyer, Thunder Bay's former mayor and the city's former police chief, among others. The mayor, whose term ended Nov. 30 - he didn't seek re-election - and his wife are facing trial on extortion charges early next year.

Meanwhile, indigenous residents in and around Thunder Bay have reported case after case of harassment, violence and, yes, murder. Apart from city administration and police, the white population is depicted as mostly blind to the more egregious examples, though McMahon speaks with very few of them at any length, apart from this story's supporting characters.

The podcast comes as a report released last week from Ontario's independent police oversight agency harshly criticizes Thunder Bay police for a "crisis of trust" in police among indigenous community members, stemming from inadequate or incompetent investigations and "a disturbing pattern of negative and discriminatory interactions between (police) and indigenous people."

The first episode lays out the questions before both storyteller and listener; the second details the entanglement between the disgraced lawyer and city officials. If you're not hooked by the time episode three delves into the long-standing sex trade in Thunder Bay's East End, most of it involving indigenous women and girls - and with a Duluth connection - then you perhaps should check your pulse, because this podcast is nothing if not captivating.

Thunder Bay the city, happily, is seeing the beginnings of a renaissance not unlike the Duluth of 30 years ago - so much so that Britain's Independent news website recently declared it "Canada's most exciting city." In parts of town, new restaurants and retail are popping up every other week, it seems. In other parts, though, the streets are desolate - apart from the "lost souls," as Thunder Bay's former mayor called them, biding their time on the streets and in the courtyard outside City Hall.

It's not hard to imagine hearing about starkly different lives depending on whom in town you ask. Life in Thunder Bay is a story of two cities - beyond its geographic forebears, the twin cities of Port Arthur and Fort William. It's a story of two experiences, depending on who you are and where you came from.

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"Thunder Bay" the podcast, then, reminds us that the story just a few hours up the road, like the story of Canada as a whole, is more complicated and often darker than what first glances might reflect.

Related Topics: PODCASTSCRIME
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