MANITOULIN ISLAND, ONT.—Before the brawl, there was a breakup. It was typical teenage drama; a boy and girl had parted ways and feelings were hurt. Then one person accused the other of having herpes and soon, ugly rumours of an STD outbreak were spreading through the school and across social media.
Over the next week, tensions mounted at Manitoulin Secondary School (MSS) and on Sept. 14, they suddenly exploded into a massive lunchtime brawl. Snippets of the violence were captured in videos shared on Snapchat: boys punching girls and girls punching boys; kids being pushed or thrown to the ground; a teenager violently slammed into a parked car.
The clash lasted for an hour, with as many as 50 students either gawking at the violence or jumping into the fray. Nobody was seriously injured but the brawl left a slew of criminal charges in its wake and exposed deeper divisions that lurk beneath the friendly face of this small island community.
Residents have largely split into two perspectives. For some, this was just a typical case of high school melodrama that spiralled out of control. But others say the fight and its aftermath are symptomatic of a bigger problem that can’t be ignored: anti-Indigenous racism.
Manitoulin Island — a scenic community of 13,255 people located two hours southwest of Sudbury — is a wedge of land bisecting Lake Huron and Georgian Bay. It is considered a sacred place by First Nations people surrounding the Great Lakes. An 1862 treaty opened Manitoulin to white settlement, and self-identified Aboriginal people now make up 41 per cent of islanders who responded to the latest census. At MSS, the island’s only public high school, 30 per cent of students are Indigenous.
In the eyes of Manitoulin’s First Nations leadership, there were blatant racial overtones to the brawl and the way it was handled by the school and police. They say racism may not have caused the fight but it was the accelerant that ignited an ordinary teenage dispute into a racially charged battle royale — one that now demands an appropriate response from the people entrusted with their children’s education.
For MSS parent Lisa Lanktree, a white woman with adopted children from Wasauksing First Nation, the brawl is a wake-up call — not just for school officials but policy-makers everywhere, from the local Rainbow District School Board to the Ontario legislature.
She says the brawl underscores the stark need for the updated sex-ed and Indigenous curriculums recently cancelled by the provincial government — education that would be particularly impactful in northern schools like MSS, which have limited access to sexual health resources and large Indigenous populations.
“The beginning of the fight started over children having a lack of knowledge about STDs (sexually transmitted diseases) and sex and how to have relationships,” Lanktree said. “But the further escalation was due to a lack of understanding between two different cultures and race tensions.
“For it to go from this little fight to this explosion — it’s like there was so much tension already existing. That escalation is a symptom that something needs to be addressed.”
On Sept 14, a flurry of text messages began to light up Linda Debassige’s phone. “Chief, there’s a big fight here!” “Will you come find out what’s going on?”
Debassige is the 36-year-old chief of M’Chigeeng First Nation and the texts were streaming in from students at MSS, a school located on a parcel of land that belongs to a township called Billings but sits on traditional M’Chigeeng territory. Alarmed, she immediately drove one kilometre down the road to MSS, where she discovered the school in chaos.
After a few days investigating what happened, Debassige sat down and typed a sharply worded press release. “M’Chigeeng First Nation has learned that this situation originated between two non-Indigenous students from Little Current and later escalated to involve youth members of M’Chigeeng and other First Nation members in a very demoralizing and demeaning way,” she wrote.
“The M’Chigeeng Chief and Council is concerned that this incident is an indicator of a deeper, more disturbing reality, which is underlying racism that has now reared its ugly head yet again.”
Several students who spoke to the Star confirmed that the initial breakup drama had nothing to do with First Nations students. But when rumours of a herpes outbreak began to circulate, fingers started pointing at Indigenous kids, especially those from M’Chigeeng.
“People started saying all First Nations have herpes,” according to Debassige’s 17-year-old son, Pierre, a Grade 12 student at MSS. “Like everybody else, we don’t like being accused of things. And I guess some kids just reacted wrong.”
One girl said students started calling out the word “herpes” as they passed her and other M’Chigeeng kids in the hallway and the situation was so upsetting that she failed a math test. This girl, who was charged after the fight and can’t be named under the Youth Criminal Justice Act, alleges she reported the bullying to school staff but “they did nothing about it.”
When reached by the Star, both the school principal and district board said they were declining interview requests “out of respect for the First Nations communities.” According to a spokesperson, the board is meeting with communities in the upcoming weeks and is “committed to working together to move forward in a positive way.”
On the day of the fight, a crowd gathered on the “happy trail,” a forested garbage-strewn path near the school where students like to smoke. According to witnesses, the teens formed into two rows — one that was mostly Indigenous and one that mostly wasn’t — and began hurling racial insults like “you dirty Indian” and “you white trash.”
“A lot of people were referring to it at the time as ‘cowboys versus Indians,’ ” said Pierre Debassige.
Nobody seems to know who threw the first punch but he said the brawl lasted for roughly an hour, subsiding only when police showed up. One adult who tried to break up the fight, reportedly a school staffer, was captured on video shouting at a boy who threw a large stick — a scene that outraged many on social media, where they accused the adult of calling the boy “brown trash.”
(The video has been viewed by the Star and while the word “trash” is audible, he does not appear to say the word “brown” though his exact words are difficult to hear. School principal Jamie Mohamed did not respond to emailed questions about this incident.)
Concerns of racism further intensified when the Ontario Provincial Police announced initial charges, including assault and uttering threats, against six people — five youth and a 38-year-old woman. Two, including the woman, are related to the girl who allegedly complained to the school about being bullied. All are from M’Chigeeng.
“It’s always the First Nations kids that get charged,” said one MSS parent from M’Chigeeng, who cannot be named because her son, a minor, was charged. “They let this slide for so long and nobody came to help the students. I just feel like our students were backed into a corner.”
Speaking to the Star on Sept. 20, OPP Const. Marie Ford said the only reason these people were the first to be charged is because other suspects — some of them non-Indigenous — couldn’t be arrested until they were located or contacted by police. The OPP has since laid charges against four more youth and a 20-year-old, three of whom live in First Nations communities and two who come from predominantly white townships. No more charges are anticipated, Ford said.
Linda Debassige is upset to see mostly Indigenous people charged when online videos depict plenty of non-Indigenous kids engaged in the violence. The way this was handled, she says, is a “blatant attempt to shift the blame on Indigenous people yet again.”
Others have pushed back against the notion that racism played a role in the fight, or persists at MSS. “While the pundits of social media were quick to spin the incident as racially motivated, there is little evidence from what has so far been revealed that this is in fact the case,” said an editorial in the Manitoulin Expositor.
“Manitoulin Island has largely been something of a poster child for reconciliation and good relations between communities,” the editorial later continued. “This is something that many Islanders, particularly those of previous generations, have taken great pride in.”
On a recent October day, several students who spoke to the Star, some of whom identify as Indigenous, agreed the racism angle was overblown. Many pointed to friendships or romantic relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous classmates as proof of racial harmony amongst the 428 students who attend MSS. One parent, who asked not to be named out of fear of retaliation against her children, felt the fight was more of a “territorial” dispute between kids from M’Chigeeng and Little Current, which is predominantly white.
But for Pierre Debassige, chief of the school’s Indigenous student confederacy, racism is “alive and well” at MSS. He recalls how during his first week of school, a student complained about Indigenous people not paying taxes. When he grew his hair longer, he was teased for looking like a “squaw,” an offensive term for Indigenous women.
Avery Byce, a Grade 12 student and member of the student senate, believes important issues are being ignored.
“We push it under the rug, all of the negative things that have happened here, like the racism and bullying,” says Byce, who has Indigenous heritage. “With the fight, it was like having all of those feelings bottled up and then exploding like a time bomb.”
Many parents from M’Chigeeng say racism is a long-standing problem at MSS, stretching back to when they attended the school, which was opened in 1969. Linda Debassige says she experienced it when she attended high school and band manager Sam Manitowabi still remembers bathroom graffiti in the 1980s claiming “Indians are fags.”
Patsy Noakes, a band member who lives off the reserve, says all four of her kids who attended MSS experienced anti-Indigenous discrimination.
Her youngest daughter, Nekiiyaa, left the school after a painful incident in 2015, when she overheard a secretary complaining about “those damn Native kids.” She says she condemned the statement on Facebook and school officials told her they would look into it, but nothing ever came of it.
Meanwhile, students started to harass her for coming forward, even accusing her of lying. She eventually left MSS and enrolled at Kenjgewin Teg, a learning institute on Manitoulin that emphasizes a First Nations approach to education.
“I didn’t feel welcome at that school no more,” said Nekiiyaa, now 20.
Advocates say dropout rates are a pervasive problem for First Nations kids, especially those who live on reserve. According to recent Rainbow school board statistics, only 33 per cent of Indigenous students who live on reserve graduated from high school in its catchment area, compared to 72 per cent of students overall.
At Kenjgewin Teg, which has one classroom dedicated to high school students who struggle in other educational settings, about 75 per cent of the 30 seats are occupied by teenagers who’ve left MSS, according to executive director Stephanie Roy.
The 11 First Nations that send kids to Rainbow District schools are represented by Indigenous trustee Grace Fox. She did not respond to interview requests but during a peaceful rally from M’Chigeeng to MSS shortly after the brawl, she expressed frustrations over the systemic challenges.
“It has been quite difficult to be Anishinaabekwe within this corporation,” she said. “You want Anishinaabe students to succeed, you want them to graduate, you want them to practise their language, their culture, in a setting such as this.
“I literally cry when I go to graduations, when I go to awards nights (and) see the absence of First Nations students at these functions.”
Manitowabi, whose daughter now attends MSS, worries that anti-Indigenous sentiment may have actually worsened compared to when he was in high school, ironically because of the increased attention paid to Indigenous issues in recent years. “More people are becoming aware of Aboriginal treaty rights and inherent rights and freedoms,” he says. “The mainstream (white communities) may feel that they’re not being treated as fairly anymore.”
MSS currently offers 10 courses on Indigenous history and culture, along with two programs in partnership with Kenjgewin Teg.
While several Indigenous students at MSS said they wanted more Indigenous content in classrooms, this sentiment was not shared by a group of students who spoke to the Star on a recent Tuesday. While smoking cigarettes at the happy trail, these students, who were mostly non-Indigenous, complained they were learning “too much” about Indigenous issues.
“Year after year, we’re hearing the same thing about residential schools,” one said. “It’s like, I get it. But it’s not the worst thing to have happened to anyone.”
“Why does every book I read have to do with natives?” asked another. “I might as well be going to Ojibwe class.”
These students felt the racism angle of the brawl was overblown. They said Indigenous communities were exploiting the incident for media attention because “M’Chigeeng’s got nothing going for it.” They also stated as fact that M’Chigeeng students were the source of the herpes outbreak, while arguing it wasn’t racist to point this out.
But how did they know there was actually a herpes outbreak? “We just know,” said one student, who also said he didn’t want to drink from water fountains for fear of catching herpes. (In reality, experts say, the chances of contracting herpes from a water fountain are highly unlikely.)
Linda Debassige sees a lack of understanding over how racism can be manifested. Just because kids of different races mingle or date each other doesn’t mean anti-Indigenous attitudes no longer lurk beneath the surface. She questions why students were so quick to believe M’Chigeeng kids were the source of a herpes outbreak, which may not even have been real.
“It shows and demonstrates the normalization of the old adage of Indians being ‘dirty,’ ” she said.
Debassige agrees this painful incident demonstrates a need for better sexual health education at MSS. The updated curriculum, repealed by the provincial government this summer, would have contained updated information on STDs, as well as information about consent, social media and LGBTQ issues.
She and other advocates also feel strongly that students need more, not less, education on Indigenous culture and history. A revised Indigenous curriculum grounded in truth and reconciliation, which was cancelled by the province, would be particularly helpful in bringing peace to a school like MSS, says Roy.
“I think had that curriculum been in place 10 years ago, the racial undertones would not have resulted. All it would have been is an altercation,” Roy said.
For Debassige, a first and crucial step for Manitoulin Island is to acknowledge and confront systemic racism, something she believes the school and board have yet to do. In a television interview after the brawl, the principal of MSS was asked whether he believed racism was an issue at the school; he responded no. The next day, the school held an “anti-racism assembly,” but many students felt it was superficial and unhelpful.
“There are blatant denials of the actual realities, and an attempt to push the issue once again under the rug so that it doesn’t have to be addressed,” Debassige says. “Racism is a disgusting topic to talk about. But until you talk about it, you can’t create results.”
Jennifer Yang is a Toronto-based reporter covering identity and inequality. Follow her on Twitter: @jyangstar