In 2017 Barbara Kentner, a 34-year-old Anishinaabe woman from Thunder Bay, Ontario, was killed after being hit in the abdomen by a trailer hitch thrown at her from a moving car. She succumbed to her injuries several months after the attack, dying in July of that same year.
Kentner and her sister Melissa, who was walking home with her at the time of the attack, both attested that after the hitch was thrown from the car, they heard a man yell that he “got one.”
On December 14, 2020, the assailant, Brayden Bushby, was found guilty of manslaughter after previously pleading guilty to aggravated assault. The original charges were second-degree murder, but were downgraded to manslaughter in September 2020.
Max Haiven of Not One More Death — a Thunder Bay activist organization dedicated to challenging institutions and factors that lead to the premature deaths of Indigenous and racialized citizens — believes that this incident has shone a light on the level of systemic and normalized anti-Indigenous racism and its consequences within the city.
“Bushby needs to be held accountable for what he did,” Haiven states, “and we also need to ask deeper questions about what is the kind of society that created Bushby and normalized that kind of behaviour. What he did to Barbara Kentner — targeting Indigenous people, or Indigenous people having things thrown at them, especially Indigenous women — happens all the time in Thunder Bay.”
There has been a longstanding history with anti-Indigenous racism within the city, seen through instances such as the inquest into the deaths of seven Indigenous students, and the recently released independent report unveiling the institutional and systemic racism within the Thunder Bay Police Force. Until recently, Thunder Bay had held the title of the hate crime capital of Canada.
Lorraine Whitman, president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada, acknowledges that Thunder Bay has been alerted to it problems “long before” Kentner’s death. Whitman says that while Kentner’s death didn’t necessarily “reveal systemic racism in Thunder Bay,” her killing “did put another human face to the tragedy of the missing and murdered Indigenous women.”
As Jana-Rae Yerxa, Faculty & Curriculum Developer of Anishinaabe Gikendaasowin at Seven Generations Education Institute, notes that regarding the trial proceedings of the case, although Bushby was the one on trial, it was the Kentner sisters who were often found being interrogated by the defense.
“The defence took the opportunity to talk about past involvements with the justice system, stating it was because of this, appropriate calls for help were not made for Barbara. Imagine participating in the trial of the one charged in your baby sister’s death and it’s insinuated you were partly responsible.”
“Victim-blaming is only one example of how the justice system continues to fail Indigenous peoples,” Yerxa continues.
The death of Barbara Kentner gained widespread media coverage both nationally and internationally, with large publications such as Macleans and the BBC. Audrey Gilbeau, executive director of Nokiiwin Tribal Council, adds that while Barbara Kentner’s death was elevated into becoming a local, provincial, and national conversation and focus, her family has to grieve “very publicly” as a result.
“Seeing the anguish of Barbara’s family play out in real time was horrific,” adds Whitman. “She was not just another nameless victim of this tragedy.”
Sentencing procedures for Bushby began in February 2021, with the Crown asking for a prison sentence of eight to 12 years, and the defense attorneys pushing for Bushby to only serve four years. The final decision will not be made until May 2021.
Kentner’s daughter Serena, who has been undergoing cancer treatment during her mother’s trial, wrote in an impact statement read to the court during sentencing said that her mother was her “best friend,” continuing on to say that she “was able to tell her everything and anything.”
Now that she is gone, it is just me,” Serena read.
On the sentencing of Bushby, Haiven explains that while Not One More Death stands with the Kentner family in wanting justice, they are “ambivalent about the prison system to do that.”
Gilbeau acknowledges that through Nokiiwin’s access to justice initiative, it has been noticed that stories from Indigenous women are sometimes not taken seriously by police. Gilbeau adds that without taking any role or right away from the case of Barbara Kentner, Thunder Bay has to “find a way forward.”
Yerxa notes importantly that to protect Indigenous women, there must be an understanding first of what is harming them, with Canada’s current form as a “settler colonial state” being at the root. “My hope would be that in terms of contextualizing the violence, we go deeper and that means that we must stop divorcing the violence from the structure of settler colonialism.”
“These issues are not outside of ourselves,” Yerxa continues. “We must begin to interrogate what our own personal relationship is to the settler colonial structure.”
When looking at the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women in Thunder Bay, Haiven says that while there are wonderful organizations working to protect its citizens, the city itself needs to be doing more.
“I think because most people see it as a law and order issue that it can be solved through policing, and they are not really addressing it,” Haiven says. “If we want to challenge a situation where Indigenous women and girls, as well as two-spirit individuals, are targeted disproportionately, we need to take measures now to have a cultural transformation so that we don’t produce more people like Bushby.”
Haiven adds that the case of Barbara Kenter should be an opportunity to acknowledge and inquire on how to combat instances of institutionalized and systematic racism within the city’ culture. This includes from school curriculums and the way businesses operate, to how streets are organized, and reviewing the racist and sexist dimensions that often come with Thunder Bay’s hockey culture.
“The way we can all support Indigenous women and girls is to refuse to let racism go unchallenged,” says Whitman, “and to educate ourselves about the impacts of colonialism and the racist policies like the residential schools that have been so harmful to generations of Indigenous people.”
“We can demand that governments and police do more to keep our women and girls safe and to bring the perpetrators of the crimes to justice,” Whitman adds.
Superior Court Justice Helen Pierce is expected to give her decision on sentencing for Bushby on May 4, 2021.