(Rival territory: The former Royal Edward Arms on the left houses gangs from outside Thunder Bay. The former Odd Fellows Hall, across the street on the right, is operated by local Indigenous gangs. Photo: Kenneth Jackson)
Kenneth Jackson, Willow Fiddler and James Robinson
She needed the money so she let the gang members in her home.
Then things went crazy.
They tried to take over and use her home as a trap house, a place where street gangs run drugs and women.
“They gave me dope that caused a seizure and I almost died,” says the First Nations woman who APTN News has agreed not to name for her safety.
When the ambulance came so did the police and they kicked the thugs out.
Considering everything, she was lucky.
Most aren’t able to get gang members out of their lives.
After the police kicked them out, she wouldn’t let them back in.
Now she walks around with a target on her head.
“They paid people to harass and beat me up (after),” she says. “They are still coming after me.”
She’s hardened by the chase of her next fix and whether one day, the gang will return, kick down her door and kill her.
This is a familiar theme nowadays in Thunder Bay as outside gang members from Toronto and Ottawa are trying to take over the city.
They’re violent, ruthless, dangling money and drugs on streets desperate for anything fast and free.
But nothing is free and “life is cheap” as people told APTN reporters who last week spent several days digging into gangs and what’s known as the Fort William trap.
The big city thugs are targeting the most marginalized people and, in Thunder Bay, that tends to be First Nations people, particularly women.
That includes single mothers, according to Staff Sgt. Ryan Gibson who heads up the Intelligence unit for Thunder Bay police.
“We had a couple kicks on doors last year (where) they had taken over their homes,” says Gibson. “They were basically single Indigenous women with kids.”
Gibson says it was a “nightmare situation” for the women and has only gotten worse in the last year.
The Toronto and Ottawa gangs are fighting for turf while Indigenous gangs, the most prominent being the Native Syndicate, also fight for space they long held.
The outside gangs will offer free drugs to suffering addicts and then make them do their dirty work to get more.
That includes trashing apartments of people who resist the gangs, prostituting women on the street or out of the trap houses.
Gangs have “rats” or “lookouts” all over which made it difficult for APTN to talk to some people.
Most couldn’t be named in this story for a fear of their safety.
When not taking over homes of single Indigenous mothers or preying on the dope sick APTN was told of a new approach by gangs.
There is word on the street of thugs shaving the hair off the heads of Indigenous women.
“They’ll make them work the doors (of trap houses),” says one person. “They’ll send her to go do whatever until she can go back out there to work (the streets in forced prostitution).”
It’s a form of control the person says.
The outside gangs are known as “the blacks” – for their skin colour. People also had other, more racist terms for them.
But as they gain a foothold in the city, many say trouble is brewing as they collide with established Indigenous gangs and drug dealers.
In fact, all that separates them in the Fort William trap is the yellow line on George Street.
Recently, the outside gangs have taken over floors in a building known as the Royal Edward Arms, a former hotel that once hosted Queen Elizabeth in the 1950s, while the old Odd Fellows Hall building right across George street is “Native territory.”
Both buildings are overrun with drugs and discarded needles can be found throughout. People told APTN they are cash “havens” for the gangs.
People also told APTN it’s just matter of time before something happens.
“It’s a war,” says one person. “Every day I wake up: Am I going to get shot leaving the building today?
“Odd Fellows people and Royal Eddy people are different. They don’t click.”
APTN explained to Gibson what it was hearing happening in the buildings, including the turf war.
“For you to tell me the Royal Eddy and Odd Fellows have issues, 100 per cent,” he says. “You’re not too far off.”
The two buildings fall within the Fort William trap – an area of the south end that has the main homeless shelter.
The hub of the trap is the Victoriaville Mall and Newfie’s Pub, that are kitty corner to each on Victoria
People hustle on the sidewalks outside.
It’s given the bar an unfair reputation to many who go there. It just happens to be the only bar there, they say.
Marginalized people hang around outside and “runners” from the Royal Eddy and Odd Fellows are there, too.
People who come down from the suburbs are known to pop in and get a runner to go get their fix.
“You have people who come to the bar, who don’t drink at the bar, looking for people to run to the buildings to get their stuff and leave,” says one person.
Several people told APTN the same thing.
But the Fort William trap isn’t confined to this part of Thunder Bay.
“They’re not just there. They are all over the city,” says Gibson.
He says police have kicked down doors all across the city to keep up with the gangs, and Thunder Bay police press releases back this up.
They’re littered with drug busts and violence related to gangs, like kidnappings.
“They’ll go into an area, they’ll do their thing and we’ll go in and clean them out, arrest them but more will come,” says Gibson.
He says the allure of Thunder Bay to outside gangs is they know they can make more money in the northern Ontario city and it also gives them connections to northern reserves where the price jumps even more.
“We are going after them as much as we can but it’s like plugging the dike with your finger sometimes,” Gibson says, adding at one point the local jail had a wing and a half filled with outside gang members.
People told APTN the outside gangs run drugs and women like a business. They have shifts and cycle members through to avoid police.
“There’s a day shift and there’s a night shift,” says one person. “So you don’t know how many there are, right?
“Usually they use the cleanest ones and they are the ones who got all the dope and money. The ones who don’t have a record.”
Even with all the arrests, Gibson says he’s not surprised to hear this.
“They are going to adapt to try and counter us and account for our techniques,” he says.
Thunder Bay has always had social issues with addictions and crime but several people told APTN they are seeing dirty drugs hit the street and people are overdosing on heroin, similar to other cities across Canada with
the fentanyl epidemic.
But the cocaine can also be laced with the garbage they say. Two people told APTN three people died of overdoses the week before reporters arrived.
Barb Campbell, 43, says her brother got sick from dirty drugs last week.
“I noticed ever since that (dope) came into town people are just bones. People are getting poisoned,” says Campbell.
It was just the latest thing she has had to deal with in recent months.
Her daughter, Kory-Lee Campbell, 22, was killed in a double homicide in July allegedly by Campbell’s ex-partner, Garnet Loon.
Loon and Campbell’s daughter, Kailee Loon, 19, was allegedly there, too. Police charged Garnet Loon, 41, with first-degree murder in Kory’s death.
The other person killed was Robbie Gray, 50. Both Garnet and Kailee are charged with second-degree murder in Gray’s death.
Gray’s name is known to those on the street.
He was “the boss” of the Native Syndicate street gang several people say.
Police will only say Gray was affiliated with the Native Syndicate.
“This guy has been responsible for many deaths in this city,” says one person. “They’d charge him and people would disappear or people get beaten up (and) they’d recant their statements or move away.
“He may not have directly killed a lot of people but his people underneath him did.”
Gray’s Facebook page remains up and he had posted several photos of young First Nations men and women flashing a gang hand symbol.
But there’s also many who posted on various posts saying they were going to miss him and it is sad he is gone.
Tragedy struck Campbell again in September when her younger brother was killed in a suspected home invasion, while two others were badly hurt with a baseball bat.
Police have charged Nazareth Nelson with second-degree murder of Bert Wood, 23, attempted murder on another and aggravated assault on a young First Nations woman.
Campbell spoke of her brother sitting on a blue bench across from the courthouse where he was known to be. She and others wrote memorial messages on the bench.
“I don’t want him to be forgotten. He was a good kid. He didn’t deserve that. No one deserves that kind of treatment. He was sleeping,” says Campbell.
As she leaves the bench Campbell says, “I love you, Bert.”
Recently, the Hells Angels put their death head sign back on their clubhouse on Simpson Street.
It’s created quite the stir in the city.
For some, it means maybe things will change.
“I’m not a supporter of organized crime but when the H.A. had a heavy presence here there was order. We need them back. We didn’t have people dropping like flies and (overdosing) and shit like that,” says one person.
Police busted the Thunder Bay chapter back in 2006 with multiple arrests and have done raids on the clubhouse since basically freezing them out for several years.
For the death head to go back up it means they have enough members to run a chapter again.
As for the First Nations woman at the beginning of the story, she is living one day at a time looking over her shoulder. While driving with APTN she spots a tanker ship out in Port Arthur in the north end of Thunder Bay.
It’s a sunny day and it’s quite a pretty picture.
“Oh God, look at that,” she says. “So much better than looking at a needle and a condom.”
She’s quiet for a few seconds and then says it’s the most beautiful part of Thunder Bay, far enough away from the Fort William trap.
“I’d just like to jump on that boat. It’d be my only escape out of here,” she says.