A Factory for Producing Broken People: Reflections on Covid-19 and the Thunder Bay Jail, by Brandon Cordeiro

In 2020-2, this now-decrepit institution stood as an example, not of the majesty of Canada’s continent-transforming project, but of its profound contradictions.

By Brandon J. Cordeiro

“Thunder Bay District Jail (Thunder Bay, Ontario),” by cmh2315fl (CC BY-NC 2.0).

It looks like a castle, with its turrets, limestone arch, and crenellated parapet. One half expects to see a monarch peering over its battlements, behind the proudly conspicuous flag announcing its stately status. Overall, one could mistake the imposing building for a university, a high school, a minor legislature, or even a hospital—all institutions that were proudly outfitted with the “neo-Gothic” architecture fashionable in Canada in the mid-1920s. 

But the Thunder Bay District Jail, which opened in 1926, was dedicated to a different project: that of inculcating in delinquent Northerners a deferential respect for a liberal Canadian state engaged in transforming Indigenous lands into profit-generating properties.

In 2020-2, this now-decrepit institution stood as an example, not of the majesty of Canada’s continent-transforming project, but of its profound contradictions. Central among them was the blatant tension between its implied promise of decorum and civilization and the racially charged cruelty of the practices for which this carceral institution has become notorious. Thunder Bay Jail has come to epitomize the political, social, and moral quandaries of a country just coming to terms with the Indigenous Question.

Thunder Bay’s near-century-old jail was deteriorating long before Covid-19. (Calls to close it were heard as early as 1976.) Ontario’s Ombudsman Paul Dubé described the Thunder Bay District Jail as “the most disturbing thing I’ve seen and the most appalling conditions I’ve observed… It’s heart-wrenching to see the conditions in which those inmates are living.”[1] “Dangerously outdated” was one succinct phrase Judith Monteith-Farrell, MPP for Thunder Bay, applied to the institution.[2] 

In the word of Sol Mamakwa, MPP for Kiiwetinoong: “This is the systemic racism that Indigenous people face beginning in their youth and throughout their lives: Not enough health care, but jail. Lack of clean drinking water, but jail. Few jobs, but jail.” On his trip to the Thunder Bay jail, Mamakwa saw mattresses on the floors of cramped cells. Some inmates, it seemed, even lacked beds. Yet for him, the jail’s blatant physical deficiencies were but one indication of its colonial essence, one far distant from Indigenous values, beliefs and traditions. Instead, here one found “a factory that produces broken Indigenous people.”[3]

The Jail is designed to hold 124 inmates. In reality, it is routinely overcrowded. Cells have a space of about six feet by eight feet. Sometimes four inmates have had to coexist in cells built for two. Cramped quarters, mould, asbestos, minimal recreational facilities—all made it a poster institution for bad design. The woefully mislocated segregation units were placed so far from the medical station that they actually hampered the effective observation of inmates (even to determining “whether they are in fact alive”).[4]

To say the Jail falls short of conventional modern health and safety standards is an understatement. The very architecture that proclaimed its solemn stateliness in the 1920s poses a danger to officers and inmates in the 2020s.

But rotting infrastructure and dated design are but symptoms of more general problems. It is at the intersection of Covid-19 and vulnerability where social inequality is starkly defined. Social institutions—hospitals and health care, nursing homes and long-term care, community and social services, and jails and prisons—many times failed to protect society’s most vulnerable through the pandemic.

The global pandemic exposed acute and far-reaching social disparities. Those with means could circumnavigate at least some of Covid-19’s uncertainties. Those in less advantageous positions confronted the pandemic’s brutality directly.

And some of the most brutally exposed were prisoners who, across North America, are disproportionately drawn from racialized populations. As physician Rachael Bedard writes in The New Yorker, “correctional facilities have long served as ‘epidemiologic pumps,’ concentrating pathogenic transmission within their walls and then spreading it to the surrounding community.”[5]

Thunder Bay, 1400 km northwest of Toronto, 700 km east of Winnipeg, falls within the traditional lands of the Anishinabek Nation and the traditional territory of Fort William First Nation, signatory to the Robinson-Superior Treaty of 1850. Indigenous peoples have lived in the area since time immemorial.

Settlers colonized the region at the mouth of the Kaministiquia River for its importance to the fur trade. Fort William remained open until 1821. The future cities of Port Arthur and Fort William (which amalgamated into Thunder Bay in 1970) emerged at the turn of the nineteenth century, cementing British-Canadian hegemony in the region.

Nowadays, the Thunder Bay Metropolitan Area shelters one of the most significant urban Indigenous populations in Canada, making up 12.7% of the local population.[6] The city has become synonymous for many with the unresolved contradictions of settler colonialism in Canada. 

Report Cover, “Broken Trust: Indigenous People and the Thunder Bay Police Service” by Gerry McNeilly.

In Broken Trust: Indigenous People and the Thunder Bay Police Service, an official inquiry report brought out in 2018 by Gerry McNeilly, the numerous unsolved murders of Indigenous people in the area were seen as a symptom of a systemic devaluation of racialized lives, which “reflected differential treatment and were based on racist attitudes and stereotypical perceptions about indigenous people.”[7] 

Oftentimes, it seemed, the police were less than zealous in investigating missing Indigenous peoples. External investigators have called for police to reopen investigations on 14 death cases of Indigenous people, including seven youths who died while attending school in Thunder Bay.[8]

An Ontario Civilian Police Commission report also found that the Police Service Board failed to “recognize and address the clear and indisputable pattern of violence and systematic racism against Indigenous people in Thunder Bay.” Their failure to act on these issues exemplified “willful blindness.”[9] Tanya Talaga, in her widely-acclaimed Seven Fallen Feathers, which looks in detail at the deaths of seven Indigenous students, places such indifference to suffering in the context of a divisive colonial history and settler disregard for Indigenous culture.[10]

Ontario police have killed nearly a dozen Indigenous people since 2000. More than 30 have died by suicide while in police or jail custody. A good number of such troubling phenomena can be traced to Thunder Bay. Critics of the Thunder Bay Police Service have called for it to be dismantled and for police services to be re-examined.[11]

Those with a critical historical perspective discern substantial continuities between twenty-first-century policing and the establishment of punitive institutions in the colonial era, when, in the words of Jessica Jurgutis of Lakehead University, police forces were founded on the premise that Indigenous peoples needed to be removed from their lands and treated as “both less human and more threatening than white people.”[12] Like residential schools, the police have played a “regulatory and punitive function,” and in some ways, suggests University of Illinois professor Deena Rymhs, they have also worked to instill a sharp sense of  guilt in Indigenous people.[13]

Prisons fit squarely within this pattern. The Department of Justice reported that between 2009 and 2018, Canada’s Indigenous inmate population increased by 42.8%, at a time when the total adult inmate population grew by less than 1%. Indigenous women, who comprise 4.3% of Canadians, make up almost half the population of incarcerated women in Canada.[14]  

A review of Ontario’s correctional facilities found in 2017 that while Indigenous people accounted for 2% of Ontario’s population, they represented 13% of those in provincial custody. In Northern Ontario, these numbers are even more staggering. In the Kenora area, it has been reported, Indigenous people have at times accounted for nearly 90% of all inmates.[15] In Thunder Bay, according to one CBC report in 2020, 39% of incarcerated people identified as Indigenous. Some suggest this figure dramatically understates the case.[16]

Some, like Kim Beaudin, national vice-chief of the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples, describe the current situation as one of “mass incarceration,” whereby age-old legacies of genocidal policies and the “intergenerational trauma” they induce are preserved.[17] Across North America, prisons have commonly come to be seen as dangerous institutions, particularly for the racialized inmates whose sufferings are often hidden from the public.[18]

One conspicuous Thunder Bay victim of mass incarceration was young Adam Capay, arrested in 2012 at the age of 19 for minor charges and sent to jail. When in the Thunder Bay Jail, he got into a fight in which another man died. While Capay awaited trial, he was kept “in a Plexiglas box, in an empty cellblock with no windows, and with the lights kept on for 24 hours,” eventually spending 1,627 days in solitary confinement. (According to the United Nations, there should be a 15-day limit on such punishment: anything beyond that constitutes “one of the worst forms of psychological torture.”) According to one report, such an extraordinarily long period of isolation for Capay meant that “he is losing the ability to speak.”[19] The judge in Capay’s case called the punishment meted out to him “outrageous, abhorrent, and inhumane.”[20]


So, when Covid-19 arrived in Thunder Bay’s carceral landscape, it emerged within a longstanding pattern of racialization and suffering. Initially, the institution could congratulate itself on preventing any outbreak. By early April 2020, there were still no confirmed cases of Covid-19 at the Thunder Bay Jail.[21]

This was partly the result of the community’s relative isolation. For many residents, the First Wave was largely something that happened elsewhere. Nonetheless, the jail administration did boost safety measures for workers and inmates, with some evident success.

As the pandemic gradually announced itself, the Jail released inmates who tested positive and who had followed through with court proceedings. They moved other inmates to jails in Toronto to manage their numbers.[22]

Yet, over time, the Jail’s underlying problems—lack of space, old infrastructure, and overcrowding—made controlling the spread of Covid-19 nearly impossible.[23] Two inmates first tested positive at the Jail between 5-6 January 2021. Staff placed them both in isolation, and the institution went into lockdown. The number of positive cases increased to 14 in less than a week.[24]

The outbreak grew, and 20 inmates and five guards tested positive by 20 January. The jail, at the time, housed 135 inmates, a number which staff deemed too high: “We need to be sitting at around 100 inmates, just to have the space to take care of this without the fear of it spreading everywhere. If it doesn’t happen soon, we’re gonna be looking at the whole place going up, probably,” remarked one of them.[25]

Covid-19 rates still increased. The jail had 48 total cases by 25 January.[26] The Solicitor General reported a total of 70 cases by the end of January.[27]

Moreover, as scholars across North America have observed, such congregant institutions as long-term care homes and prisons not only served as incubation centres for pathogens—but also as highly efficient distribution centres, bringing Covid-19 to the areas in which they were located. And in Thunder Bay, this “epidemiologic pump” became fully operational. 

The outbreak did not stay locked up. Thunder Bay saw an uptick in Covid-19 cases in January and February 2022. By January 2022, the Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre reported that the facility was operating at 99% capacity.[28] 

Other vulnerable community services, like the Shelter House, experienced outbreaks during the same period. Many vulnerable people bounced between the carceral system, community and social services, and living on the street. These outbreaks eventually spread to the larger community. Thunder Bay District Health Unit’s seven-day incidence rate more than tripled between 3 January and 24 January, from 24 to 94 per 100,000 people, reaching a March 2021 peak of 273 per 100,000.[29]

However much they might be designed to isolate and punish a troublesome minority, jails and prisons are not in truth isolated environments. Illnesses flourishing within them soon travel beyond their walls.


Turrets and a crenellated parapet once proclaimed the Jail’s proud mission to make Thunder Bay a nucleus of European civilization. Over time, they have come to figure as symbols of a colonial era many Canadians would dearly like to transcend. And now, the Jail stands, not as a beacon of liberal order, but as spreader of disease, a giant neo-Gothic petri dish. What should be done with it?

“Close it down” has been the cry for over half a century. Yet somehow the mouldering ruin keeps on going—a function, some plausibly suggest, of both its isolation and its actual purpose: the disciplining of Indigenous peoples. Would a similar jail in Toronto, ministering to a non-racialized population, have ever been allowed to perdure in this way?

The Ontario government has recently decided to push forward with the construction of a new 345-person multi-purpose correctional facility in Thunder Bay. The new project will cost $1.2 billion. Construction will begin in fall 2022 and should be completed by late 2026.

“abolish prisons,” by Diane Krauthamer (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

Improved provision for the Indigenous Elders who provide essential guidance to many of the incarcerated; enhanced facilities for health and recreation; less grievous overcrowding and no asbestos: the new Jail, when and if it materializes, should constitute an improvement over the old.

That is, of course, a low bar to clear. And infrastructure will not solve the question of mass Indigenous incarceration.

More promising would be an extension of the “Gladue Principle.” (In 1999, the Supreme Court of Canada, in the case of Jamie Tanis Gladue v. Her Majesty the Queen, ruled that a judge must consider racism, loss of language, removal from land, Indian residential schools, and foster care, in pondering sentencing options, which might include a restorative justice program in which offenders work closely with those they hurt to repair the harms they caused). The Truth and Reconciliation Commission concluded that “without the addition of realistic alternatives to imprisonment, including adequate resources for intensive community programs that can respond to the conditions that caused Aboriginal offending,” overrepresentation of Indigenous people in the prison system would continue.[30] If it does, the moment of reconciliation will not soon arrive.

An even higher bar is set by those who imagine a full decolonization of our society. In that case, we might witness the gradual euthanasia of the carceral complex that, over more than a century, has blighted and even ended so many Indigenous lives. Prison abolitionists have wind in their sails thanks to Covid-19, during which thousands of inmates, held on minor charges, were simply let go, on grounds of public safety. Yet, of course, translating such a pragmatic measure into a practice capable of transforming the continent’s vast entire carceral archipelago will be daunting challenge.

Still, if anything like a transcendence of a plainly irrational and cruel system does materialize, the Thunder Bay Jail might find a new future, not as a factory of broken people, but as a museum dedicated to remembering one of the most important conclusions arising from Covid-19. Stigmatizing and isolating racialized outsiders comes at an exorbitant cost, one borne mainly by them—but with direct and damaging implications for everyone.

[1] John Schofield, “Ontario ombudsman report highlights ‘appalling’ jail conditions, Covid-19 complaints,” The Lawyer’s Daily, 2 July 2020. Link to source.

[2] Ontario NDP, “Infrastructure Ontario reveals dangerous delay to Thunder Bay Correctional Complex,” 31 January 2020. Link to source.

[3] “’It’s not safe’: MPP calls for Thunder Bay jail to be shut down,” CBC, 25 June 2020. Link to source.

[4] Marsha Mcleod, “’The jail is just a death trap’: Stories of overcrowding, understaffing and violence in Thunder Bay,” The Globe and Mail, 8 October 2020, updated 11 November 2020. Link to source. See also Logan Turner, “Thirteen people have died in the Thunder Bay jail since 2002, here’s why,” CBC, 24 November 2020. Link to source.

[5] Rachael Bedard, “The Disillusionment of a Rikers Island Doctor,” The New Yorker, 24 March 2022. Link to source.

[6] Government of Ontario, Indigenous Peoples in Ontario, 6 February 2020. Link to source.

[7] Gerry McNeilly, Office of the Independent Police Review Director, Broken Trust: Indigenous People and the Thunder Bay Police Service, 5(Toronto: Office of the Independent Police Review Director, 2018), Link to source. McNeilly Is citing, favourably, the views of an Indigenous leader.

[8] “14 sudden death cases of Indigenous people in Thunder Bay, Ont., recommended for police reinvestigation,” CBC News, 8 March 2022. Link to source.

[9] Murray Sinclair, “Thunder Bay Police Services Board Investigation, Final Report,” (2018), viii. Link to source.

[10] Tanya Talaga, Seven Fallen Feathers: Racism, Death, and Hard Truths in a Northern City (Toronto: House of Anansi, 2017).

[11] “Indigenous leaders call for Thunder Bay Police Service be dismantled and re-examined,” Global News, 30 March 2020. Link to source

[12] Jody Porter, “Deadly force, neglect kills dozens of Indigenous people in Ontario’s justice system,” CBC, 11 August 2020. Link to source.

[13] Seth Adema, “More than Stone and Iron: Indigenous History and Incarceration in Canada, 1834-1996,” MA Thesis (Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University, 2016), 11-15. See also, Deena Rymhs, From the Iron House: Imprisonment in First Nations Writing (Waterloo: Wilfrid University Press, 2008), 2.

[14] Olga Marques and Lisa Monchalin, “The Mass Incarceration of Indigenous Women in Canada: A Colonial Tactic

of Control and Assimilation,” Neo-Colonial Injustice and the Mass Imprisonment of Indigenous Women, eds., Lilly George et al., (London: Palgrave MacMilllan, 2020), 88.

[15] Independent Review of Ontario Corrections, Corrections in Ontario: Directions for Reform, (September 2017), 168. Link to source; See also Government of Ontario, Indigenous Peoples in Ontario.

[16] Logan Turner, “Thirteen people have died in the Thunder Bay jail since 2002, here’s why,” CBC, 24 November 2020, Link to source. Some place the percentage closer to 75%.

[17] Kim Beaudin, “Continued Mass Incarceration of Indigenous Peoples During COVID-19 Creating Dangerous Health Risks,” 22 December 2020. Link to source.

[18] See Homer Venters, Life and Death in Rikers Island, (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2019).

[19] Scott Gilmore, “Fifty-two months of torture and the four men responsible,” Maclean’s, 26 October 2016, Link to source.

[20] Ontario Human Rights Commission, “Adam Capay case shows Ontario must eliminate the inhumane practice of segregation,” 26 February 2019. Link to source; See also “Inmate who spent four years in solitary subject to ‘abhorrent’ treatment: judge,” CTV News, 26 February 2019. Link to source; and “Adam Capay’s 1,647 days in solitary: New details emerge as Ontario decides not to appeal stay of murder charge,” The Globe and Mail, 26 February 2019. Link to source.

[21] “Still No confirmed cases of Covid-19 at local jail,” TBNewswatch, 8 April 2020. Link to source.

[22] “Inmates temporarily transferred to Toronto to manage COVID-19 jail outbreak,” TBNewswatch, 22 January 2021. Link to source.

[23] “Covid-19 precaution measures finally active at jail correctional centre,” TBNewswatch, 23 April 2020. Link to source.

[24] “A COVID-19 case puts the Thunder Bay District Jail in lockdown,” TBNewswatch, 5 January 2021. Link to source; “UPDATED: A second Thunder Bay District Jail inmate tests positive for COVID-19,” TBNewswatch, 6 January 2021. Link to source; “COVID outbreak at Thunder Bay District Jail expands significantly,” TBNewswatch, 12 January 2021. Link to source.

[25] “Five guards at the Thunder Bay District Jail now have COVID-19,” TBNewswatch, 20 January 2021. Link to source.

[26] “Inmate population at Thunder Bay District Jail falls to a more manageable level,” TBNewswatch, 25 January 2021. Link to source.

[27] “’Too little, too late’: Many say Ontario’s Solicitor General failed to prevent Thunder Bay jail outbreaks,” CBC, 22 January 2021. Link to source.

[28] “Thunder Bay hospital at 99% capacity as hundreds of new2 Covid-19 cases reported,” CBC News, 10 January 2022, Link to source.

[29] Thunder Bay District Health Unit, “Current COVID-19 Data in TBDHU,” accessed 26 April 2022. Link to source.

[30] Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, “Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future Summary of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada,” (2015), 173. Link to source.