Indigenous leaders demand Thunder Bay Police Service be dismantled

Two Indigenous leaders are demanding that the Thunder Bay Police Service be dismantled and are calling on the Ontario government to ensure that effective police services are delivered in its absence.

By Victoria Gray
Writer
THUNDER BAY-Indigenous leaders are demanding the Solicitor General of Ontario dismantle the Thunder Bay Police Service after leaked documents pointed to mismanaged death investigations.
“It is now painfully clear that Indigenous people have no trust in the Thunder Bay Police Service (TBPS) or the Thunder Bay Police Services Board. The repeated failures of the Thunder Bay Police Service require a fundamental re-examination of whether it should continue to exist,” Anishinabek Nation Grand Council Chief Reg Niganobe said.
Niganobe read a joint statement in a televised press conference at Queen’s Park on March 30 from himself, Nishnawbe Aski Nation Deputy Grand Chief Anna Betty Achneepineskum, and Tamara Spence, President of Thunder Bay Indigenous Friendship Centre, regarding the Thunder Bay Police Service that said ongoing investigations with the Ontario Civilian Policing Commission, the Ontario Human Rights Commission, or the Office of the Independent Police Review Director are “all too familiar and ineffective in stopping violence perpetrated against Indigenous people.”
The Broken Trust report released in 2018 called for the reinvestigation of nine deaths of Indigenous people investigated by the Thunder Bay Police Services. The report reviewed 37 sudden death investigations by Thunder Bay police and found nine “so problematic” that they were conducted again.
Achneepineskum said the report was difficult to read because two of the nine cases investigated were members of her family.
“The documented racism and willful blindness by the Thunder Bay Police Services and the board have convinced us that no Indigenous family faced with the tragic death of their loved one, can trust the work of the police services. Today we stand united to address the racism and ongoing victimization of Indigenous families and we want that to end,” she said.
She said the reinvestigation itself was flawed and families were not consulted or included.
The office of Ontario’s chief coroner, Dr. Dirk Huye has ordered 16 more cases of Indigenous deaths investigated, but there is no word on whether those deaths were included in the original 37 deaths in the Broken Trust Report. It also recommended a review of 25 cases of missing or murdered Indigenous women and girls that are still unsolved between 2000 and 2017.
“Expert reports are commissioned and penned only for police institutions to be unwilling and unable to substantively change, and ultimately, filing the reports where they are forgotten about until the next incident,” the statement said. “Anishinabek, Mushkegowuk, and all Indigenous peoples have the right to feel safe and to be treated equitably within the City of Thunder Bay, especially by those sworn to serve and protect.”
The First Nations leaders demanded the Thunder Bay Police Service immediately have their ability to perform major crime investigations rescinded and the province, the Solicitor General dismantle the police force.
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Most Police Services mum on dismantling Thunder Bay

Brantford Police Chief Rob Davis

Brantford Police Chief Rob Davis

As Indigenous leaders call for the province to dismantle the Thunder Bay Police Service and its board, Six Nations Police, Brantford Police Service (BPS) and Ontario Provincial Police remain mum on the subject, but Chief of BPS and a Six Nations Band member, Rob Davis says he knows communities have suffered the effects of systemic racism and he’s working to diversity BPS and rebuild broken trust.
“While it is not appropriate to comment on this specific issue, I would like to say that policing as a whole is experiencing a heightened level of public mistrust, and in many services, frontline officers have become the subject of scrutiny and hostility. The consequences of racist and discriminatory behavior reach far beyond a specific incident, threatening our values of tolerance and inclusion,” he said.
He believes there are steps police forces can take to rebuild trust and BPS has formed a strong relationship with Six Nations Police and, along with OPP, they are in the midst of the criminal investigation of the former Mohawk Institute Residential School. Davis said it’s a prime example of mutually beneficial collaboration.
He’s looking forward to building that relationship as COVID-19 restrictions ease.
“We will increase understanding of the unique needs that exist for Indigenous people and communities,” he said.
He said police forces throughout the province need to look at the “uncomfortable realities” minorities face byo looking at their own history and bias. “We must all have the courage to address inappropriate behaviours head on when racism and discrimination is observed,” he said.
In addition to addressing those, police forces must recruit, hire diverse people for service, consistently and continually, while opening pathways to help build diversity in leadership.
“A diversity continuum will allow us to better serve our community. This is but one example of opportunities that exist within our service to create real and meaningful change,” he said.
He said he’s already working toward implementing measures to put his words into action.
“We will address the work required to modernize our service and become truly diversified and inclusive,” he said.
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“Systemic racism exists within the Thunder Bay Police Service and needs to be ripped out at its roots,” Niganobe read. “The Ontario Government needs to prioritize listening to the Indigenous peoples who live, work, and visit Thunder Bay.”
They called on government leaders to serve and protect the people of Thunder Bay and to act on their role to provide oversight of police forces.
“The Thunder Bay Police Service leaves a trail of inadequate investigations, a negligently managed records system, and a lack of substantive oversight. Trust is broken, and every day the Thunder Bay Police Service remains in control of major crime investigations is another day Indigenous people are at risk in the city,” he said.
Achneepineskum said families are angry and want justice instead of suffering “the incompetence of the Thunder Bay police.”
This is an ongoing issue and it’s not the first time Indigenous leaders have called for change in the police force.
“We have known about the racism of the Thunder Bay Police Services for years they have had more than enough time and evidence,” she said.
In October 2015 a coroner’s inquest into seven deaths between 2000 and 2011 was called. The seven young people had moved to Thunder Bay from remote First Nations and died while attending school.
In October 2015, Stacy Debungee from Rainy River First Nation’s body was discovered, but police said it was non-criminal.
In November 2016, DeBungee’s brother, Brad DeBungee, and then chief of Rainy River First Nation Jim Leonard file a complaint with the Ontario Independent Police Review Director asking for the investigation into DeBungee’s death reassigned to a different police force. They also called for a systemic review of the service which was granted.
The OPP reopened the case recently and three members of the Thunder Bay police are facing disciplinary action.
In 2017 the Ontario Civilian Police Commission, an independent, quasi-judicial organization that oversees police boards announced an investigation into the Thunder Bay Police board because of “serious concerns about the state of civilian police oversight and public confidence in the delivery of police services in Thunder Bay.” By September the team was reviewing 39 TBPS investigations, 30 of which were death investigations going back to the 90’s, and nine cases of missing or murdered Indigenous women.
In May 2018 that review concluded DeBungee’s death investigation was neglectful and police did not follow up on leads, or with witnesses in a timely fashion.
The report states “the deficiencies in the investigation were so substantial — and deviated so significantly from what was required as to provide reasonable and probable grounds to support an allegation of neglect of duty.” It also states the police’s “premature conclusion may have been drawn because the deceased was Indigenous.”
OPP have reopened the investigation and three members of the Thunder Bay Police are facing disciplinary action.
In December 2018 the Broken Trust Report was released by the Office of the Independent Police Review Director and included 44 recommendations, including the nine death re-investigations. It cited systemic racism and found “serious deficiencies in how sudden death and homicide investigations have been conducted by TBPS.”
The Ontario Civilian Police Commission (OCPC) released its review of the police and said the board “has failed to recognize and address the clear and indisputable pattern of violence and systemic racism against Indigenous people in Thunder Bay.” The board’s “failure to act on these issues in the face of overwhelming documentary and media exposure is indicative of willful blindness.”
As a result of the report, the TBPS board was replaced with an OCPC-appointed administrator who took control for at least one year, until the board was reconstituted with new board members who would receive “specific training on the Indigenous people of the region to familiarize members with the historical, social and cultural context that shapes policing in the city.”
Indigenous communities say they weren’t consulted on the decision.
In the same month the police association denied members were racist and the city’s mayor said he was concerned with council’s inability to control the police board with an OPCT appointed administrator.
In April 2018 the then-Chief of police retires months after Indigenous leaders call for his resignation. Those calls were denied by the board.
Deputy Police Chief Sylvie Hauth was appointed interim chief.
In April 2019 the board regains its right to vote. In June 2020 the administrator leaves the board.
Between 2020 and 2022 nine human rights complaints are filed by police officers against the chief and board and the Attorney general requested an OPP investigation into TBPS human rights complaints.
In February 2022 the OCPC announced another investigation into the TBPS leadership and the OPP confirmed a criminal investigation of the TBPS.
On March 7 the report on those nine death investigations was leaked and only one of the investigations came to a different conclusion. The cause of death in one case was ruled hypothermia and the manner of death accidental. It was changed to “hypothermia and ethanol intoxication in a woman with blunt force trauma.” The manner was undetermined.
Results from the OPP investigation into the police leadership is ongoing.

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