First Nations leaders in Ontario issue call to disband Thunder Bay police

Thunder Bay police force

Dorothy Sakanee, second from left, hangs her head as she holds a photo of her granddaughter Mackenzie Moonias, a 14-year-old found dead in Thunder Bay in December, 2023, during a press conference calling for the disbandment of the Thunder Bay Police Services at Queens Park in Toronto, Monday, April 22, 2024. Photo: Cole Burston/The Canadian Press.

First Nations leaders and families from northern Ontario are calling on the province’s Inspector General of Policing to disband the Thunder Bay Police Service and have a new police service investigate some of its cases.

“The Thunder Bay Police Service has turned into a cold case factory when it comes to investigations into the deaths of Indigenous Peoples. There is a complete lack of trust. Everything has broken down and it can’t be repaired. It’s like watching a disaster unfold in slow motion, and it has life-changing consequences for our members,” said Alvin Fiddler, grand chief of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, an organization that represents 49 First Nations in northern Ontario.

“It is time for the provincial government to show they care about what is happening in Thunder Bay and disband this Service. Our families don’t need any more reports – they need action.”

Several reports since 2018 have documented systemic racism in the Thunder Bay police force and outlined how investigations into the sudden deaths of Indigenous people have been tainted by racist attitudes and stereotyping.

A confidential report obtained by APTN News found the sudden deaths of 14 Indigenous people were so poorly handled they had to be reinvestigated.

That is in addition to nine deaths that were already been reinvestigated.

According to the release, nearly 50 family members and leaders took part in a news conference in Toronto on Monday.

They’re asking that Ryan Teschner, the inspector general, to “reassign the death investigations of Jenna Ostberg, Corey Belesky, and Mackenzie Moonias to a different police service,” said the statement.

Sharon Sackanee is the aunt of Mackenzie Moonias. The 14 year old from Neskantaga First Nation was living in Thunder Bay for school. She was found deceased in the water at Marina Park in on Dec. 18, 2023.

“We need answers,” says Sakanee. “I was with the family, I was with the mother Vanessa when the investigator said ‘we’re going to find out what happened. We’re going to give you answers.’ They haven’t done that. We’re still waiting for answers today and we need answers. She was only 14 years old. She’s gone. She was robbed of her life.”

The mother of Corey Belesky also spoke at the news conference. The 31 year old was murdered in November 2022. Of the 15 homicides in Thunder Bay that year, Belesky’s is the only case where charges have not be laid.

“The Thunder Bay police needs to do their jobs,” said Colleen Belesky. “They need to forget about the skin colour of people because regardless Corey meant the world to me and my family. So, Corey needs to get justice as well as these other families here. For me as a mom to Corey, I will never stop, I will try to keep fighting for my son. And I will bring those people to justice that murdered my son. If police can’t go it here in Thunder Bay, we’ll get somebody else to do it for us.”

In a statement, current Thunder Bay Police chief Darcy Fleury wrote, “I recognize the families who were present today and extend my deepest condolences to the loved ones and communities of those tragically lost. My thoughts are with those who continue to feel the pain and trauma of loss.”

Fleury laid out information about the three deaths in question at today’s news conference.

“The investigation into the death of Corey Belesky is active and ongoing. Of the 15 homicide investigations initiated in 2022, 14 are completed and now before the court. Mackenzie Moonias was last seen on December 13, 2023. When Mackenzie was reported as missing to TBPS on December 15, 2023, an investigation was initiated. Family members and community Chiefs were informed throughout the search,” and, “As the Special Investigations Unit has noted, TBPS received multiple 911 calls in the hours before Jenna Ostberg’s death. The initial call was not related to violence involving her and the second call indicated she was no longer present.”

Fleury said he’d speak with media on Tuesday.

APTN reached out to Ryan Teschner at the new inspector general of policing office about the request. In an emailed statement, Teschner said that his office received two complaints “related to adequate and effective policing.”

“I also have the available enforcement tools, should they be required, to ensure compliance with policing legislation and standards.  I am committed to ensuring that adequate and effective policing is delivered to Thunder Bay and its diverse communities – including Indigenous communities in and around the city,” said Techner in the statement.

Techner’s statement also said that his office does have the power to disband a police service. It said it is a “measure of last resort” and that it is only used when “prior direction” of the office aren’t being followed.

Charges being laid

The Ontario Provincial Police announced criminal charges this month against the former Thunder Bay police chief and another high-ranking member.

Sylvie Hauth, the former chief of police in Thundery Bay is facing two counts of obstruct justice and breach of trust by a public officer and obstruct public or peace office. The charges are part of a larger investigation by the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP).

The charges against Hauth come just days after a former lawyer with the police service was charged. Hauth’s next court date is May 7.

The OPP laid five charges against Holly Walbourne on April 16.

In late 2021, the Ministry of the Attorney General requested the OPP investigate allegations of misconduct by members of the Thunder Bay police service.

Walbourne was released from custody and is scheduled to appear before the Ontario Court of Justice in Thunder Bay on May 10.

In a statement, lawyers representing Walbourne said “we are shocked and disappointed that the OPP decided to charge her. We look forward to seeing the OPP’s evidence and to defending the case in court.”

In December of 2023, Sgt. Mike Dimini was arrested and charged with two counts of assault and one count each of breach of trust by a police officer and obstructing justice, as part of the same investigation.

The OPP says the investigations are ongoing.

Hauth was previously facing Police Services Act charges of discreditable conduct and deceit.

Those charges were dismissed by the Ontario Civilian Police Commission in February 2023 when Hauth abruptly retired from the TBPS.

Neskantaga First Nation Chief Christopher Moonias said he has no confidence in the new leadership of the embattle police service.

“After so many years of knowing the poison that is the Thunder Bay police service, we shouldn’t be surprised when we continue to face racism and oppression. And we shouldn’t be surprised to hear that left unchecked, the poison within the service has gotten worse. You can remove the head from the snake but another will grow,” said Moonias.

Current Thunder Bay police Chief Darcy Fleury vowed last week to rebuild the community’s trust in the force.

With files from Dennis Ward and the Canadian Press

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