A First Nation in northwestern Ontario is speaking out about what it says is anti-Indigenous racism by a member of the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP).
Gull Bay First Nation (GBFN), located approximately 250 km northeast of Thunder Bay, Ont., said its filed three formal complaints of “anti-Indigenous racism, discrimination and harassment” with OPP Commissioner Thomas Carrique.
The First Nation claims all three complaints have gone unaddressed.
“I’m quite disturbed that we didn’t get any response from the OPP, especially from the commissioner, when he committed to address this very, very serious issue and complaint that we brought forward,” Chief Wilfred King told APTN News.
“To this day we have never had a follow-up meeting with him or anybody that was assigned to this case to look into this matter.”
The first of those complaints dates back to 2019. The First Nation said in a release a young Indigenous man, Jeremiah Skunk, was visiting his girlfriend in the nearby village of Armstrong in the summer of 2019.
The press release states Skunk and his girlfriend were involved in a non-violent argument which was reported to OPP Armstrong detachment by a bystander.
It goes on to say that Skunk left his girlfriend’s residence and while walking down the street was apprehended by an OPP sergeant, cuffed and placed in the back of their cruiser. He was then driven approximately 40 km down a “desolate” highway.
“There, he was forced out of the cruiser, threatened to not return and left in the scorching summer heat with no water or food,” the release said. “Mr. Skunk walked for approximately 10 hours, during which he was pursued by a bear, before being accidentally found by a First Nations Constable from Gull Bay First Nation after drinking out of dirty roadside ditches and then the Gull River to survive.
“He easily could have died.”
King said a First Nations constable reported the incident to the OPP but it received little attention or follow-up.
He said the situation is reminiscent of Starlight Tours, a practice that took place in the beginning of the 1970s where police would pick up Indigenous people and leave them stranded outside the city – at times on a sub-zero winter night.
“I thought in this day and age that police were better than that, especially people in a command situation where you had a staff sergeant that’s in command of a police attachment of 12 officers along with supervising three First Nation constables, that this type of behavior is going on to this day,” King said.
According to the First Nation, it pursued Skunk’s family’s complaint to the OPP but was ignored.
They went on to file a direct complaint to OPP Commissioner Carrique in February 2022 demanding the sergeant be removed from the Armstrong detachment with no success.
King said the incident deserves justice.
“When actions like this take place and for this (sergeant) to do this and get away with it. It doesn’t bode well with myself as the chief of the community and our council and our community as a whole.”
Elder, advisor threatened
GBFN is also alleging two other instances of racial discrimination and harassment have taken place involving the same sergeant.
They claim that last January, Beth Boon, a GBFN special advisor “who had been vocal in OPP meetings in advocating for accountability for the Mr. Skunk incident” experienced retribution by the OPP and the sergeant in question.
“Specifically, she was targeted with false accusations of assault on a GBFN member and threatened charges, in violation of the jurisdiction of GBFN Constables who handle such matters within the community but who were directed by OPP – Thunder Bay Detachment to charge Ms. Boon without any investigation,” they said in the release.
It was later concluded there were no grounds to charge Boon and that a file on her was kept open as “inconclusive,” among other things.
GBFN said in another incident from last year that Elder Art Furoy was wrongfully arrested by the Armstrong detachment for “allegedly providing cannabis to a young girl.” Those charges were later dropped with no explanation.
“Mr. Furoy however accidentally became witness to a theft by (the sergeant) of expensive OPP equipment – a heated water line for one of the OPP residences,” their statement claims.
“Upon (the sergeant) realizing that Mr. Furoy now knew the heated water line equipment had not been returned to the OPP, she threatened him with her hand on her gun, stating ‘you know that equipment loaded at my place, erase that from your mind, it will be a lot healthier for you if you know what I mean.’”
King said the alleged victims and the surrounding community are traumatized by the incidents.
“You would think that police officers are more professional, more compassionate. They’re there to serve and protect all people, and to see this incident happen like this is quite alarming,” he said.
Last month, the First Nation reiterated its complaint involving Skunk along with two other complaints stemming from the more recent incidents.
King said the incidents are examples of why First Nations policing is needed for communities.
“I see the real need for it more and more now, that First Nations must take control and exercise jurisdiction of policing in their communities and their territories,” he said.
In response to APTN’s request for comment, OPP spokesperson Bill Dickson said in a statement the policing service is taking the allegations seriously.
“The complainant was notified of the findings,” he said. “I can tell you that the Ontario Provincial Police did provide a response earlier this year, on behalf of the Commissioner, to the legal representative who issued the media release.
I can also tell you the OPP member identified has not served in the community since February 2022 and the individual who issued the media release was advised of this in the OPP’s response to her. The named officer no longer resides in the area and has been assigned to another part of the province.”
Dickson added the Armstrong detachment has a new permanent team leader as of last month.
But King said he wasn’t aware there were any findings.
“No, nothing at all. They said they were going to assign someone special about this and we never heard anything at all,” he said.
King said GBFN is assisting the alleged victims in seeking redress through the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal and other forums.
“We feel that this has to be addressed and this type of behavior must stop. It’s unacceptable that we have police officers doing this to this day.”