Police in Thunder Bay failed to properly investigate at least nine sudden death investigations of Indigenous people in the city, a long-awaited report has found.
In its report, released Wednesday, the Office of the Independent Police Review Director (OIPRD) called the Thunder Bay Police Service’s (TBPS) investigations into a number of sudden deaths in the city “inadequate” and “so problematic that at least nine of these cases should be reinvestigated.”
In his report, titled Broken Trust, Indigenous People and the Thunder Bay Police, Gerry McNeilly reviewed 37 Thunder Bay police investigations, most of them missing persons and homicides, and mostly involving Indigenous victims.
The independent director found “significant deficiencies” in how TBPS records or maintains 11 investigation files.
“A number of TBPS investigators involved in these investigations lacked the expertise and experience to conduct sudden death or homicide investigations,” McNeilly said about his findings.
McNeilly called the relationship between Indigenous people and Thunder Bay police “nothing short of a crisis.”
(Brad DeBungee, brother of Stacey DeBungee. His complaint against the TBPS for how they investigated his brother’s death prompted the OIPRD systemic review of the service. Photo: Willow Fiddler/APTN)
The 196-page report delivered 44 recommendations related to sudden death investigations, the Criminal Investigations Branch and the operations and relationships between TBPS
McNeilly said he became increasingly aware of the strained relationship between the TBPS and Indigenous people over the years.
“I raised the issue with the police chief on a number of occasions, but remained unconvinced that TBPS’s responses improved the relationship,” he says in the report.
It’s the first systemic review of a police service in the province.
McNeilly has conducted other systemic reviews related to police oversight but not one that specifically looked at how forces police Indigenous people.
McNeilly said he initiated the systemic review of TBPS after he received complaints about the 2015 death invetigation of Stacey DeBungee, a First Nations man from Rainy River First Nation found in the McIntyre River.
“Indigenous leaders and community members told me that TBPS investigations of Indigenous deaths and other interactions with police devalued Indigenous lives, reflected differential treatment and were based on racist attitudes and stereotypical preconceptions about Indigenous people,” McNeilly said.
The OIPRD reviewed DeBungee’s death investigation and found two TBPS investigators guilty of discredible conduct last winter.
Some of McNeilly’s recommendations include:
-The inadequacy of the TBPS sudden death investigations the OIPRD reviewed was so problematic that at least nine of the cases should be reinvestigated.
-A multi-discipline team should be established to reinvestigate, at a minimum, the deaths of the nine Indigenous people identified. The team should include representatives from TBPS, a First Nations police service, outside police service(s), the Office of the Chief Coroner and the Office of the Chief Forensic Pathologist. The team should also establish a protocol for determining what additional death investigations should be reinvestigated.
-TBPS should initiate an external peer-review process for sudden death and homicide investigations for at least the next three years.
-TBPS should focus proactively on actions to eliminate systemic racism, including removing systemic barriers and the root causes of racial inequities in the service.
-TBPS leadership should publicly and formally acknowledge that racism exists at all levels within the police service and that it will not tolerate racist views or actions. TBPS leadership should engage with Indigenous communities on the forum for and content of these acknowledgements. This would be an important step in TBPS advancing reconciliation with Indigenous people.
-The Thunder Bay Police Services Board should publicly and formally acknowledge racism exists within TBPS and take a leadership role in repairing the relationship between TBPS and Indigenous communities.
-TBPS leadership should create a permanent advisory group involving the police chief and Indigenous leadership.
-The Office of the Chief Coroner, Ontario’s Chief Forensic Pathologist, the Regional Coroner and TBPS should implement the Thunder Bay Death Investigations Framework on a priority basis. The framework clarifies roles and responsibilities, improves communication and increases information sharing to ensure objective, high quality death investigations.
These concerns are not new for Indigenous people in Thunder Bay.
The student inquest in 2015-2016 looked at the deaths of seven First Nations students attending high school in the city between 2000-2011.
McNeilly reviewed sudden death investigations going back to 2009, as well as the seven student death investigations.
Four of the cases the OIPRD recommends reopening appear to be from the Coroner’s student inquest. APTN News matched the dates of the cases in the report with these names: Jethro Anderson, Curran Strang, Kyle Morrisseau and Jordan Wabasse.
McNeilly says the concerns about Thunder Bay police date back even further.
“That the questions raised by Indigenous people in 1993 remained as valid as they did some 25 years ago, was deeply troubling, and demanded an urgent and comprehensive response,” McNeilly writes in the report.
The report also includes recommendations that the TBPS “initiate an external peer-reviewed process for sudden death and homicide investigations for at least the next three years.”
It also recommends the force and its board “publicly and formally acknowledge racism exists at all levels within the police service and that it will not tolerate racist views or actions,” that TBPS leadership “create a permanent advisory group involving the police chief and Indigenous leadership,” and that the force take action to eliminate systemic racism, including removing systemic barriers and the root causes of racial inequities in the service.”
On Wednesday afternoon Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde called the report “tragic” but “unsurprising,” saying in a statement its findings “reinforce what First Nations have been saying for years — systemic racism is clearly something that needs to be addressed in a profound and substantial manner.
“Obviously, current approaches to investigating the deaths and disappearances of First Nations fail all of us, erode trust and exacerbate already strained relationships,” Bellegarde said, calling on the TBPS to “work with First Nations to take action on the recommendations.”
(Thunder Bay Police Chief Sylvie Hauth listens to McNeilly’s assessment of her force. Photo: Willow Fiddler/APTN)
In a statement released shortly after the announcement Wednesday Thunder Bay Police Chief Sylvie Hauth said in a written statement her force “acknowledge[s] that there are systemic barriers in policing that must be addressed,” and that they will “need time to study and consider all of the specific recommendations.
“With help from this report, the service continues to work towards bias-free policing. In the coming days, we will examine these recommendations. It is our hope that they will be of great value as we continue to build trust with the Indigenous community,” she said
Julian Falconer, a lawyer who represented the Nishnawbe Aski Nation during the inquest and is counsel to Brad DeBungee (Stacy DeBungee’s brother) and Rainy River First Nations, said in a statement following the report’s release that the OIPRD’s findings “are absolutely unequivocal regarding the widespread nature of racism that is rampant at the TBPS.
“The report is unprecedented. I have never seen a report of an entire police force on this level with these findings,” Falconer said.
Brad DeBungee said in the statement that he “could feel in my heart from the first day I dealt with a police officer that he treated me and my family differently because we are Indigenous.
“Now the proof is out, and they must answer for this.”
Rainy River First Nation leadership also issued a statement Wednesday, calling the OIPRD report’s recommendations to be “implemented fully and promptly”.
“It is of utmost importance that this Systemic Review is the catalyst for meaningful change in the way Indigenous people are treated by the Thunder Bay Police Service,” the statement reads.
“If we are to understand the broken relationship between Indigenous people and police, we must first understand the history and impact of colonization on Indigenous people,” McNeilly writes in the report.
“Much of the suspicion and distrust that Indigenous people feel toward police is rooted in a history of colonial policies.”
After the OIPRD report was released the Ontario Civilian Police Commission (OCPC) announced it will release its review of the TBPS board on Friday.
That investigation was launched in July 2017 after Indigenous leaders raised shared concerns around the deaths of Indigenous students in Thunder Bay. It is being led by Canadian Senator Murray Sinclair, who also led the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s work.