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Brad DeBungee and his family believe the city's police failed to properly investigate what happened to his brother, Stacy, who was found dead in a Thunder Bay river in 2015.

Photography by David Jackson/The Globe and Mail

Every time Brad DeBungee calls his sister, she asks him for news about their brother’s case. But Mr. DeBungee doesn’t have an answer, at least not one that she wants to hear.

In the fall of 2015, Thunder Bay police officers pulled their sibling’s body from the McIntyre River and the police service quickly deemed his death non-criminal. Mr. DeBungee recalled that one detective suggested to him that his brother, Stacy DeBungee, 41, may have passed out, rolled down the riverbank and drowned.

From the beginning, Stacy’s family, which is from Rainy River First Nations, did not accept that explanation and believed that Thunder Bay police officers were failing in their duty: By the time they labelled the case non-criminal, a day after the body was discovered, investigators had not yet received autopsy results or formally interviewed anyone who’d been with Stacy the night before he was found.

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“Where’s the humanity in that?” Mr. DeBungee said, adding that what his family wants now is closure.

For decades, there had been concerns about how the Thunder Bay police handled the deaths and disappearances of Indigenous people. Stacy’s death was a tipping point.

In March, 2016, Mr. DeBungee and the then-chief of his First Nation community, Jim Leonard, filed two complaints with the Office of the Independent Police Review Director (OIPRD), which handles police complaints in Ontario. One focused on the conduct of the police officers who investigated Stacy’s death, and the other on wider questions of systemic racism. Their complaints prompted the office’s then-director, Gerry McNeilly, to launch a systemic review of the police service that year.

The death of Stacy DeBungee, shown left in a handout photo, played a large part in prompting the review of systemic racism in Thunder Bay's police service by Gerry McNeilly, right, then head of the Office of the Independent Police Review Director.

His report titled Broken Trust, released last December, found systemic racism within the Thunder Bay Police Service toward Indigenous people and serious issues in the sudden death investigations it reviewed. Thunder Bay police have made progress in addressing the 44 recommendations from the OIPRD, such as establishing a major crimes unit, adding a civilian position to the Aboriginal Liaison Unit and creating a multidisciplinary team to reinvestigate the deaths of nine Indigenous people. But a recommendation to decide whether and when to reinvestigate Stacy’s death remains unaddressed.

In fact, Mr. DeBungee hasn’t heard from the Thunder Bay police in a year, not since a meeting – held at his request – in which police Chief Sylvie Hauth told him they would do their best to keep looking into Stacy’s case, but offered no other information, he said.

“If [the police] wanted to make relations better with the Anishinaabe and the public, they gotta go out and reach out to them, and say, 'This is what we’re expecting to do and these are the steps we’re going to be following,’ but they’re not doing anything like that on my part,” Mr. DeBungee said.

A Thunder Bay police spokesperson, Scott Paradis, declined an interview request with Chief Hauth for this story, citing a lack of availability. He also declined to comment on the status of the DeBungee case because of continuing legal proceedings.

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Train tracks cross the McIntyre River in Thunder Bay. In recent years, the bodies of several Indigenous youths have been found in the city's waterways.

Four years ago, Stacy DeBungee's body was found in the river near here.

A bird circles over the scene. Police declared within three hours of finding Stacy DeBungee's body that his death was not suspicious, and a day later that it was 'non-criminal.'

On the morning of Oct. 19, 2015, a passerby spotted Stacy’s body in the shallow banks of the McIntyre River.

From a cement path, the land slopes gently towards the river. On a recent morning, the grassy spot was lined with an empty Budweiser can, a single Croc sandal and a bike’s handlebar. A crow screamed overhead. A few minutes’ walk away, past a CN rail bridge, is a bustling mall.

The youngest of four siblings, Stacy spent the first few years of his life in Rainy River First Nations, before moving to Thunder Bay. A little more than a four-hour drive west of Thunder Bay, Rainy River First Nations is a small community on the U.S. border. It’s a place where everybody knows each other, Chief Robin McGinnis said. Growing up, he and Stacy were friends.

“The fact this happened to their family is heartbreaking, and being left out of the loop [by police], it’s almost like twisting the knife a little more. It keeps the pain fresh, I think,” he said.

Within three hours of finding Stacy’s body, Thunder Bay police issued a press release noting that an “initial investigation” indicated that his death was not suspicious. The following day, the service issued another press release, saying the case was non-criminal.

His death occurred two weeks after the start of a coroner’s inquest into the deaths of seven Indigenous youth in the city, most of whom had been found in rivers.

Brad DeBungee sits at the release of the 'Broken Trust' report last December alongside Jim Leonard, middle, the former chief of Rainy River First Nations and Robin McGinnis, left, the current chief of Rainy River.

The police service’s quick judgment of his brother’s death did not sit right with Mr. DeBungee. At Stacy’s funeral, Mr. DeBungee requested the assistance of the then-chief and council of Rainy River First Nations. They retained Julian Falconer, a human-rights lawyer, who hired a private investigator to dig into Stacy’s death. Within days, the investigator found new information, including that Stacy’s debit card had been used several times after his death.

In considering the complaint against the officers assigned to Stacy’s case, the OIPRD found in 2018 that “an evidence-based proper investigation never took place.” The OIPRD pointed to key steps that were omitted, including formally interviewing witnesses, canvassing the neighbourhood and making an investigative plan. The OIPRD found that Detective Shawn Harrison and Detective Constable Shawn Whipple committed discreditable conduct and neglect of duty, while acting inspector Susan Kaucharik committed neglect of duty.

Stacy’s death was also reviewed by the Ontario Provincial Police, at the invitation of Thunder Bay police. Like the OIPRD, the OPP identified deficiencies in the investigation and recommended more than 15 steps to help remedy them. Thunder Bay police declined to say whether they’ve since followed those recommendations, though Mr. DeBungee confirmed that at least one – assign a liaison officer to his family – hasn’t happened.

The disciplinary process for the officers is now held up by a legal action. Because the OIPRD made its decision on the officers’ conduct outside of the six-month window allowed by the Police Services Act, the Thunder Bay Police Services Board must decide if the delay was “reasonable” in order to proceed.

A retired judge was appointed to hear the case after the board declared a conflict of interest. Though hearings and meetings by police boards are presumed open to the public, except under narrow exceptions, the judge elected to hold a meeting to decide about the delay in private. In response, the CBC and Rainy River First Nations initiated a legal challenge. The case is now before the Court of Appeal for Ontario, which heard oral arguments in October. A judgment is expected in 2020.

“There is a real irony in what we are actually fighting about in the Court of Appeal," said Mr. Falconer, who is representing Rainy River First Nations. “You have a police board and a police chief that are strongly advocating for closed processes against a backdrop of report after report criticizing them for the failure to be transparent.”

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Chief Sylvie Hauth has not announced whether Thunder Bay police plan to re-investigate the DeBungee case.

In an update in June, Chief Hauth described the police service’s progress on all but two of the OIPRD’s recommendations, including whether to reinvestigate Stacy’s case. The police service will give another update in January, Mr. Paradis said.

To help implement the recommendations, the police service requested an additional $1.08-million in funding from the municipality, Mr. Paradis said. Part of that money is going toward the reinvestigations into the deaths of Jethro Anderson, Curran Strang, Kyle Morrisseau, Jordan Wabasse, Shania Bob, Aaron Loon, Christine Gliddy, Marie Spence and Sarah Moonias.

Ken Leppert, a retired OPP detective superintendent, is leading the reinvestigation team, working with officers from the Thunder Bay police and Nishnawbe Aski Police Service, which serves 34 First Nation communities. The team, which is being advised by experts and leaders, including Chief Hauth and Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler, began its work in September and is expected to finish by July.

For Mr. McNeilly, the former director of the OIPRD, reinvestigation of Stacy’s case should have been a given.

"I had hoped the multidisciplinary team would start off looking at DeBungee. In my opinion, the police should not wait for the multidisciplinary team to look at the matter, they should just move on it,” he said, adding that the matter before the courts relates to a narrow issue and should not prevent reinvestigation.

Pushing for transparency hasn’t been easy, Chief McGinnis said, but added that he’s glad their community had the resources “to keep kicking the doors down until somebody listened.”

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When he got older, Stacy began to struggle with mental-health issues, Mr. DeBungee said. Over the past 10 years, Stacy was in and out of jail over minor charges, such as panhandling and public intoxication. Before he died, Stacy was trying to make changes, studying math and English in his afternoons and getting the help of a social worker, his brother said.

“He was a human being,” Mr. DeBungee responded when asked what he wanted people to know about Stacy. “[The police] just discarded him because of his lifestyle.”

Today, Mr. DeBungee is 58 years old and mostly retired. He spends his time raising horses on his property outside of Thunder Bay. But he’s considering going back to work – maybe as a truck driver – to fund a billboard offering a reward for information about Stacy’s death.

“What really happened?” it would read.

A feather lies in the grass near where Stacy DeBungee's body was found.


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