Skip to main content

Indigenous leaders are calling upon the Ontario Provincial Police to seize control of all major-crime investigations in Thunder Bay, the first of a series of steps they say should culminate in the permanent shuttering of the city’s police service.

Citing years of official reports highlighting systemic racism and subpar investigations by the municipal police force, the Indigenous leaders argue the provincial government must order that major cases be handed over to the OPP. Otherwise, they say, lives will be in jeopardy if the province waits for the outcomes of further reviews of the Thunder Bay Police Service’s controversial handling of sudden deaths and missing-person cases.

“As an immediate measure, the Thunder Bay Police Service should no longer be permitted to do major-crime investigations,” Reg Niganobe, Chief of the Anishinabek Nation Grand Council, said at a press conference at Queen’s Park on Wednesday. “Indigenous people are at risk in the city” if municipal police pursues these cases, he said.

He said a new city police force should eventually be created outright, but Indigenous people cannot afford to wait years for that to happen. That’s why, he said, the provincial police should take over major crimes right away. “Due to the negligence within the investigations, at this point the OPP would be the better choice.”

Mr. Niganobe, whose group is an advisory body for First Nations across Ontario, pointed out that over the past five years, the Ontario Civilian Police Commission, the Office of the Independent Police Review Director and the Ontario Human Rights Commission have all released scathing reports about police investigations in Thunder Bay.

During Question Period, opposition parties supported immediate reform. “Will this government immediately call for OPP oversight of the Thunder Bay police?” NDP MPP Sol Mamakwa asked.

But Solicitor-General Sylvia Jones said she is awaiting the outcome of pending reports. “We should not, and cannot, politically interfere in those independent reviews as they take place,” she told the legislature.

Her office released an e-mailed statement saying she initiated an OCPC investigation this winter that may settle questions about the future of the Thunder Bay Police Service. “The Ontario Civilian Police Commission has certain powers through the Police Services Act, which include the ability to appoint an administrator or disband a police service,” spokeswoman Hannah Jensen said.

Communities in Canada can also wind down local police forces. Last month, the OPP took over policing in Dryden, after that small northwestern Ontario community voted to disband its force to save costs.

However, Thunder Bay, a much larger municipality, has made no such decisions, and swapping in any amount of OPP officers into a major city would be a relatively big undertaking. The Thunder Bay force employs about 200 officers, including 20 who work on major crimes.

The OPP released a statement saying it cannot decide to redeploy detectives into any municipal police jurisdictions.

“While we fully respect the comments made by the [Indigenous] leaders, we cannot act on that request alone,” said spokesman Bill Dickson. He said the OPP can only consider such requests for investigative assistance from municipal police chiefs or from senior provincial law-enforcement officials.

This month, two new reports were unveiled about the reopening of closed cases in Thunder Bay. The first said the sudden deaths of 15 Indigenous people and one non-Indigenous person required further investigation by police or the coroner’s office. The other recommended an external review of 25 unsolved cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women.

The findings were unveiled after years of similarly themed reports, including the landmark release of one called Broken Trust. That 2018 Office of the Independent Police Review Director report found “significant deficiencies in sudden-death investigations involving Indigenous people that are due, in part, to racial stereotyping.”

This month, Deputy Grand Chief Anna Betty Achneepineskum of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation urged the dismantling of local police in Thunder Bay.

She repeated that call Wednesday at Queen’s Park, sitting beside Mr. Niganobe, while arguing the province would be negligent if it stayed silent about the reports unveiled this month urging authorities to reopen more investigations.

“It has been three weeks and we have not heard anything from the minister,” Ms. Achneepineskum said, referring to Ms. Jones.

First Nations leaders, she said, expect “that the deaths of their community members will be investigated by competent professionals other than Thunder Bay Police Service. No more families should have to endure this racism and continued victimization at the hands of the police.”

The Thunder Bay Police Service Board said it will be holding an emergency meeting this weekend. It will be closed to the public.

Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.