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Ontario’s Chief Coroner is calling for an expert review of the nine reinvestigations of sudden deaths of Indigenous people in Thunder Bay, over concerns of conflicts of interest by the police and in his own office.

Dirk Huyer said he made the decision, “Given the concerns about conflict, given the concerns about trust, given the concerns about confidence in the organizations all being together in this area.”

Mr. Huyer is part of the executive governance committee that was appointed to oversee the reinvestigations of nine sudden deaths recommended in the 2018 Broken Trust report by the Office of the Independent Police Review Director (OIPRD). Thunder Bay Police Chief Sylvie Hauth, Justice Stephen T. Goudge, chief forensic pathologist Michael Pollanen, First Nations elder Helen Cromarty and the Nishnawbe Aski Nation are also on the committee.

The reinvestigations were completed last year by a team of investigators led by retired OPP superintendent Ken Leppart, and Mr. Huyer said the committee is still preparing its final report.

Mr. Huyer said the committee will report back to the OIRPD and police board on “the fact that we’ve done the nine reinvestigations, and here are the terms of reference, and here’s how things happened.” According to the terms of reference, the findings are also to be made public, although Mr. Huyer had previously said there will likely be redactions of sensitive information.

Mr. Huyer had also previously said that the report would contain feedback from families and lessons learned but now says there are too many conflicts of interest for the committee members to write the report themselves.

“We want it to be a report done by a writing team that isn’t influenced or impacted by the executive governance committee.”

The coroner’s office was also subject to recommendations in the Broken Trust report to address “serious issues with the relationship between the police and the coroners, including lack of co-ordination, delegation and information sharing.”

The committee implemented a conflict-of-interest policy, and while Mr. Huyer acknowledged there have been conflicts, he wouldn’t say who has recused themselves.

Family members of the individuals whose deaths were reinvestigated had raised concerns about the role of Chief Hauth, in particular, as the leader of the service that was the main subject of the Broken Trust report that found “systemic racism exists in [the Thunder Bay Police Service] at an institutional level.” They were worried specifically about her involvement in the content and framing of the final report.

In a confidential letter dated Nov. 10, 2021, Chief Hauth informed the police board that she had stepped down from the committee. This came after a Globe and Mail article about a human-rights complaint against her, including allegations of racism and retaliation, and concerns from the committee of a potential conflict of interest.

Mr. Huyer said the committee recognized a number of lessons learned during the process that should be shared publicly, and also recognized the potential conflicts of interest if the report was prepared by the committee itself.

Mr. Huyer said he had done something similar with a 2019 police suicide report.

“I commissioned a group of experts, I asked them to work as experts under the Coroner’s Act, as defined under the Coroner’s Act to prepare a report. And then I took that report that they prepared and went public with it. So that’s the way we’re approaching it.”

He said there will be an advisory group with a significant Indigenous leadership presence to support the writing team who will have access to all materials from the reinvestigations.

“We believe this is the way to eliminate those conflicts that are apparent and perceived,” Mr. Huyer said.

The Broken Trust report recommendations included reinvestigating the nine sudden deaths out of approximately 35 reviewed by the OIPRD, establishing a protocol to determine if there are others that should be reinvestigated, and looking at the case of Stacy DeBungee.

Mr. DeBungee’s case was taken on by the OPP last year after a recommendation from Mr. Huyer and the reinvestigation team. One of the other cases has also been referred to the Special Investigations Unit that is re-examining the sudden death of Arron Loon, a 20-year old First Nations man found dead in a Thunder Bay park in 2015.

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