Ontario’s Attorney-General has asked the province’s police service to reinvestigate the death of an Indigenous man five years after his family alleged the Thunder Bay police mishandled his case, according to Ontario Chief Coroner Dirk Huyer.
Stacy DeBungee, from Rainy River First Nation, about 380 kilometres west of Thunder Bay, was found dead face down in the McIntyre River on Oct. 19, 2015. His family had immediate concerns over how police were handling the investigation, including calling his death non-criminal three hours after he was found.
The Office of the Independent Police Review Director echoed those concerns in a sweeping review of the Thunder Bay Police Service that found systemic racism exists within the force at an institutional level. In the report titled Broken Trust, the OIPRD made 44 recommendations to address systemic racism, including that at least nine death investigations be re-examined, in addition to Mr. DeBungee’s case.
Dr. Huyer, who leads the executive governance committee established to oversee nine reinvestigations, told The Globe and Mail on Tuesday that the Ministry of Attorney-General requested the OPP do a reinvestigation “independent of anything we’re doing” of the DeBungee case, but didn’t know the reasons why.
The ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Dr. Huyer said initial work in the investigation led to the decision by the Attorney-General to reassign the case to the OPP but didn’t know specifically the reasons why the case was reassigned.
Julian Falconer, the lawyer who represents Mr. DeBungee’s brother Brad DeBungee, who filed the complaint against Thunder Bay Police that spurred the systemic review of the entire service, said he only learned about the OPP taking on the case during a Tuesday afternoon press conference that he had organized to discuss concerns about the reinvestigations.
Family members said they have serious concerns about the role of Thunder Bay police Chief Sylvie Hauth in the reinvestigations and what power she holds over the task, since she’s part of the force under examination.
Thunder Bay police directed all media enquires about the reinvestigations to the Chief Coroner.
Dr. Huyer said the role of those on the executive governance committee is to provide knowledge and perspectives about the systems that intersect in the death investigations. He said while there have been instances when members of the committee have had to recuse themselves for conflicts, he couldn’t recall if that included Ms. Hauth.
The circumstances of Mr. DeBungee’s death and whether foul play was involved have been questioned by his family since his body was found in the McIntyre River.
The OIPRD found evidence of discreditable conduct and neglect of duty in the case, and three police officers are facing a disciplinary hearing.
It‘s not the first time the Thunder Bay police have been accused of discriminating against Indigenous people. In 2015, an inquest examined the deaths of seven First Nations students who died in Thunder Bay while attending high school.
Beulah Wabasse is the grandmother of one of those students, Jordan Wabasse. At the press conference organized by Mr. Falconer’s law office Tuesday, Ms. Wabasse said she’s been waiting 10 years for answers about her grandson’s death.
“It’s hard to go through life when you don’t know what happened to our loved ones,” she said about her 15-year old grandson, who was also found dead in a city river in May, 2011, two months after he went missing.
Aboriginal Legal Services in Toronto has represented the families of Jordan and Kyle Morriseau, other First Nations youth who died while attending high school in Thunder Bay, since 2015 and said this is the third reinvestigation the families are going through.
In a letter to the Broken Trust executive governance committee dated June 2, Aboriginal Legal Services outlines concerns that the families haven’t been meaningfully engaged during the reinvestigation process and are ignoring requests from the families for investigators to go through their lawyers.
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