Ontario’s Special Investigations Unit is investigating after it received two complaints that allege women were sexually assaulted by members of the Ontario Provincial Police in Pikangikum First Nation.
The remote First Nation located about 500 kilometres northwest of Thunder Bay with approximately 3,600 members removed 10 provincial police officers from the community late last Friday. Chief Dean Owen said they acted quickly when they were informed about allegations of misconduct involving officers that occurred over “many years,” including a recent incident that led to civilian staff coming forward.
Mr. Owen said Monday that four community members employed at the detachment came forward with allegations they witnessed serious misconduct from officers, including sexual and physical assault, involving mostly young women who were intoxicated when brought into custody.
A spokesperson for the SIU confirmed Monday that it was notified by the OPP on March 19 and has invoked its mandate. The SIU investigates encounters involving police in Ontario that result in serious injury, death or allegations of sexual assault.
A statement from the OPP on Sunday confirmed that its officers left the community on Friday after a Band Council Resolution (BCR) from Pikangikum Chief and Council, and deferred questions about the officers, including how many are involved in the allegations and the status of their employment, to the SIU. The SIU said it didn’t know how many officers were involved as it is in the very early stages of the investigation.
Mr. Owen said the allegations took place over many years and that the staff members who came forward were warned not to say anything by officers because they took an oath of confidentiality.
“Police would come right after them, very stern warnings to them, use of harsh words,” Mr. Owen said.
“They just couldn’t keep [quiet] any more, they were going to quit because that wasn’t a place where they wanted to work.”
Mr. Owen said there’s a history of unresolved issues with the OPP and that it’s not the first time they’ve been removed. He said the community was trying to work on the relationship but that the allegations brought forward have broken the trust once again.
Indigenous Services Canada (ISC) evacuated its primary care practitioners stationed in the community on Saturday, citing a significant reduction in police presence. The nursing station was to reopen for regular business hours on Monday. ISC said Monday it will continue to assess the overnight presence of primary health care practitioners on a daily basis.
Mr. Owen said the community has seven of its own First Nations police officers who are fully trained and officially recognized the same as the OPP and other First Nations police.
The OPP services Pikangikum under the Ontario First Nations Policing Agreement, which includes both local First Nations constables and non-Indigenous constables who fly into the community for scheduled rotations. All officers receive basic police training from the Ontario Police College.
Mr. Owen said it has been a long-time goal of the community to develop its own stand-alone police service, something the OPP was eager to help with. However, he says that was almost 15 years ago and that the community isn’t even a part of the screening process for officers deployed to the community, despite being told they could be.
In its statement on Sunday, the OPP said it has a history of “supportive, respectful and positive presence in Pikangikum” and that it supports and advocates for Indigenous communities to have their own stand-alone Indigenous policing services.
Mr. Owen said it’s the alleged misconduct of a few certain individuals that are a concern and that 80 per cent to 90 per cent of the officers deployed to Pikangikum are “good officers and have good intentions to work in First Nations communities.”
Mr. Owen said there’s no room for compromise when it comes to the safety of its community members, particularly the youth.
“We won’t be satisfied until a total investigation is done and justice is served and justice for the victims.”
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.