Ontario’s independent police watchdog is urging Thunder Bay’s police force to reopen nine sudden-death cases involving Indigenous victims over concerns the investigations were tainted by systemic racism and neglect.
The call is one of 44 recommendations arising from a two-year investigation of the Thunder Bay Police Service by the Office of the Independent Review Director (OIPRD) – one of two reports slated for release this week that call for sweeping changes at the force and its oversight board.
On Friday, Senator Murray Sinclair, the former judge who headed the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, will report back on an examination of the Thunder Bay Police Service Board. According to two sources who have seen Mr. Sinclair’s report, it calls for the board to be scrapped for a year and an interim administrator to be appointed. The current board, Mr. Sinclair’s report says, is disengaged, lacking leadership and bereft of the plans and policies required to deal with a crisis in violent crime, the sources say. The Globe and Mail granted them anonymity because they were not authorized to share the document.
The report, which was ordered by the Ontario Civilian Police Commission, also says the board has lost the capacity and credibility necessary to fulfill its duties, and that its repeated failures to remedy distrust between the Indigenous community and police constitute an emergency.
On Wednesday, Gerry McNeilly, Ontario’s Independent Police Review Director, said his investigation found “significant deficiencies in sudden-death investigations involving Indigenous people that are due, in part, to racial stereotyping.”
The review, launched in 2016, is the latest and most comprehensive look at a police agency that has faced repeated accusations of systemic racism for the way it investigates deaths and disappearances of Indigenous people.
OIPRD staff reviewed 37 Thunder Bay police investigations going back to 2009 and interviewed 36 former and current police officers, Ontario’s chief coroner and the chief forensic pathologist. The oversight body’s 208-page report, titled “Broken Trust: Indigenous People and the Thunder Bay Police Service,” argues for a significant overhaul of how the 300-member police force conducts major investigations.
Mr. McNeilly wants a team of police, coroners and pathologists to reopen nine sudden-death cases, and possibly more, to address major failings in investigations. The OIPRD team chose review cases at random, leaving countless others untouched. “It follows that other deeply flawed investigations may exist and, indeed, are likely,” the report states.
Mr. McNeilly’s staff determined that investigators on some of those cases “lacked the expertise and experience to conduct sudden-death or homicide investigations” and that the force’s criminal investigations branch is chronically understaffed.
Lack of experience and understaffing may have contributed to repeated mistakes, including failing to obtain or understand autopsy findings, the report states.
Mr. McNeilly wants to see the force establish a major crimes unit and introduce a formal training plan to ensure the unit is staffed with seasoned investigators.
But he said the shortcomings in staffing and communication didn’t fully explain the force’s inadequate investigations involving Indigenous people.
“The failure to conduct adequate investigations and the premature conclusions drawn in these cases is, at least in part, attributable to racist attitudes and racial stereotyping,” the report states.
In his recommendations, Mr. McNeilly urged leadership at the Thunder Bay Police Service, as well as its oversight board, to acknowledge that racism exists at all levels within the service before undertaking an organizational overhaul to root out systemic racism and repair the department’s relationship with local Indigenous communities.
In a statement issued shortly after the report’s release, Thunder Bay Police Service Chief Sylvie Hauth did not admit to racism within the force, but acknowledged that “there are systemic barriers in policing that must be addressed.”
She added: “This is a very extensive report and we will need time to study and consider all of the specific recommendations. With help from this report, the service continues to work toward bias-free policing.”
Her statement riled community-members who have long sought a full recognition of the force’s shortcomings in its relations with Indigenous residents.
“What worried me today is hearing the chief of police is talking about systemic barriers,” said Rainy River First Nation Chief Robin McGinnis. “What does that mean? That could be everything from lack of funding to lack of tasers. The first step is acknowledging systemic racism. We can’t move forward until they do that.”
Mr. McGinnis called the report “ground-breaking” and said he and other leaders have hope it will stimulate a full-scale reconciliation between Indigenous people and the city’s law enforcement.
Rainy River First Nation leadership pressed for the systemic review after the body of one of its members, Stacy DeBungee, was pulled from the McIntyre River in 2015. Investigators ruled out foul play within hours, raising suspicions that police had performed little leg-work. Subsequent reviews found Thunder Bay investigators had ignored key evidence in ruling the death accidental when it should have been treated as a potential homicide.
Alvin Fiddler, the Grand Chief of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, which represents 49 First Nations in northwestern Ontario, said in a telephone interview that the finding of systemic racism within the Thunder Bay force is “validating” for a lot of his people.
He said he and his organization are going to be watching to see if the police implement the changes recommended in the report over the next three years. “And if they are not compliant after three years,” he said, “then the police service should be disbanded.”
Thunder Bay Mayor Bill Mauro, who sits on the police service board, said he would refrain from acknowledging any sort of bias within the force until Chief Hauth reports back to the board. “The city and the police service have all acknowledged there are issues and challenges that need our attention,” he said. “The City of Thunder Bay is not the only community in Ontario or Canada that faces these challenges.”