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Kevin Mamakwa, 27, seen here, died at the aging Thunder Bay District Jail in early June.Handout

A First Nations leader and an MPP are urging the Ontario government to immediately shut down an aging and overcrowded jail in Thunder Bay where a mutual relative died recently.

Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler told The Globe and Mail that his cousin’s son, Kevin Mamakwa, died at the Thunder Bay District Jail in early June. Mr. Mamakwa, a 27-year-old father of four, was from Kingfisher Lake First Nation, located 350 kilometres northeast of Sioux Lookout, Ont.

“How many people have to die in that facility before it’s closed?” Mr. Fiddler said. “I would tell this government: Shut it down now.”

The Grand Chief toured the jail in January and said he was shocked by what he saw, including four inmates crammed into a tiny cell, with two men sleeping in a bunk bed and the other two on the floor.

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'How many people have to die in that facility before it’s closed?' Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler, seen here, said.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

He said he spoke with inmates who said they felt unsafe and others who were unable to consult an elder or access the facility’s yard. He also met with a nurse who seemed overwhelmed by her caseload.

“It’s a hellhole,” Mr. Fiddler said.

For Sol Mamakwa, the MPP for the riding of Kiiwetinoong, in Northern Ontario, Kevin’s death was deeply personal, as the young man was his nephew.

He toured the jail last year and said the facility was unsafe, both for inmates and correctional staff. He urged the government to seek another, temporary facility for the inmates, calling the conditions at the Thunder Bay District Jail “inhumane.”

“This jail is pretty much a warehouse of people that need mental-health help and also addictions help, and some of these people did not belong there,” the MPP said, adding that Kevin belonged not in jail but at a healing lodge focused on cultural awareness.

There has been a long-standing effort to close the Thunder Bay facility.

In 2017, the Wynne government committed to building a new jail. Premier Doug Ford’s government reiterated that commitment last year and said it would be built as a public-private partnership.

That announcement came after public outrage over the four-year solitary confinement of a First Nations man, Adam Capay, at the facility and after years of advocacy by the local corrections union, which cited a case in which a correctional officer was taken hostage by inmates during a 2015 riot.

On Tuesday, the Ontario Ministry of the Solicitor General announced a $500-million investment in corrections.

Ministry spokeswoman Kristy Denette would not say if any of that funding would be used to build a new jail in Thunder Bay. She also would not provide a specific timeline for the completion of a new facility, but said the province remains committed to the project and is working with Infrastructure Ontario.

Last year, Ontario’s Auditor-General identified the Thunder Bay jail as the province’s second-most overcrowded correctional facility, behind the jail in Kenora, Ont. Both institutions have exceeded 100-per-cent capacity, well above the ministry’s target of 85 per cent.

Mr. Fiddler also said the disproportionate incarceration of First Nations people must end. In January, it was estimated that 75 per cent of the inmates at the Thunder Bay jail identified as First Nations, said Renu Mandhane, a former human-rights commissioner for the province, at a prebudget consultation.

Kevin Mamakwa’s death will be the subject of a mandatory internal investigation by the ministry, as well as local police. An inquest will be held if his death was not the result of natural causes.

His father, Jonathon Mamakwa, said the coroner informed him that his son appears to have died by suicide, though that has not been confirmed.

The family is looking for answers about Kevin’s time in custody.

Several months before Kevin was arrested, he had started treatment in Thunder Bay for substance use, his father said. Kevin had been in pretrial custody for a domestic assault, he said.

He said his family is not sure if Kevin continued to receive treatment in jail for substance use. He also said his son’s mental health had been up and down since his teenage years.

Kevin had hoped to settle down in Kingfisher Lake with his family but ran into a lack of available housing and counselling supports, his father added. Kevin had three sons, the oldest of whom is eight, and an 11-month-old daughter.

“Throughout his adulthood, I know he sought help,” said Mr. Mamakwa, who got an inside view of the legal system over almost two decades as a part-time justice of the peace in Ontario courts. “The support wasn’t there.”

Kevin is at least the ninth person to die at the Thunder Bay District Jail since 2002 – at least seven of whom were Indigenous, according to The Globe’s count.

Multiple coroner’s inquests have recommended that the government replace the jail.

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