The police service board in Thunder Bay, Ont., hired a long-time insider to head the embattled force despite a survey that indicated residents wanted fresh blood at the helm, documents show.
The survey was done before Sylvie Hauth, a 25-year veteran of the service, was named chief of police in November amid tensions between the force and the city’s Indigenous community.
“We came up with candidates across Canada, outside of Canada, and we did our due diligence,” said Celina Reitberger, current chairwoman of the board. “It was not a coronation.”
Reitberger, a member of the Fort William First Nation member, would not say how many other candidates were considered for the chief’s position or why the survey results were ignored.
The online survey asked residents about the challenges facing the service. Answers were grouped into several themes, including the need for leadership from the outside, understaffing and perceived racism within the service.
A summary of the survey results obtained through freedom of information laws shows residents wanted the new chief to be free of allegiances to the administration in place at the time.
“In preparation for the search to identify a new chief for the service, it was agreed that members of the Thunder Bay community should be invited to share their ideas on the challenges facing the service,” according to the summary prepared by the Toronto-based executive search firm Odgers Berndtson.
The company, which had anticipated only 30 to 50 responses, said in the summary that almost 600 residents – an “exceptionally high” number – responded to the online poll. Odgers Berndtson would not answer specific questions about the survey or the report it gave the police board.
Asked why Hauth was hired instead of an outsider, Reitberger said she could not recall which specific skills or experiences were the basis for the hiring. She said she did face criticism for promoting Hauth, who was acting chief at the time of her promotion following the retirement of beleaguered former chief J.P. Levesque.
“I have had people come up to me and say, ‘You just gave it to the acting chief’,” she said. “(But) I am a person of integrity, and I’m not about to be hiring someone because somebody else tells me to do it.”
Last year, independent oversight bodies released two separate reports detailing systemic racism in the Thunder Bay Police Service following a high-profile inquest into the deaths of seven Indigenous youths from the surrounding area who were attending school in the city.
In the first report, released in December, Ontario’s police watchdog found “systemic racism exists in (the service) at an institutional level.”
Days later, a separate report by Sen. Murray Sinclair found the Indigenous population of Thunder Bay “experiences racism, both overt and systemic.” The report criticized a lack of “meaningful engagement” by the board with the Indigenous community.
The reports resulted in the dissolution of the police board and calls for a change in leadership from the Indigenous community and others.
The Nishnawbe Aski Nation, which has been critical of the police service, would not comment on Hauth’s hiring or the survey. Other police board members did not respond to requests for comment.