Anna Betty Achneepineskum says it’s time to dismantle the Thunder Bay Police Service and its board after a recent report revealed that 16 sudden deaths need to be reinvestigated, as well as 25 unsolved cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.
“I knew of these people and I knew of their deaths,” the Nishnawbe Aski Nation Deputy Grand Chief told The Globe and Mail.
She said there’s been enough reports of racism within the service and its board over the years that “they should just be dismantled.”
“There’s evidence sitting at different levels of government, municipal, provincial and those particular organizations that are to oversee the delivery of police services, the evidence is there that change needs to happen,” she said.
In its 2018 report called Broken Trust, the Office of the Independent Police Review Director (OIPRD) recommended the reinvestigation of nine deaths of Indigenous people. A team led by retired Ontario Provincial Police superintendent Ken Leppert completed the investigatory work last year. It also flagged 16 additional deaths – 15 of which were Indigenous people.
The process was overseen by an executive governance committee chaired by retired justice Stephen Goudge: It included Ontario Chief Coroner Dirk Huyer; Chief Forensic Pathologist Michael Pollanen; Thunder Bay Police Chief Sylvie Hauth; First Nations elder Helen Cromarty; and executive director of Nishnawbe Aski Legal Services Irene Linklater.
The Office of the Chief Coroner released the committee’s findings in a final report to the OIPRD last week.
Details of the 16 cases – sudden deaths that occurred between 2006 and 2019 of people between the ages of two months and 61 years – are contained in a confidential report submitted to the committee by the Broken Trust investigators separate from the final report.
The confidential report also identifies 25 unsolved cases into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. Copies of the document were shared with the Attorney-General’s office and the Thunder Bay police board.
Ms. Achneepineskum said she’s read the confidential report and while she wasn’t surprised at the number of cases, it was emotional to read. One case is of a two-month-old baby with cocaine in his system that should’ve been investigated as criminal negligence causing death.
“It was still very sad and it made me angry because some of those cases I was quite familiar with,” Ms. Achneepineskum said. “We had tried to seek answers and the door closed in our face.”
During the OIPRD investigation four years ago and a probe by then-senator Murray Sinclair, Ms. Achneepineskum said she told them about the cases of 24 Indigenous people whose deaths she felt were being neglected by the city’s force. Those investigations led to the Broken Trust report and one by Mr. Sinclair for the Ontario Civilian Police Commission with recommendations to address systemic racism and problematic police work.
According to the separate confidential report, the findings represent a “snapshot” of the service’s records management and investigative concerns.
“It appears that in Thunder Bay, there are a higher number of sudden deaths and/or homicides where the decedents are Indigenous, as well as a large volume of Indigenous decedents where the manner of death is accidental or undetermined,” the report reads.
Ontario Attorney-General spokesman Brian Gray said the department is considering the committee’s request to refer the 16 cases for reinvestigation and to determine next steps, including notifying families in consultation with police and victim services.
Last year, the Attorney-General asked the OPP to investigate the case of Stacy DeBungee, a First Nations man found dead in a city river in 2015. His family filed a complaint to the OIPRD about how the police were handling the case, including prematurely determining no foul play.
Thunder Bay police board chair Kirsten Oliver said in an e-mail statement that the board is meeting with Chief Hauth on Friday to review the report’s findings and to discuss how the service will “ensure investigative integrity among cases involving our Indigenous community.”
Ms. Oliver said the board “understands there is work to be done to shore up public confidence in the service and the board.” The board will hear a motion at a special meeting on Wednesday to establish an expert panel that will support and advise it on a number of items. These include reviewing policies, procedures, training and practices related to human rights and mental-health issues.
The panel would also look at recommendations from the Broken Trust report and Mr. Sinclair’s, and present recommendations for action and implementation.
The proposed expert panel of “respected leaders in the policing and governance community” has eight confirmed members including former Toronto police board chair Alok Mukherjee and Kimberly Murray, former executive director of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
OIPRD director Stephen Leach said while his office is disappointed that it took more than four years for the committee to submit its report, it is in the process of reviewing it. He said the OIRPD is working to make public the progress of all 44 Broken Trust recommendations, likely on a website indicating which ones have been completed.
Ontario opposition NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said the provincial government needs to do more to address “structural racism” in policing and more broadly in society.
She called the revelations that sudden deaths and missing women cases were improperly investigated “horrifying” and said that her heart goes out to the people of Thunder Bay.
“This kind of information that is coming forward is just another example of how we have to work so much harder and do so much better to support the Indigenous folks on whose land we all reside,” Ms. Horwath said Tuesday.
Ontario Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca said the revelations were heartbreaking.
“I would urge the government to work closely with the City of Thunder Bay to make sure that we are fixing what seems to be a situation that has been ongoing for some time,” Mr. Del Duca said.
With reports from Jeff Gray
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