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Canada First Nations plead for RCMP to address Thunder Bay ‘policing crisis’

A Thunder Bay police cruiser is seen in this 2006 file photo.

Sandi Krasowski/CP

Indigenous leaders frustrated by investigations into the deaths of young people in Thunder Bay are asking the provincial government to bring in the RCMP to address what they call a "policing crisis" in the city.

They are also calling on the province to appoint an administrator to oversee the city's police services board.

"We made the request because of our lack of confidence in Thunder Bay police," said Alvin Fiddler, grand chief of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation. "There is just zero leadership."

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Related: Breaking the cycle: Inside a high school that is reimagining indigenous education

Thunder Bay police have been under intense scrutiny in recent months. The force is currently under investigation by the Office of the Independent Police Review Director, which is examining the way it handled cases of death and disappearance involving Indigenous people in the city. And just last week, the chief of police, J.P. Levesque, was charged with breach of trust and obstructing justice.

Mr. Fiddler, Rainy River First Nations chief Jim Leonard and Grand Council Treaty Three chief Ogichidaa Francis Kavanaugh were in Toronto on Wednesday to make their request public at a Queen's Park news conference.

The chiefs questioned the local force's ability to conduct competent and credible investigations, and pointed to the troubling deaths of 17-year-old Tammy Keeash, whose body was found in the Neebing-McIntyre floodway in May, and 14-year-old Josiah Begg, who was found dead in the river a little more than a week later. They were the sixth and seventh Indigenous teenagers to die in the city's waterways since 2000.

"It's [Thunder Bay police] practice to jump to conclusions right away, even before any proper investigation is done, even before postmortems are completed. They are somehow able to conclude that these cases, these deaths, are non-criminal, accidental drownings. And we find that very difficult to accept," Mr. Fiddler said.

Mayor Keith Hobbs, who worked for 34 years as a police officer in Thunder Bay, said the force has an excellent record in solving or "clearing" homicide cases, including those involving Indigenous victims.

"I stand by Thunder Bay police. They have a great record. Better than any RCMP or Scotland Yard record," Mr. Hobbs said. "We need to quit politicizing, quit finger pointing and start fixing the issues."

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The breach-of-trust charges filed against the Chief Levesque, are allegedly the result of disclosing confidential information concerning the mayor, although the details of the alleged offence remain unclear. Mr. Hobbs said in an interview Wednesday that he couldn't discuss the matter, but said it wasn't related to the issues raised by Indigenous leaders.

"There's a cone of silence on that but it's absolutely, definitely not related to the Indigenous issue," Mr. Hobbs said.

The chiefs called on Ontario's Minister of Community Safety and Correctional Services, Marie-France Lalonde, to bring in the RCMP to investigate the deaths of the two teens, as well as the death of Stacy DeBungee in 2015, in which the chiefs say police arrived at hasty conclusions.

They also said they've lost confidence in the police-services board's ability to provide oversight.

"The police-services board is just totally dysfunctional at this point, that's why we're asking the commission to put in place an administrator," Mr. Fiddler said. "If there was a lineup, I wouldn't be able to pick out the board chair. They've been silent, almost invisible, while all this stuff is happening. So in our view they've failed miserably."

The Ontario Civilian Police Commission said it will investigate the allegations before determining whether to appoint an administrator.

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In a statement released to the media, members of the police-services board said they "take issue" with some of the assertions made by the Indigenous chiefs and welcome the commission's investigation.

"We as a board have no greater commitment than seeing the Indigenous population is dealt with respectfully," the statement said.

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