It is hard to imagine, but it happened in Thunder Bay: When an Ontario task force re-examined nine Indigenous deaths after they weren’t investigated properly because of their race, the probe discovered another 15 Indigenous people whose sudden-death cases will soon be reopened owing to concerns around the original police investigation.
And while those cases were being uncovered, a separate confidential report obtained by The Globe and Mail recommended that 25 unsolved cases involving missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, which had been sitting in Thunder Bay Police files, should face external review.
The first report was sent to Ontario’s Office of the Independent Police Review Director (OIPRD) – the same group that four years ago found the Thunder Bay Police guilty of “systemic racism” after a two-year investigation called Broken Trust. That 2018 government-funded report, which was followed by Murray Sinclair’s investigation into the state of civilian police oversight and public confidence in policing in Thunder Bay, led to this latest one.
But what are all these reports for, really?
Here is just one of the 15 awful cases only now being brought back to light: In 2010, a 42-year-old Indigenous woman’s daughter found her mom dead in a hotel bathroom, in the presence of a boyfriend whom the daughter said was physically abusive. But he was not interviewed; this was not treated as a case to be investigated. That man, who died in 2017, would also be the last person to be seen alive with another Indigenous woman, Christina Gliddy, who died suspiciously in 2016.
This is beyond shameful. It is a dereliction of duty.
Five years ago, I wrote Seven Fallen Feathers: Racism, Death and Hard Truths in a Northern City, a book detailing the lives of seven young people who had to leave their parents, everything they knew, to pursue a high school degree in Thunder Bay because they had no other educational choice. And for that, they died in Thunder Bay.
The latest reports, including the one that is being shamefully hidden, have proved everything that the inquest into the seven youths’ deaths said. They proved everything that my book, and Broken Trust, and Mr. Sinclair’s report found, too.
This cycle of unaccountability, paved by reports that are too often shelved away and forgotten about, needs to end. No more.
Change will not come from another panel, in-depth analysis or report. It’s clear the system Canada has built is fundamentally broken. It needs to be abolished.
People talk of the importance of “decolonizing” and “reconciliation.” Well, let’s prove it. It is time to turn to the Anishinabeg and Mushkegowuk and let us create a vision, a new way to “police” based on our beliefs, customs, standards and laws. We had our own laws and systems of governance that worked for thousands of years before they were obliterated by what the colonists called progress.
That has failed. So turn it all over – the service and the police board.
Do not hide behind the excuse of “rules, laws and systems” that we must follow in Canadian society, when those have clearly let us down.
It is hard to watch what has unfolded in Thunder Bay. The findings of “systemic” racism in the simultaneous underpolicing and overpolicing of Indigenous people; the ways that the board failed to do its job, which is to police the police; the cannibalization within the force, featuring officers filing complaints about superiors at the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario; yet another round of provincial investigations; senior level officers being removed – it all must stop.
The settlers have created a wendigo here – an entity that embodies greed, excess and selfishness, that cannibalizes and destroys the balance of life, ripping apart relationships and values with its sharp claws and teeth, refusing to stop. While the wendigo usually embodies the spirit of a person, we see it here in an entity: the police and the board. And as Fort William First Nation’s Damien Lee told me, the wendigo is bent on extracting everything from Indigenous life, sucking everything out of our art, stories, trees, water, resources.
“When I see the Thunder Bay police imploding, here we are again. I see settler-colonialism eating itself here and I understand it through that story,” says Dr. Damien Lee, an assistant professor at the school formerly known as Ryerson University and Canada Research Chair in Biskaabiiyang and Indigenous Political Resurgence. Dr. Lee’s chair examines how Anishinaabe communities are rebuilding their political and legal orders, moving away from the Indian Act.
So turn to the Anishinabeg and Mushkegowuk for the path forward. They should be empowered to create whatever replaces the board and police. This is a bold step, but if there is no Nish leadership, how can it possibly serve our communities?
This is the hard part of reconciliation. Prove to us it can happen.
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