Alvin Fiddler is Grand Chief of Nishnawbe Aski Nation, representing 49 First Nations in the territory of Treaty No. 9 and the Ontario portion of Treaty No. 5 in Northern Ontario.
Thunder Bay Mayor Bill Mauro may think that there has been “unfair” attention on the city. But two reports, released a year ago, cited systemic racism at the board and service level of the Thunder Bay Police Service. They painted a stark picture of police interaction with Indigenous people – in life and in death – which makes the attention seem entirely warranted.
As Thunder Bay turns 50, these writers contemplate the future of a deeply flawed, but hopeful, city:
My personal confidence in the TBPS has waned over the years. I have witnessed grossly inadequate investigations, discriminatory treatment of family members of victims and a lack of empathy about the pain that survivors were going through. Coupled with the loss of the Indigenous children whose deaths were the subject of the Seven Youth Inquest, parents in our communities have become afraid to send their children to Thunder Bay to attend school. The trust between Indigenous people and police that is necessary for true reconciliation hit dismal new lows.
One year after that inquiry, however, I can say with confidence that I see a renewed sense of determination at the service level.
Under the brave leadership of Chief Sylvie Hauth, the TBPS has demonstrated an openness for collaborative solutions, a willingness to admit mistakes and, most importantly, a desire to appropriately correct them. The TBPS and other multidisciplinary partners have taken a thoughtful approach to the reopened investigations into the nine First Nations individuals’ deaths that the Office of the Independent Police Review Director report had identified as a problem.
But a new pressure threatens the good progress being made by the TBPS: Any consequential change at the systemic level puts added financial considerations on the already overextended police service, putting Chief Hauth in the unenviable position of being taken to task for implementing the recommendations slowly even as she lacks the resources she needs from both the police board and the city government.
But it’s been a fraught year on that front. In just the last year alone, Mr. Mauro has complained about city council’s diminished authority; Fort William First Nation Chief Peter Collins has called for the mayor’s removal from the board over his failure to acknowledge systemic racism; a provincial appointee was revealed to have voiced support for then-suspended Senator Lynn Beyak; the mayor has refused to attend the formal apology by the board; and the chair, Celina Reitberger, has called out the mayor’s perceived conflict of interest stemming from his brother’s involvement in a racist incident that appears in the police commission’s report, among other tense public conflicts between the chair and a mayor accused of “walking a fine line."
This week, former Fort William First Nation Chief Georjann Morriseau – Ms. Reitberger’s nominee – was narrowly elected as board chair, defeating a bid by Mr. Mauro and his institutional voice, who had been put forward by a fellow city council member. The Ontario government also appointed Kyle Lansdell to the province’s board seat, and he will be forced to decide quickly which side he is on; it is clear that this board is divided in its allegiances.
Even as the service shows signs of unity, the board’s internal discord is impeding the positive steps forward – not only related to funding decisions, but about whether there is even a problem that needs tending to in Thunder Bay. Cap in hand, Chief Hauth has asked for just a bit more money to do the job she’s been tasked with, only to be interrogated by indifferent board members.
Through my involvement over the years with Nishnawbe Aski Police Service (NAPS), I can say with certainty that a unified and supportive board can propel a service to greatness. Years ago, the board and the police chief, with support from NAN, were actually prepared to disband the service in the face of abysmally inadequate funding. But together, we negotiated the best deal NAPS has ever had, and the service continues to grow and thrive. NAPS has gone from a small program to the largest First Nation police service in the country, leading the way in the development of legislation that will finally see First Nation police services become legislated, if they so choose, to receive all the funding and protections of a municipal police service.
The board must face the inconvenient truth that it is standing in the way of a real breakthrough with the community. We stand with Chief Hauth.
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