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Thunder Bay Police are the focus of a human rights complaint after accidentally issuing a fake press release joking about a murder investigation involving an aboriginal victim.

Sandi Krasowski/The Canadian Press

Even if you start from the premise that some racial, ethnic or homophobic jokes are funny, the question becomes whether the laughs are worth the hurt they cause.

There may be some people (blessedly few, we hope) who would laugh at the joke that a Thunder Bay police investigator made in a murder case involving an aboriginal victim. To us, it was grotesque. But the pain and damage from such a joke massively outweigh any alleged humour in it.

A 65-year-old native man, Adam Yellowhead, was found dead – murdered – in an area frequented by people who drink mouthwash to become drunk. The lead investigator for the Thunder Bay Police Service wrote a fake press release about arresting a suspected killer, intended only for the eyes of his fellow police officers. "Fresh breath killer captured!!!" But then the investigator mistakenly sent out the fake release. Oops.

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Police are known for their gallows humour. But then – how did this police force respond to the accidental publication? With what seems to have been a pro forma internal inquiry. The officer in question acknowledged he wrote the release. He didn't mean anything by it. It wasn't meant as a racial thing. The police chief and then the mayor, who sits on the civilian board overseeing the force, accepted the officer's word. Case closed. No apology necessary.

And now the police are angry about a human rights complaint about it all from three first nations, represented by the Toronto lawyer Julian Falconer. The police say the natives have broken faith with them. Now that's funny!

He didn't mean anything by it. The officer gave the same childish defence that the Toronto Blue Jay shortstop Yunel Escobar used this week after wearing, in Spanish, the phrase "you are a faggot" in a strip of black tape under his eyes during the game.

But think of it from the view of the aboriginal community, or of anyone not connected to the police service. Wouldn't any outsider reasonably believe the police are treating an aboriginal murder victim, and maybe aboriginal life, a bit shabbily, as if it's not worth a whole lot? And wouldn't this make aboriginal people, including the family of Mr. Yellowhead, feel terribly alone?

This isn't about political correctness. All too often, silence still greets truly hurtful jokes – the socially correct silence that emboldens people like the Thunder Bay police officer and Yunel Escobar. Words mean something. Words have power. The word sorry has a great deal of power, as a start.

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