Ottawa

Panel reviewing Ontario's police watchdogs holds public hearing in Ottawa today

As the group tasked with reviewing Ontario's police watchdogs prepares for a Wednesday night public meeting in Ottawa to solicit feedback, anti-black racism groups say they're feeling as though their voices are being heard, but that more work needs to be done.

18 public hearings being held across the province, including one in Ottawa Wednesday

Pamela Grant, a session facilitator for the review of Ontario's police oversight bodies, says a common topic heard in meetings has been a hope for the results of watchdog investigations to be made public. (CBC)

As the group tasked with reviewing Ontario's police watchdogs prepares for a Wednesday night public meeting in Ottawa to solicit feedback, anti-black racism groups say they're feeling as though their voices are being heard, but that more work needs to be done.

A review panel led by the province's first black Court of Appeal judge, Michael Tulloch, has been given the mandate to come up with recommendations that "enhance the transparency and accountability of the province's three police oversight bodies, while at the same time ensuring that these agencies are carrying out their work as effectively and efficiently as possible," according to an Ontario government media release.

Those three oversight bodies are the Special Investigations Unit (SIU), the Office of the Independent Police Review Director (OIPRD) and the Ontario Civilian Police Commission (OCPC).

The review panel has been meeting with communities across the province in private sessions as well as 18 public hearings, including one to be held in Ottawa Wednesday at the Wabano Centre for Aboriginal Health.

Abdirahman Abdi, 37, was a Somali-Canadian with mental health issues who died in July after losing vital signs during a confrontation with Ottawa police. (Abdi family)

'Needs to be a lot more work'

On Tuesday the panel met in private sessions with specially invited community members, including one who works with Ottawa's Somali youth.

The SIU is currently investigating the death of Somali Canadian Adirahman Abdi in Ottawa following a confrontation with police on July 24. Some people in the community have said they don't trust the SIU to conduct a transparent investigation.

Hodan Egale, vice-president of the Somali Canadian Youth Centre, left the Tuesday meeting saying she felt positive about the opportunity for community members to speak out.

Calls for more accountability among police have become urgent since the death of Abdi, she said, which galvanized community members this summer in Ottawa and elsewhere with solidarity protests in both Montreal and Toronto led by the group Black Lives Matter. 

"I would say the current relationship [with police] is broken," said Egale.

"There needs to be a lot more work done for the trust to be rebuilt again."

Participant Hodan Egale says she left a Tuesday night private meeting feeling positive about the opportunity for community members to speak out. (CBC)

Making SIU findings public a common theme

One of their key recommendations to Tulloch was for the SIU's findings to be made public.

"We need to be more transparent, with better accountability, so that these issues don't happen again," she said.

That's been a frequent theme heard across the province, according to session facilitator Pamela Grant.

The review panel was announced in April, in the wake of growing concern over several deaths involving black men, and in particular the police shooting of 45-year-old Andrew Loku in Toronto, which led to protests in front of police headquarters and pickets outside Premier Kathleen Wynne's home.

"There was something that needed to be looked at," said Grant. "It was a crisis."

The death of Abdirahman Abdi galvanized members of the community demanding more transparency and accountability from police. (CBC)

'People felt their voices were heard'

The private sessions give some communities a chance to feel comfortable enough to speak plainly about their experiences, she said.

Participant Moudane Daahir said she appreciated that opportunity.

"What stuck out to me is that people felt their voices were heard," she said.

Farhia Ahmed — a member of the Justice for Abdirahman Coalition, which is calling for a more transparent investigation into Abdi's death — agreed the community has been needing an outlet.

"This is quite a timely review and the community is quite eager to have their voice heard," Ahmed said.

The meeting comes on the heels of the release of a new report on police traffic stops suggesting Middle Eastern and black drivers — particularly young men — were far more likely to be stopped by Ottawa police than other drivers.

Farhia Ahmed, a member of the Justice for Abdirahman Coalition, says the community has been needing an outlet and that the review is timely. (CBC)

Recommendations expected by March 31

The review of police oversight agencies is tasked to come up with recommendations by March 31, 2017.

The onus will then be on the province to put the panel's recommendations into action, Grant said.

Public hearings are being streamed live on the panel's website.

Members of the public can also use the site to send in their comments on the subject until December.