Thunder Bay

Death, disappearance of First Nations teens reignite concern about police practices in Thunder Bay

First Nations in northern Ontario are pooling their money to hire a private investigator as their frustration with police grows after the death of an Indigenous girl and the disappearance of an Indigenous boy this month in Thunder Bay.

First Nations may hire private investigator to look into death of Tammy Keeash, 17, in Thunder Bay river

"Something more happened to her besides accidental drowning," Pearl Slipperjack says of the death of her daughter, 17-year-old Tammy Keeash, in Thunder Bay. (Martine Laberge/Radio-Canada)

A pair of sadly familiar tragedies is unfolding this month in Thunder Bay, Ont., where a First Nations girl was found dead in a river and a First Nations boy has been missing for more than a week. 

Tammy Keeash of North Caribou Lake First Nation was found dead in a river in Thunder Bay on May 7. The 17-year-old was living in a group home in the city. She is the sixth Indigenous teen to drown in a Thunder Bay waterway since 2000. 

Josiah Begg, 14, of Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug was last seen on May 6 when he was visiting the city — 600 kilometres south of his remote First Nation — for a medical appointment.

Tammy Keeash, 17, "loved to draw, loved the outdoors and she loved her family the most," says her mother, Pearl Slipperjack. (Thunder Bay Police)
"Something more happened to her besides accidental drowning," Keeash's mother, Pearl Slipperjack, told CBC News on Wednesday. "Too many kids have been found in that river over there."

A recent coroner's inquest examined the deaths of seven Indigenous students in Thunder Bay between 2000 and 2011. The bodies of five of those students were found in one of the local rivers. 

The inquest jury could not determine how three of the teens came to be in the water, in part because of shortcomings in the Thunder Bay police investigations. The other two deaths in the river were determined to be "accidental".

"The investigation and the co-operation from the police has to improve when we have a missing child," said Nishnawbe Aski Nation Deputy Grand Chief Anna Betty Achneepineskum. "There have been numerous recommendations and testimonies from the inquest that speaks to this."

Private investigator

A flawed police investigation into the 2015 death of Stacy DeBungee of Rainy River First Nations prompted an ongoing systemic review of the way Thunder Bay police handle investigations into the deaths of Indigenous people. DeBungee was also found dead in a river.

The relationship with police is so fraught that First Nations are looking for funds to hire a private investigator to probe further into Keeash's death.

'He's always making people laugh; that's what I really miss right now,' says Sunshine Winter of her son, Josiah Begg. The 14-year-old was last seen in Thunder Bay on May 6. (Martine Laberge/Radio-Canada)
First Nations are already conducting a search for Begg that is running in parallel to the police search. On Monday, a spokesperson for Begg's family said police were discouraging volunteers from searching the river for the missing teen.

Police told CBC News on Monday there was no reason to believe Begg had gone in the water. But that's also the day, according to Thunder Bay police Staff Sgt. Ryan Hughes, that Thunder Bay police requested the assistance of the Ontario Provincial Police and its underwater recovery unit.

The boat, special equipment and divers were expected to start combing the river on Thursday morning.

Josiah Begg, 14, was last seen in Thunder Bay on May 6. (Thunder Bay Police Service)
"We're doing everything we can," Hughes said. "We're working very well with the family. We meet the family daily, provide them updates, they provide us updates.

"I'm an investigator [and] the people who work with me are investigators," he added. "We're not bringing any of the politics into it."

Meanwhile, First Nations leaders are also growing increasingly concerned about the need for children in their communities to travel far away from home for so many services, including education, foster homes and medical services.

2nd child to die in care

Keeash is the fourth girl from a remote First Nation in Ontario to die in the custody of a child welfare agency since October 2016. She is Slipperjack's second child to die in care. Slipperjack said her 18-month-old son died of mysterious causes after staying in a foster home in 2012.

"We send the kids out to a complete stranger and we don't know how the caregiver is," Slipperjack said, adding her brother killed himself while he was in the care of a child welfare agency.

Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug Chief James Cutfeet says First Nations children should not have to leave their communities for services other Canadians take for granted. (Jody Porter/CBC)
Begg was staying in the city to access medical care he could not receive at home.

"By continuing to have to leave home for services, residential school days are still in practice," said Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug Chief James Cutfeet.

Nearly two weeks after Begg disappeared, his mother, Sunshine Winter, holds out hope that her son will return home.

"He's always making people laugh," Winter said on Wednesday, a faint smile crossing her face before tears threatened again. "That's what I really miss right now.

"I believe I'll see him soon."