Thunder Bay

First Nations leaders step up calls for external oversight of troubled Thunder Bay, Ont., police service

A growing number of First Nations leaders are seeking external oversight of the Thunder Bay Police Service (TBPS) as the northwestern Ontario force is in turmoil and pressure mounts on its leadership and oversight board.

Options include disbanding police service, joint policing with First Nations service, bringing in OPP

Melvin Hardy of the Anishinabek Nation Hardy is calling for the Ontario Provincial Police to provide external oversight of Thunder Bay policing services. (Anishinabek Nation)

A growing number of First Nations leaders are seeking external oversight of the Thunder Bay Police Service (TBPS) as the northwestern Ontario force is in turmoil and pressure mounts on its leadership and oversight board.

Community and regional leaders haven't settled on one clear action or direction that should be taken to deal with the troubled police force. But the consensus among those who spoke to CBC News is they don't trust the force to serve Indigenous people.

"The Anishinabek Nation is appalled at how policing is handled in Thunder Bay," Melvin Hardy, the Northern Superior Region deputy grand chief for the Anishinabek Nation, which advocates for 39 First Nations in the province, including those within the Robinson-Superior Treaty.

Indigenous] people who visit and live in the city "deserve to feel safe," said Hardy. "They will not be if they feel unfairly targeted or systemically ignored when a crime is committed against them."

Hardy told CBC News he's calling for the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) to provide external oversight of Thunder Bay policing services pending further conversation and action.

Two weeks ago, Sol Mamakwa, the provincial NDP critic for Indigenous and treaty relations and MPP for Kiiwetinoong in northern Ontario, demanded OPP oversight of the TBPS. As well, Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN) Deputy Grand Chief Anna Betty Achneepineskum has called for the Thunder Bay police service to be disbanded.

WATCH | Sol Mamakwa speaks in the Ontario Legislature:

Ontario NDP MPP Sol Mamakwa calls for inquest and OPP oversight of Thunder Bay Police

4 months ago
Duration 3:58
Ontario NDP MPP Sol Mamawka spoke about the findings of systemic racism within the police force in Thunder Bay, Ont., and is asking the government for an inquest and Ontario Provincial Police oversight of the police service. Here's his exchange in Queen's Park with Solicitor General Sylvia Jones.

Their demands came in the wake of a confidential report for Ontario's attorney general.

The final report by a blended investigative team that spent years looking through TBPS sudden death investigations was leaked to some news organizations, including CBC News, and recommended the reinvestigations of more sudden deaths of Indigenous people.

Other leaders and organizations, including the chief of the First Nation located directly beside Thunder Bay and the Assembly of First Nations, say they too want to see more Indigenous and external oversight of city police.

Indigenous groups meeting to discuss next steps

The report details serious concerns with the investigations of 14 Indigenous people who died suddenly in the city between 2006 and 2019, and calls for reinvestigation of those cases.

Two other cases, with similar investigative concerns, should go for a coroner review or inquest, and another 25 unresolved cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls (MMIWG) in Thunder Bay should be reviewed, the investigators urged.

That adds up to at least 41 cases, and there could be more.

The report, which has been with the attorney general since March 2, begins with the disclaimer: "Due to finite timelines and resources allocated to the process outlined in this report, cases provided here are not an exhaustive list," adding there may be other sudden death cases that "warrant further investigation." It ends with the recommendation for an external audit of all death investigations in the police department's record management system.

(CBC News Graphics)

The attorney general must decide on the next steps, including when and how to inform families.

"It definitely needs action," Hardy said. "This is very much a time of uncertainty, but we fully support the families and will work in conjunction with NAN and with First Nations within the city."

Hardy said he and his team have been speaking with other large First Nations organizations — like NAN, the Chiefs of Ontario and the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) — on how to address their concerns about the treatment of Indigenous people in Thunder Bay.

In 2018, two police watchdog agencies in Ontario issued reports into the TBPS and its oversight board. Both found evidence of systemic racism and issued a set of recommendations to help address the lack of trust between Indigenous people in Thunder Bay and the city's police force.

The TBPS has been reporting annually on the implementation of those recommendations, and police Chief Sylvie Hauth previously told CBC News that reconciliation and building relationships with Indigenous communities has been a priority for her.

Joint Thunder Bay-First Nations policing model proposed

Peter Collins, the chief of Fort William First Nation (FWFN), which has its reserve right beside Thunder Bay, said they've been making some progress in recent years to address the broken trust.

"But then you deal with situations such as this, and that trust is fractured again," Collins told CBC News.

"We have a lot of work to do rebuilding and regaining that trust in the policing organization. They do have a tough job, but their job is not to overlook situations when First Nations people are found deceased in a certain manner."

Rather than bring in the OPP, Collins said he would like to see more First Nations oversight of the policing services and their investigations.

Chief Peter Collins of Fort William First Nation says revelations, such as those included in the confidential report to Ontario's attorney general calling for the reinvestigation of 14 Indigenous people's sudden deaths, set back efforts to improve trust between police and Indigenous people. (Heather Kitching / CBC)

Another approach might be to develop a blended police service or investigation team with First Nations policing services, said Collins. An example of that sort of policing could be if the Anishinabek Police Service, which offers to serve Fort William First Nation, worked in partnership with the TBPS. 

A joint initiative could help guard against failures to fully investigate Indigenous deaths, Collins said, adding that First Nations police are already severely underfunded by governments.

"The province and the feds really need to contribute to First Nations policing in our communities, and then we can really integrate ourselves toward helping city police do their mandate and investigating sudden deaths properly," he said.

"I don't want to go down the road and see the same pattern of results."

AFN urges changes to policing of Indigenous people

Terry Teegee, regional chief of the British Columbia Assembly of First Nations, holds the AFN's justice portfolio and has been following the policing situation in Thunder Bay.

"Sadly, it's not surprising that once again, in another police department, the issues of racism are running rampant," he told CBC News, pointing to the number of Indigenous people dying in police custody and the lack of urgency in solving MMIWG cases.

Terry Teegee, regional chief of the B.C. Assembly of First Nations, pictured in this CBC stock photo, says the systemic racism on display at the Thunder Bay Police Service is endemic of greater issues in policing across the country. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

There needs to be a review of, and systemic changes to, the practices of police forces and how they treat Indigenous, Black and people of colour across Canada, Teegee said.

The report calling for the reinvestigation of more sudden deaths provides more evidence that a review of the Thunder Bay police service is needed, he added.

"If it is rampant in terms of [police] misconduct and how they conduct themselves, then quite simply it should be reviewed and perhaps there's a new police force or a new opportunity to have a police force that is representative of all people."

Teegee added that disbanding the TBPS is also an option as part of the continuing conversation about the future of policing in Thunder Bay.