First Nation demands OPP officer fired after allegedly leaving man on remote northern Ontario highway
OPP say it has investigated the incident, and re-assigned the officer
First Nations leaders are calling for the Ontario Provincial Police to fire one of its sergeants after she allegedly left a man on the side of a remote highway and told him not to return to a northern Ontario township in the summer of 2019.
The incident was essentially a "starlight tour," said Wilfred King, chief of Gull Bay First Nation (also known as Kiashke Zaaging Anishinabek). That's a practice where police officers would drive people, often Indigenous people suspected of public intoxication, out of a town, then leave them on the side of the road to fend for themselves.
"This individual's charter rights were violated. His human rights were violated and his legal rights were violated," King told CBC News.
"She should be dismissed from the police service, because it's criminal behaviour. That type of behavior should not go unchallenged."
In a statement to CBC News, OPP spokesperson Bill Dickson said the matter was investigated, and the officer in question was removed from the Gull Bay area. Dickson said he couldn't provide details "on any potential informal disciplinary measures which may have been taken," because it is a confidential, personnel matter.
CBC News has not been able to independently verify what happened and has asked Dickson if the sergeant would be able to give an interview, but the OPP has not responded to that request.
King, and other experts that have researched starlight tours and police abandonment, say any officer that takes someone into police custody without due process and then abandoning them exhibits criminal behaviour.
'I could have died'
The man who was left on the side of the road, Jeremiah Skunk of Mishkeegogamang First Nation, said OPP Sgt. Tammy Bradley should be fired.
In an interview with CBC News, Skunk said he was visiting his then-girlfriend in Armstong, Ont., located 250 kilometres north of Thunder Bay and 70 kilometres north of Gull Bay, in July or August 2019. He was outside her home after they had a dispute, when Bradley arrived, put him in handcuffs and into the back of the cruiser.
She was going to bring him to the detachment in nearby Whitesand First Nation, but he asked her to drive him to Thunder Bay, located 190 kilometres south of Gull Bay, because he didn't know anyone else in the area.
Instead, Skunk said she drove him about 10 minutes down the road, took off his handcuffs, and let him out with half a bottle of water and a sandwich.
She told me not to come back to Armstrong, or I will be charged with trespassing.- Jeremiah Skunk, recounting his encounter with OPP Sgt. Tammy Bradley
"She told me not to come back to Armstrong, or I will be charged with trespassing," Skunk recalled.
So he walked for 10 to 14 hours to Gull Bay, the next closest community on the remote highway, on a hot summer day, Skunk said. Along the way, he had to drink water out of puddles on the side of the road to stay hydrated, and had an encounter with a mother bear and two cubs.
"I could have died," he said. "I could have [been] killed by a bear."
When Skunk arrived to Gull Bay, he told one of the two officers at the Gull Bay Police Department, and says he also submitted a complaint to a police organization in Toronto, but he doesn't remember where he made the complaint.
He says his memory is fuzzy, but sometime in 2021 an officer he thinks was in Kenora, Ont., called to hear what happened. Skunk says he never heard back, and doesn't know what happened to Bradley or if she was disciplined.
"Any cop that does things like that, they should be fired from their position," he said, adding he doesn't trust police officers after this happened.
OPP spokesperson Dickson said the allegations were investigated by their Professional Standards Unit, and Skunk was notified of the findings — although Skunk says he doesn't remember any meeting with the OPP.
Bradley has not served in the area around Armstrong since February 2022, and she has been reassigned to "non-frontline duties" in another part of the province, Dickson added.
Long history of police 'starlight tours' in Canada
This practice of police abandonment of Indigenous people has a long history in Canada, according to two researchers that spoke with CBC News.
Both said they were disturbed but not surprised to hear Skunk's allegations.
Susan Schuppli, based at Goldsmiths, University of London, has investigated the way cold and temperature has been used as an often clandestine instrument of policing in North America.
Starlight tours are one example, Schuppli said, as a practice that was uncovered in Saskatchewan in the early 2000s where Indigenous people in particular were taken into police custody, often late at night and in the depths of winter, driven to the outskirts of town and abandoned, forced to walk back alone.
In 1990, Neil Stonechild, 17, was found frozen to death in a remote field on the outskirts of Saskatoon, and more than a decade later, two officers were fired but never criminally charged for their role in the death of Stonechild.
Three other men were found frozen to death outside Saskatoon in January and February 2000, although inquests into their deaths didn't reveal what happened leading up to their deaths.Two police officers were found guilty of unlawful confinement in relation to conducting a starlight tour with a fourth man during that same time in January 2000.
"Any instance where someone is taken into police custody, where the necessary paperwork isn't filed … where there's an abdication of all institutional responsibility and ethical responsibility for that person, as far as I'm concerned, that is in effect a starlight tour," Schuppli said.
"The minute somebody is abandoned, that they're not processed properly when they're taken into police custody, that is the crime … that's an extremely abusive and violent act."
It's a practice that dates back to the very creation of policing in Canada, said Travis Hay, an assistant professor at Mount Royal University in Calgary. Historically, police enforced a system of removing Indigenous peoples from city spaces, limiting their free movement and keeping them on reserve, he said.
It began in a literal sense, with the pass system, which forced First Nations people to get a pass approved by an Indian agent to leave the reserve, and continues with episodes like the one Skunk described as happening to him, Hay said.
"Indigenous peoples, especially if they're seen as being intoxicated, can be opened up to forms of police violence that go from harassment to assault to unlawful confinement and all the way up to murder in the case of some of these freezing deaths [in Saskatchewan]," he added.
Gull Bay waiting for response to 3 complaints
Gull Bay Chief Wilfred King said this behaviour requires a transparent investigation and public accountability, something they haven't seen happen in the last three years.
In addition to the complaint Skunk says he made, King said Gull Bay had also filed a complaint with the OPP in 2019. Nothing came of it, so King said they filed an additional complaint directly with the OPP Commissioner Thomas Carrique in February 2022, who assured the community they would investigate and share the results of the investigation.
King says besides a few calls and emails, they don't know the findings of the investigation or the discipline process.
To him, the OPP's decision to post Bradley elsewhere in Ontario is in effect "a promotion rather than a disciplinary measure when you consider that most OPP officers do not want to be posted in the North.
"She still holds the rank of a sergeant, and I'm not sure if she is supervising other police officers [or if] she's located in and around First Nations," King said.
Dickson said they can't share the results of the investigation with the leadership of Gull Bay because they "were not complainants in the matter."
Two additional serious complaints have been made to OPP Commissioner Thomas Carrique about the conduct of Bradley. Those include allegations that she stole equipment from the OPP Armstrong detachment, and directed charges to be laid against a Gull Bay community member and a staff member of the First Nation — both without grounds or evidence.
King says the OPP still have not responded to those complaints.
In a statement Monday morning, OPP spokesperson Dickson said the force considers one of the complaints to be resolved, and the organization is currently reviewing the other against Sgt. Bradley.
Gull Bay will continue to push for answers to these complaints, King said, and plans to bring forward motions at upcoming Chiefs of Ontario and Assembly of First Nations meetings.
"I don't have any faith in that police service at all, and I really think there's a real need now to have First Nation policing across Canada in all First Nation communities."