Thunder Bay

Indigenous leaders demand Thunder Bay, Ont., police lose power to investigate major cases

Indigenous leaders in northern Ontario on Wednesday held a news conference at Queen's Park to press the province to take action on policing in Thunder Bay, demanding that the force be stripped of its authority to investigate major cases.

OPP should be investigating Indigenous sudden deaths, deputy grand chief says

Nishnawbe Aski Nation Deputy Grand Chief Anna Betty Achneepineskum, Kiiwetinoong MPP Sol Mamakwa and Anishinabek Nation Grand Council Chief Reg Niganobe, left to right, spoke at a news conference Wednesday at the Ontario Legislature to urge the province to step in and address the issues with the Thunder Bay Police Service. (Queen's Park Media Studio)

Indigenous leaders in northern Ontario continue to press the province to take action on policing in Thunder Bay, demanding Wednesday that the police service be stripped of its authority to investigate major cases.

Anishinabek Nation Grand Council Chief Reg Niganobe and Nishnawbe Aski Nation deputy Grand Chief Anna Betty Achneepineskum held a morning news conference at Queen's Park, and repeated their calls for government intervention.

In recent weeks, the Thunder Bay Police Service has faced a report identifying additional Indigenous sudden death cases that were insufficiently investigated, as well as internal turmoil, with a growing number of human rights complaints filed by officers and a member of its oversight board against the force's leadership.

Niganobe said Indigenous people have lost trust in the police service and the Thunder Bay Police Services Board.

"The Thunder Bay Police Service leaves a trail of inadequate investigations, a negligently managed records system and a lack of substantive oversight," he said.

"Trust is broken, and every day the Thunder Bay Police Service remains in control of major crime investigations is another day Indigenous people are at risk in the city."

The Thunder Bay Police Services Board issued a statement Wednesday afternoon, announcing it is scheduling an emergency meeting on Saturday to address the concerns.

"Our work to transform the Thunder Bay Police Service and address the deep systemic issues is ongoing," board chair Kristen Oliver said in a statement.

"I, as Board Chair, understand more work needs to be done to rebuild our relationships with Northwestern Ontario Indigenous leaders and people.

Without trust in law enforcement from our community, the system doesn't work."

Earlier this year, Ontario Solicitor General Sylvia Jones asked the Ontario Civilian Police Commission to launch a probe into Thunder Bay police leadership and its oversight board. The OPP has confirmed it's investigating alleged criminal misconduct involving Thunder Bay police members.

Calls for major change

There have been calls for the police service to be disbanded, and for the OPP to immediately assume oversight.

Niganobe, referencing 2018 reviews by the Office of the Independent Police Review Director and the Ontario Civilian Police Commission into the police service and the board, said expert reports have yet to lead to substantive change and concrete action is needed.

One of those reports — Broken Trust — led to the reinvestigation of 10 Indigenous sudden deaths. During that process, an additional 14 Indigenous sudden death cases between 2009 and 2016 have been recommended for re-examination.

A report into nine of those initial reinvestigations identified deficiencies with the original Thunder Bay police investigations.

Achneepineskum, the aunt of two of the deceased, on Wednesday described those reinvestigations as flawed.

She said if there were to be a sudden death involving an Indigenous person in Thunder Bay today, the case should be turned over to provincial police.

Issue discussed during question period

Sol Mamakwa, NDP MPP for Kiiwetinoong riding, raised the issue in question period on the floor of the Ontario Legislature within an hour of the news conference, and asked whether the government would commit to calling for OPP oversight of the Thunder Bay police force.

"Systemic racism within the Thunder Bay police is preventing justice for Indigenous people. It is intolerable."

Jones said the government takes misconduct allegations seriously, but will allow the ongoing reviews to continue without political interference.

"These serious allegations must be and are being investigated by independents, through the Ontario Civilian Police Commission, through the OPP," Jones said. 

"Those investigations must happen — in order, exactly as [Mamakwa] said — to bring back trust and faith in the police services in Thunder Bay and elsewhere. We've done that. Those investigations are ongoing. We should not — and cannot — politically interfere in those independent reviews as they take place."

A spokesperson for the police service said police Chief Sylvie Hauth will review the comments made during Wednesday morning's news conference and discuss them with the board in the near future.

In an interview with CBC News earlier this month, Hauth said the additional deaths recommended for reinvestigation came after 1,700 cases between 2009 and 2017 were reviewed, with 229 of those examined by other law enforcement agencies.

Hauth said she would fully co-operate with the ongoing reviews and investigations.