Thunder Bay

Ontario's chief forensic pathologist wants to see autopsies done in Thunder Bay

Ontario's chief forensic pathologist says he agrees with the recommendation made by Ontario's independent police watchdog that calls for the capacity for autopsies to be done in Thunder Bay but adds it's ultimately up to the province's community safety ministry whether a forensic pathology unit is set up in the northwestern Ontario city.

Michael Pollanen says OIPRD's call for Thunder Bay forensic pathology unit 'directly aligns' with his vision

Michael Pollanen is Ontario's chief forensic pathologist. (David Donnelly/CBC)

Ontario's chief forensic pathologist says he agrees with the recommendation made by Ontario's independent police watchdog that calls for the capacity for autopsies to be done in Thunder Bay but adds it's ultimately up to the province's community safety ministry whether a forensic pathology unit is set up in the northwestern Ontario city.

Ontario Independent Police Review Director (OIPRD) Gerry McNeilly released a highly-critical, 200-plus page report in December into systemic racism in the Thunder Bay Police Service which makes dozens of recommendations. Most are aimed at the local force but several call on the chief coroner's and chief forensic pathologist's offices to improve communication and coordination between each other and police investigators when probing deaths in Thunder Bay.

One of those recommendations calls for a forensic pathology unit in the city so autopsies can be performed locally. McNeilly's report stated that "there are significant challenges affecting the ultimate quality and timeliness of [police] investigations in not having a forensic pathology unit in Thunder Bay and in the requirement that [police] officers must be sent to Toronto for autopsies."

"The suggestion or the recommendation of producing a regional forensic pathology in Thunder Bay directly aligns with our vision for the death investigation system," Dr. Michael Pollanen, Ontario's chief forensic pathologist told CBC News.

"We will work with the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services and our senior management team to progress that recommendation."

Currently, the vast majority of autopsies ordered on deaths in Thunder Bay are done in Toronto.

Ontario does have a system of regional units, usually set up in partnership with teaching hospitals and medical schools, Pollanen said but in the north, there are only two such units in Sudbury and Sault Ste. Marie. Having "regional capacity" for autopsies helps to keep the death investigation process running smoothly, he added.

"It also allows for the seamless communication because the autopsies are occurring in the geographical area where the police are present, where the Crown Attornies are present, where the local defence bar is present," he said.

"So in other words ... this regional or community approach is a highly effective way of delivering service."

Pollanen added that, ultimately, he'd like to see the regional model extended to include Kenora as well.

Chief coroner, forensic pathologist 'embrace' OIPRD recommendations

Improving communication between police, coroners and pathologists, while front-and-centre in McNeilly's recommendations to Pollanen and chief coroner Dirk Huyer, has already started, Huyer said.

A specific framework, or set of guidelines, for death investigations was developed while the police oversight body was conducting its investigation, Huyer said, adding that the framework effectively focuses on how best to manage communication and information-sharing between agencies.

That's crucial for investigations in Thunder Bay, officials said, due to the geographical distance from Toronto.

"We identified challenges that had occured both in our experience with investigations of death but also identified by the OIPRD and we've specifically outlined those, we've highlighted those," Huyer said. "We've pointed out the structure and the approach that should be — must be — taken for each of the death investigations that have the high attention ... type of case management."

"By bringing in a framework, it puts a structure in place, it's applied across the board and that way that allows us to address the issues in a systematic way."
Dirk Huyer is Ontario's chief coroner. (CBC)

The goal is "seamless communication" between police, the coroner and forensic pathologist," Pollanen said, adding that the framework makes use of technology like teleconferencing or videoconferencing to deal with geographical separation as well as prioritizing sharing of information such as images from the scene and establishing case conferences after autopsies are done.

Those conferences allow everyone involved to go over emerging hypotheses in the case and confirm progress, like what tests still need to be done and what additional investigative steps need to be pursued, Pollanen said.

"[We] have recognized there's opportunities to enhance our approaches and knowledge," Huyer said. "This framework sets this into motion and it really puts a process in place that allows ... the sharing of that information in a concrete, framework."

"With everybody at the table, everybody gets to share and talk and it also allows everybody who has different perspectives to challenge each other and to think through the perspectives more broadly."

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