Thunder Bay

Secrecy of police board hearing in Thunder Bay, Ont., must be reconsidered, appeal court rules

A retired judge will have to decide anew whether to keep secret a hearing that will decide if police officers should face disciplinary proceedings for their investigation into the death of an Indigenous man, Ontario's top court ruled on Friday.
Stacy DeBungee's body was found in the McIntyre River in Thunder Bay on Oct. 19, 2015. (CBC)

A retired judge will have to decide anew whether to keep secret a hearing that will decide if police officers should face disciplinary proceedings for their investigation into the death of an Indigenous man, Ontario's top court ruled on Friday.

The appeal raises important questions about the openness of police board hearings as guaranteed by the charter, the Court of Appeal said in its decision.

The case arose in October 2015, when the body of Stacy DeBungee, 41, was found in the McIntyre River in Thunder Bay, Ont. Within hours, the Thunder Bay Police Service said his death was not suspicious and closed its investigation.

DeBungee's brother and the chief of the Rainy River First Nations complained to the province's police oversight agency, the Office of the Independent Police Review Director. In February 2018, the office found evidence existed to suggest the officers involved in the death investigation had committed misconduct.

Because of the amount of time that had passed since the initial complaint, the city's police service board needed to decide whether to grant an extension to allow disciplinary proceedings to go ahead. Rather than decide itself, the board asked a retired judge, Lee Ferrier, to hold a hearing on the extension.

At the urging of the chief of police, the oversight agency and officers involved, Ferrier decided the extension hearing should be held behind closed doors. He did so over the complainants' objections and despite the fact that hearings under the Police Service Act are, by law, normally open to the public.

In his ruling, Ferrier decided among other things that holding an open hearing could taint witnesses and stigmatize the officers involved.   

The complainants and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation turned to Divisional Court, where they argued unsuccessfully that the charter requires an open hearing except in narrow circumstances.

On appeal, the complainants and CBC argued the extension hearing should be open given the allegations of racism and mistreatment on the part of the Thunder Bay police toward the Indigenous community.

The higher court found Ferrier was partly right. However, it also noted a subsequent Appeal Court ruling that the charter guarantees the public's right to attend police board meetings unless there are compelling reasons to abridge that right.

The Court of Appeal ordered Ferrier to take another look at his secrecy decision but offered several reasons as to why he should lean toward openness.

"It is arguable that the price to be paid for that added element of legitimacy is the kind of openness that quasi-judicial proceedings ordinarily attract," the Appeal Court noted.

In addition, the court noted that a highly critical report from the oversight agency into systemic racism within the Thunder Bay police has since been made public, and the issues surrounding DeBungee's death have attracted significant media interest and are widely known.

"The complaint that (the officers) were guilty of misconduct forms part of a much larger pattern of concern," the court said. "The racial tension between the Indigenous community and the TBPS, the distrust of the Indigenous community towards the TBPS and the current state of administration of criminal justice all point strongly to the need for openness and transparency."

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