Thunder Bay

Police violence, racism must stop, say demonstrators who forced meeting with police in Thunder Bay, Ont.

Demonstrators with a group called ‘Not One More Death’ are calling for an end to police brutality and more public accountability from the Thunder Bay Police Service.
A group called Not One More Death says it will plant a tree at Thunder Bay police headquarters every time there is an act of police violence and a lack of accountability from the Thunder Bay police service. (Jody Porter/CBC)

Demonstrators with a group called 'Not One More Death' are calling for an end to police brutality and more public accountability from the Thunder Bay Police Service.

A group of about a dozen people gathered outside police headquarters on Balmoral Street on Tuesday but postponed their plans to plant a tree, without a permit, after a First Nations elder from the group met privately with the First Nations elder from the police service and the police board chair.

"They told us to give them a chance," said Ma-Nee Chacaby, the elder with the group. "But if nothing happens, we're going to plant a forest."

Chacaby said the tree represents young life and she is particularly concerned about interactions between Indigenous youth and the police after a video recording of a police officer striking a First Nations girl on a stretcher in 2018 was shared on social media.

"We will not be taking action today but this process is just beginning," says Jessica Jurgutis, (left) and Cassie Thornton are with the group Not One More Death calling for an end to police violence in Thunder Bay. (Jody Porter/CBC)

"When you're dealing with a young person you don't slap them around," Chacaby said. "Like even in my building when I see policemen coming in my yard I start to feel like 'oh no what's going on?' Who are they gonna hurt this time? It's really hard to trust someone when you see them beat up somebody."

Last month, Police Service Act charges were dropped against the officer in the video, Cst. Courtney Clair. Police refused to say how the officer was disciplined.

"Our officers have a right to privacy," said Deputy Chief Ryan Hughes after speaking with the demostrators. "I understand their concerns but they haven't talked to [everyone involved in the disciplinary process] they're just going on one little tidbit in the news."

The demonstrators vow to act every time "there is police violence and a lack of transparency or accountability," according to Cassie Thornton who spoke to reporters after the planting was called off, saying systemic racism must be rooted out of the police service.

An independent review of Thunder Bay police in 2018 determined there was systemic racism at an institution level throughout the service and that the service failed to conduct proper investigations into at least nine deaths of Indigenous people.

A reinvestigation of those cases, with the help of outside expertise, was launched last year and is on-going.

Deputy Police Chief Ryan Hughes met with demonstrators outside Thunder Bay police headquarters on Tuesday, saying their planned tree-planting was not permitted. (Jody Porter/CBC)

"The OIPRD recommendations have been taken care of," Hughes said. "A lot has changed. We are culturally aware. Our relationships with Indigenous groups and diverse groups have changed."

But the man who headed up the investigation into the Police Services Board says Thunder Bay police still have "a long way to go" in addressing its shortcomings.

In his 2018 report, Senator Murray Sinclair found there was "unmistakable racism" displayed by individuals within the Thunder Bay Police service ranging from "well-documented public mockery of Indigenous individuals to excessive force against and humiliation of Indigenous individuals to disturbing custody deaths."

The board has since been reformed, but in an interview this week with CBC, Sinclair says he's not yet willing to say the systemic racism has been addressed.

Georjann Morriseau, the new chair of the police services board, met with the elders and demonstrators outside the police station on Tuesday. The former chief of Fort William First Nation was wearing a ribbon skirt and carrying an eagle fan as she addressed the group.

"We asked the elders to be here," she said. "The first thing we have to do is start in a good way and see what we can do to move forward. It's about an ongoing relationship."

She said a meeting among elders from the Not One More Death group and the police service will take place within the next few weeks.

Morriseau said she would also take time after the demonstration to speak with police officers who might have questions about what happened and how it was dealt with.

The board is trying to deal with concerns about transparency, she said and wants to "keep the public as well aware of what's happening as we can" in disciplinary matters.

No discipline yet in botched case that prompted reviews

Still, she said she cannot comment on specific cases, including that of the officers involved in the investigation into the death of Stacy Debungee.

None of them have been disciplined, despite an OIPRD finding there were grounds for neglect of duty charges against three officers and discreditable conduct charges against two officers involved in the case.

Debungee's brother, Brad and his community of Rainy River First Nations filed the complaint in 2016 that put the Thunder Bay police under the microscope. Stacy Debungee's body was found in the McIntyre river in 2015. 

The review found police too quickly deemed Debungee's death an accident and that racism was a factor in the failed investigation. 

Disciplinary action against the officers involved has been delayed by hearings over whether decisions about how to proceed with the case should be open to the public.

"I'm hoping there is some resolve at some point," Morriseau said. "I know what it's like in my family as well, you lose people to ways that cannot be explained. I empathize with those families."