Matawa Learning Centre says more eyes on city watercourses have saved lives

Police in Thunder Bay, Ont., say dedicated patrols of the city's rivers and watercourses will continue but the force is looking for an "evolution" in how water rescues are carried out.

Principal at Matawa Learning Centre says 7 students are alive after intervention near rivers over past 2 years

The Neebing-McIntyre Floodway is one of several watercourses city police routinely patrol. (Lisa Laco / CBC)

Police in Thunder Bay, Ont., say dedicated patrols of the city's rivers and watercourses will continue but the force is looking for an "evolution" in how water rescues are carried out.

That comes as the principal at one Indigenous education organization in Thunder Bay told city council that the increased attention by police and other city staff to the rivers likely saved at least seven of his students' lives over the past two years.

"The difference is definitely felt just within our school program," Brad Battiston, the principal at the Matawa Learning Centre told Thunder Bay city council as councillors received an update on how the city is responding to recommendations made at the inquest into the deaths of seven First Nations students.

"I can say that over the last two years, especially with the increased efforts ... I'm going to say that there's at least seven students that are here."

Having police step up patrols of high-risk waterways was one of many recommendations to come out of the coroner's inquest that wrapped up in 2016. Five of the young people, whose deaths were examined by the inquest, were found in or near the water.
Brad Battiston is the principal at Matawa Learning Centre. (Matt Prokopchuk / CBC)

That included 15-year-old Jordan Wabasse from Webequie First Nation. Of the seven students, he was the only one attending the Matawa Learning Centre when he died.

Since police foot patrols by the rivers began in 2016, the force quickly realized the "obvious need," acting Deputy Police Chief Don Lewis said.

"It's indicative of an issue that may have gone, let's say, undetected, for lack of a better term," he continued. "[It] involved many more people than what was first anticipated."

Two officers now patrol the rivers at minimum three times over each 24 hour period, Lewis said, adding that those efforts will continue. What he'd like to see change, Lewis said, is more of a coordinated response when it comes to rescuing people in distress in the water.

"The river patrols have been identified for the time being a necessary step and a process," he said. "But it's by no means the final solution."

"There's many other moving parts to why someone would find themselves within a waterway, so we'd like to see more evolution ... into this process and other agencies, perhaps — some type of rescue-style process put into place."

Lewis said that would mean working more closely with other emergency and search and rescue services.

"At the end of the day, our officers that do find themselves in a waterway extracting someone that's found themselves in that situation, that's not a safe situation for our service members," he said, adding that police often don't have proper equipment for water rescues.

"We'd like to see steps being taken — which we're confident that that's happening as we speak — that other processes are going to be put into place that'll mitigate the safety issues for our own people and the community."

Police reported that they responded to over 450 river incidents in 2017.