Thunder Bay·In Depth

Thunder Bay, Ont., police board under scrutiny over how it handled human rights complaints

As the Thunder Bay Police Service faces allegations of a toxic workplace culture, the oversight board for the northwestern Ontario force is under increased scrutiny amid calls for an administrator to be appointed.

Police governance experts say administrator should be appointed as soon as possible

Thunder Bay police headquarters.
The Thunder Bay Police Services Board is named in 12 complaints and reprisals filed to the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario, alleging a toxic workplace culture where officers and civilians face discrimination based on mental health, race and gender. (Marc Doucette/CBC)

As the Thunder Bay Police Service faces allegations of a toxic workplace culture, the oversight board for the northwestern Ontario force is under increased scrutiny amid calls for an administrator to be appointed.

Some are calling for the Thunder Bay Police Services Board to be disbanded and temporarily replaced by an administrator — for the second time in a matter of years.

"They're not doing their job on an interim basis until these [human rights complaints] can be fleshed out on actual evidence, factual findings and legal analysis, either through a settlement or at the tribunal," human rights lawyer Chantelle Bryson told CBC News.

Bryson is representing all nine active and retired officers and civilians who filed the complaints with the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario, including board member Georjann Morriseau.

None of the allegations in the human rights tribunal filings have been tested or proven in court.

Board chair Kristen Oliver did not respond to a CBC News request for an interview. But in an email, Oliver said "given that we are before the Human Rights Tribunal, the board is steadfast that we do not want to jeopardize the integrity of the process, as such we are limited on what we can say publicly."

Police board, members named in complaints

The police services board is named as a respondent in all nine human rights complaints, which allege they are "doing nothing in response [to the complaints] to protect officers or the public."

Four of the five board members — chair and city councillor Oliver, Mayor Bill Mauro, Michael Power and Roydon Pelletier — as well as board secretary and former Thunder Bay city clerk John Hannam — have been named as individual respondents in fellow board member Morriseau's human rights reprisal.

Reprisals are followup complaints made after a complainant faced retaliatory actions or threats in response to their original complaints.

The reprisal alleges that after Morriseau filed her human rights complaint in October, the board members and Hannam sought to remove Morriseau from the police services board by requesting an investigation from the Ontario Civilian Police Commission. 

The commission would not say if it ever opened an investigation into Morriseau.

But a letter dated Jan. 22 from Ontario Solicitor General Sylvia Jones confirmed she requested a separate civilian police investigation into the chief, deputy chief and administration of the Thunder Bay police force following allegations included in the human rights complaints. Bryson shared that letter with CBC News.

Nearly three weeks later, the civilian police commission announced it would in fact be conducting an investigation, focusing on allegations of "serious misconduct" by the chief, deputy chief and police lawyer.

This is the second investigation into the police service by the same commission in a period of five years.

Chantelle Bryson, a human rights lawyer based in Thunder Bay, Ont., represents 12 officers and civilians who have or will be filing human rights complaints against the Thunder Bay Police Service. (Submitted by Chantelle Bryson)

Bryson has also requested the disbandment of the police oversight board, and has been calling for the appointment of an independent administrator to function in its place.

In a Feb. 9 letter to Jones that was shared with CBC News, Bryson requested that the provincial solicitor general provide a plan of action to protect her clients, whom she alleges continue to experience "extreme and cruel stress, and some are being directly retaliated against while on mental health leave or upon an attempt to return to work."

Bryson said she would continue to take legal action in an attempt to protect her clients and "remove the board," and questioned whether the civilian police commission even had sufficient staff or investigators to complete the requested investigation.

The Ontario Civilian Police Commission did not respond to questions about their staffing levels.

Calls for outside administrator

It's a festering issue that two police governance experts agree should be resolved through the appointment of an outside administrator.

Alok Mukherjee is former chair of the Toronto Police Services Board, former president of both the Ontario and Canadian Association of Police Boards, and a former acting chief commissioner and vice-chair of the Ontario Human Rights Commission.

"The [Thunder Bay police oversight] board clearly doesn't appear to be in a position to take care of its own affairs," Mukherjee said in an interview with CBC News.

He said he hopes the civilian oversight commission will act quickly and ask the board to step aside for the second time in four years, and appoint an administrator to act in its place.

Alok Mukherjee, chair of the Toronto Police Services Board from 2005 to 2015, says he hopes the Ontario Civilian Police Commission steps in to temporarily appoint an administrator to oversee the Thunder Bay police force. (Submitted by Alok Mukherjee)

"But it won't be sufficient to simply appoint an administrator, without the resources and the mandate to implement Sinclair's report," Mukherjee added.

He was referring to the the 2018 Broken Trust report by retired senator Murray Sinclair that was commissioned by the Ontario Civilian Police Commission the last time Thunder Bay police faced allegations of misconduct. 

The report found "the board has failed to recognize and address the clear and indisputable pattern of violence and systemic racism against Indigenous people in Thunder Bay.

"Moreover, the board's failure to act on these issues in the face of overwhelming documentary and media exposure is indicative of wilful blindness," said the report, which set out 32 recommendations to address the systemic discrimination.

The report also led to the temporary dissolution of the oversight board and the controversial, one-year appointment of administrator Tom Lockwood.

Given there is a request for yet another Ontario Civilian Police Commission investigation less than two years after Lockwood's departure, Mukherjee questioned whether any real organizational or functional change took place.

Dismantling board not enough, expert says

Michael Kempa, an associate criminology professor at the University of Ottawa, also said the oversight board "should be dismantled for the second time with an administrator taking control of the situation." But he stressed that alone won't solve the problems facing police governance in Thunder Bay.

He acknowledged the specific issues of anti-Indigenous discrimination in the city, but said across Canada, governing police has become more complex.

"Policing changes significantly about every 20 to 25 years, [so] you need to revisit the legislation around police governance and make sure that the appointment processes and safety valves that exist on police boards are the correct ones," Kempa said in an interview with CBC News.

Michael Kempa, an association professor in criminology at the University of Ottawa, says Canada is in a generational moment where police oversight needs to be revamped. The situation in Thunder Bay points to the need for change, he says. (Steve Fischer/CBC)

"We're definitely at that moment."

Policing budgets are in crisis, and there's a push for social service agencies to respond to certain community safety calls, especially in the area of mental health, Kempa said. 

"You're going to need very active, very competent and very confident police services oversight bodies to manage all this change and not allow political considerations to constantly creep in."

Moving forward, it can't just be new bodies in the same seats, Kempa said, adding there has to be a new framework to guide oversight bodies in their work to reimagine policing for the next generation.