Thunder Bay·In Depth

Thunder Bay police force's troubled workplace culture must prioritize mental health, say experts and advocates

As the Thunder Bay Police Service faces allegations of harassment, discrimination and investigations by oversight agencies, outside experts warn of dire consequences if the policing culture doesn’t change.

9 human rights complaints filed against Thunder Bay police by officers and civilians

Thunder Bay police headquarters.
The Thunder Bay Police Service in northwestern Ontario faces at least nine human rights complaints of harassment and discrimination based on mental health, race and gender, prompting calls for a shift in workplace culture. (Marc Doucette/CBC)

Over the past few weeks, the Thunder Bay Police Service (TBPS) has faced public accusations about harassment and discrimination against its own members, and they're detailed in nine complaints filed to the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario.

The allegations, which haven't been tested in court, are based on issues surrounding mental health, race and gender.

There has also been news of investigations by two police oversight agencies and the Ontario Provincial Police into different allegations of criminal misconduct.

But it's been at least a year since problems with the Thunder Bay force's workplace culture were first identified, long after the 2018 release of the Broken Trust report that found evidence of systemic racism within the service. 

Experts and advocates in policing and mental health are now warning of dire consequences if policing culture doesn't change to support officers and civilians on the front lines.

Survey breaks down workplace concerns

A survey last year that was completed by nearly 70 per cent of the Thunder Bay Police Association showed issues from the rank-and-file. 

  • 60 per cent said they don't feel valued.
  • 64 per cent disagree or strongly disagree that senior management prioritizes mental health.
  • 74 per cent said senior management doesn't encourage openness and transparency.
  • 76 per cent described morale at the TBPS as being negative or very negative.

"There's this feeling in our station that, you know, we're to toe the line, be quiet, not voice our opinions, not ask questions, because we get singled out or there's fear of reprisal for speaking up," said police association president Colin Woods, who represents 354 members.

Woods told CBC News in an interview that this information has been shared with the police services board, as well as the police chief and now-suspended deputy chief.

Colin Woods, president of the Thunder Bay Police Association, wants an investigation into the police services board after amid concerns about the well-being of his members. (Logan Turner/CBC)

"We haven't seen any action. We haven't seen them start to make any movement," Woods said. "That's what makes me question if they do truly care about what's going on."

Human rights lawyer Chantelle Bryson, who represents nine officers and civilians in their human rights complaints against the police services board, was also critical of the board. She alleges her clients have faced harassment and discrimination that is "going wholly unchecked by the board."

The board is named in all 12 human rights complaints and reprisal filings, and board members are named as individual respondents in board member Georjann Morriseau's reprisal filing to the tribunal.

The provincial solicitor general recently asked the Ontario Civilian Police Commission to investigate the police services board for the second time in five years.

Police culture must 'break down the stigma'

Mark Baxter, president of the Police Association of Ontario, which represents more than 28,000 sworn and civilian police personnel, told CBC News policing has changed dramatically in the last few years, and that requires a fundamental shift in workplace culture.

He said police have become the "catch-all" in the absence of sufficient social services, and are increasingly responding to complex situations, including overdoses, suicides, violent incidents, people in crisis from the elements and mental health crises, although there is growing public pressure to have mental health professionals respond in place of police.

"We go running to those calls, often with very little information, and that exposes our members to trauma," Baxter said.

Mark Baxter, president of the Police Association of Ontario, says policing culture needs to shift to support the mental health of officers. (Submitted by Mark Baxter)

To deal with this trauma, police officers and leaders need to break down the stigma surrounding mental health, and encourage members to reach for support when they're struggling, Baxter said.

Some police forces have changed their culture, he said, to proactively ask officers responding to traumatic calls if they need support.

Baxter said he hadn't previously heard about the human rights allegations in Thunder Bay, but warned it could be "really dangerous and can really have fatal consequences" if people don't feel comfortable to share their struggles.

"If we have situations where senior leadership are behaving in this way, those other members who are struggling, [they] aren't as likely to come forward because they don't want to be characterized as a 'broken toy,'" he added.

Baxter was referring to the allegations by the nine Thunder Bay officers involved in the complaints to the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal. Among their claims, they say senior officers are known to refer to some officers on mental health leave as "broken toys" who've taken "sad leave."

Police budget constraints cited as a problem

Dilnaz Garda is president of Canada Beyond the Blue, a peer-led organization working to strengthen and support families of law enforcement officers.

Garda knows about the consequences of not having a supportive workplace culture in a police force.

Her brother died by suicide after many years of battling post-tramatic stress disorder (PTSD), and her husband is a police officer in Toronto.

Garda said the changes in types of calls, as well as demands by some to defund police services and refund social services, mean police officers face more pressure than ever before.

Dilnaz Garda holds the patrol hat that belonged to her brother Darius on March 18, 2021. The Toronto police officer died by suicide, and Garda is president of Canada Beyond the Blue, a peer-led organization working to strengthen and support families of law enforcement officers. (The Canadian Press/Chris Young)

That takes a tremendous toll on police, but as more officers go off on mental health leave, she said, it also takes a toll on police budgets, especially since Ontario legislation to make PTSD a presumptive workplace injury for police takes the pressure off WSIB to screen applications.

"You're going to have the employer who naturally starts looking at the budget and going, 'Oh my God, there are so many people off on PTSD, what do we do here?'" Garda said.

"Being an officer is a calling, and you will be so loyal to this service, to your community, she said. So when the police service appeals a benefits claim or says you're lying, it can create "a very toxic, divisive environment for the supervisor and the employee."

Trust fundamental to changing culture

Laura Kloosterman is a retired police officer with 33 years of experience and executive director of Badge of Life Canada, which aims to empower and promote health for public safety personnel. 

She said trust has been lost in policing.

"We don't trust each other. We don't trust management. We don't trust society. You can't transform the [workplace] culture because you don't have trust," she told CBC News.

In the 2018 Broken Trust report, Ontario's Office of the Independent Police Review Director also called attention to the lack of trust Indigenous people have in the Thunder Bay Police Service.

Kloosterman said police are "very defensive by nature," but said that can change by welcoming vulnerability and open conversations in the police force. 

"If you don't get buy-in, if you don't get everyone on the same page, then … nothing is going to change."