Thunder Bay·Audio

Thunder Bay police to revamp recruiting, training as part of new diversity efforts

Police in Thunder Bay, Ont., say a new initiative aimed at promoting diversity in the service will be a permanent endeavour and one that will lead to change in the force.

Efforts aim to improve relations with Indigenous communities, combat charges of systemic racism

Thunder Bay police's new diversity initiative was unveiled at Tuesday's meeting of the Thunder Bay Police Services Board. (Cathy Alex / CBC)

Police in Thunder Bay, Ont., say a new initiative aimed at promoting diversity in the service will be a permanent endeavour and one that will lead to change in the force.

The efforts were unveiled at a meeting of the Thunder Bay Police Services Board on Tuesday. The initiative will put more emphasis on recruiting to better attract Indigenous and other under-represented people, better internal cultural training and revamping the Aboriginal liaison unit with a focus on community policing.

"The present recruiting model does not work well for a lot of the folks from First Nations communities," said Chris Adams, Thunder Bay police's director of communications, of the need for police services to reflect the communities they serve.

"I'm not saying we want to change all the standards but with a bit of coaching ... we might get [people from under-represented populations] through the job experience."

The new efforts build on a previous program that effectively ran from 2004 to 2008, which attempted to tackle similar issues. The Diversity in Policing project reviewed policies around hiring and training — and was subsequently lauded by the a United Nations agency — but, according to a report to the police services board signed by Chief Sylvie Hauth, "momentum within the [police service] waned."

Chris Adams (left) is Thunder Bay police's director of communications and Leisa Desmoulins (right) is a professor at Lakehead University and a consultant on the police's new diversity strategy. (Cathy Alex / CBC)

The report pointed to a number of "tipping points" that led to the new initiative, includingthe inquest into the deaths of seven First Nations students in Thunder Bay, which included criticism of the way police handled some of the investigations, the ongoing review by Ontario's Independent Police Review Director, including the death investigation that spawned it, concerns raised by Ontario's Human Rights Commissioner and the local community, as well as increased media scrutiny.

"I think back then, we were just, as a community, starting to be at the beginning of understanding what these issues are, what these barriers are for Indigenous people," Adams said of the period in the mid-2000s when the previous program ran.

"We have a lot of ground to cover to tear these barriers down because every organization that we've kind of created in this colonial country of Canada, we've created in a way that we have to tear it apart a little bit," he continued. "Policing, we're part of that."

'Living in a different place'

Opening the lines of communication between police and the affected communities is key, said Leisa Desmoulins, a professor at Lakehead University and a consultant on the new strategy.

"I have connections to both the Indigenous community and to the police and I find that the stories, you could be liviing in a different place, they're that divergent," she said. "I think that until we can talk to one other, until we can sit down and have a conversation, organizations or institutions can't change."

"What we're looking to do now is ... to have external input, absolutely, but that the police take this on as a responsibility that continues," Desmoulins continued. "It's an initiative that's part of policing for Thunder Bay Police Service."

Proof of change will have to be visible, Adams acknowledged.

"I think in our case, what we really need to be able to show is that we're out there, standing next to the Indigenous community," he said. "Side by side, we're coming to your events ... we're interested in what you have to say."

"That has to happen both inside the building and outside the building."