Thunder Bay

Thunder Bay, Ont., police face 'systemic review' of Indigenous death investigations

Police in Thunder Bay, Ont., are under review by the province's civilian police oversight body for the way they treat the deaths of Indigenous people in the city.

'First Nations lives matter,' says Sonny McGinnis, who helped launch complaint

Brad DeBungee says he doesn't believe the Thunder Bay, Ont., police theory that his brother Stacy DeBungee passed out and rolled into this spot to drown in the McIntyre River in October 2015. (Nick Sherman/CBC)

Police in Thunder Bay, Ont., will be reviewed by the province's civilian police oversight body for the way they treat the deaths of Indigenous people, a move that one expert calls unprecedented in Ontario.

"In terms of the actions of this relatively new police oversight body, this is precedent setting in the province of Ontario," said Akwasi Owusu-Bempeh, an assistant sociology professor at the University of Toronto who specializes in race, crime and policing. "It is the first time they have investigated an entire police service for institutionalized racism."

News of the forthcoming investigation by the Office of the Independent Police Review Director (OIPRD) comes almost a year after the drowning death of Stacey DeBungee, which was quickly deemed accidental by Thunder Bay police.

A private investigator, hired by the family, later found several suspicious circumstances, including the use of DeBungee's bank card after his death.

"There's a justice for non-Natives and there's a justice for Natives, that's what needs to be addressed," said DeBungee's cousin Sonny McGinnis.

"There has to be an inclusion of us as worthy citizens," he added. "First Nations lives matter."

The review will also "probe the approach taken generally to such or similar cases, as well as drawing on information and evidence from the current inquest into the deaths of Aboriginal youth," said a July 4 letter from the investigating agency.

The deaths of seven First Nations youths in Thunder Bay were the subject of a coroner's inquest that concluded in June. Like DeBungee, five of the students bodies were found in the river. The cause of three of the river deaths was ruled as undetermined by the inquest jury.

A letter from the agency saying it would launch an investigation to determine whether there was misconduct on behalf of police officers in the DeBungee case, as well as outlining the "broader systemic review," was sent to the lawyer for Rainy River First Nations in July.

While the letter to the lawyer says "a broader systemic review into these issues will be conducted in the fall," a spokeswoman for the OIPRD told CBC News it has yet to be launched.

There will be a public announcement when the review begins, Rosemary Parker said, as there was when systemic reviews were undertaken for police conduct during the G20 mass arrests and the streetcar shooting of teenager Sammy Yatim.

First Nations leaders say two things prompted them to release the private letter about the review to CBC News on Thursday.

Rainy River Chief Jim Leonard said a CBC News story about alleged misbehaviour of Thunder Bay police during a race relations course "absolutely horrified" him.

Police called the situation a "misunderstanding."

"I saw that as the last straw," Leonard said. "When a story comes out like that, when [police] continue to do what they've always done, it just infuriated me."

Then there is what Leonard's lawyer, Julian Falconer, called the "absurd" situation that the complaint itself is standing in the way of the provincial police service taking over the investigation.

"Although it is not unusual for a municipal police service to make such a request of the OPP, Commissioner [Vince] Hawkes clearly expressed to me that he would not entertain such a request during the course of an outstanding OIPRD investigation," Thunder Bay police Chief J.P. Levesque wrote to Falconer on Sept. 9.

The provincial police confirmed the accuracy of that information but refused to provide further comment when asked by CBC News.

But the review should not stand in the way of the investigation changing hands, according to the OIPRD.

"There have been many cases in which the OIPRD is investigating the same conduct that forms the basis of a criminal investigation conducted by the SIU [Special Investigations Unit] or a police service," Parker said in a statement on Friday.

"This smacks purely of reprisal," Falconer said. "The family is being punished and deprived of a competent investigation because they accessed the OIPRD. What's the message?"

Clarifications

  • A previous version of this story said Thunder Bay police "are under review." The office of the Independent Police Review Director says several steps still need to be taken before the review begins.
    Sep 23, 2016 1:04 PM ET

With files from Kira Wakeam and Eve Caron

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