Thunder Bay·Audio

Indigenous youth in Thunder Bay 'enthusiastic' about building relationship with police, focus groups find

Despite feeling "somewhat jaded," Indigenous young people in Thunder Bay are "engaged" and "very enthusiastic' about the prospect of changing the relationship between their community and the police service in the northwestern Ontario city.

'There was really a yearning to reset and work together,' says lead researcher Leisa Desmoulins

Leisa Desmoulins, a professor at Lakehead University, is consulting with Thunder Bay police on their change initiative. Focus groups she conducted with Indigenous young people in April 2019 developed a series of suggestions to help police in the northwestern Ontario city build trust and confidence in their service. (Cathy Alex/CBC )

Despite feeling "somewhat jaded," Indigenous young people in Thunder Bay are "engaged" and "very enthusiastic" about the prospect of changing the relationship between their community and the police service in the northwestern Ontario city.

That is one of the findings from a series of focus groups conducted in April 2019 by Leisa Desmoulins, a professor in the Department of Aboriginal Education at Lakehead University, and a consultant for the Thunder Bay Police Service (TBPS) on its organizational change project.

The focus groups, which heard from 19 Indigenous people between the ages of 18 – 30, came up with a series of short and long-term actions police could take to build trust and restore confidence.

'Yearning to reset' relationship with police

The short-term steps – those the TBPS can take with minimal costs and training, and can be implemented immediately – revolve around respect and doing more together outside the policing context, explained Desmoulins.

"Tone of voice, body language, eye contact, those kinds of things that they were really looking for police to be more warm," she said.

"They were really looking for them to have some kind of engagement. Some of the youth talked about events they used to do with police," such as shared meals, camping excursions, basketball games and "youth were really interested in reviving" those activities.

"There was really a yearning to reset and work together in way that is more human to human."

Removing 'sense this might be about a racial bias' 

More basketball games and feasts.. Golf shirts instead of the standard uniform.. And more "how are you doin'?" instead of "what are you doing?" Indigenous young people say those are some of the simple things police could do to improve their relationship. We hear from the Lakehead University professor who is helping the Thunder Bay Police Service make some of these organizational changes. 8:06

Young people acknowledged that police may be acting respectfully, such as always saying "Yes sir, no ma'am," but what they really want is to feel "they are respected for who they were, but it's their actions that are being questioned, instead of the sense that this might be about a racial bias against them."

The longer term actions build on those themes, but may require more resources, time and training to implement.

For instance, the young people suggested making youth engagement a priority for the entire service, by partnering with existing groups such as the city youth group, the Regional Multicultural Youth Council, Matawa First Nations, Nishnawbe Aski Nation Oshkaatisak (All Young People's) Council, the Northern Nishnawbe Education Council and associations at Lakehead University and Confederation College.

They would also like to engage with police in positive settings such as feasts, powwows, sports, Pride weekend and other city festivities. Ideally police would host some of these events for the purpose of interacting with young people because "the things the youth go to may not have been on the police radar."

As part of that, young people asked that when officers have special duty for public events – fun runs, awareness marches etc. – their shifts be expanded to allow opportunities for outreach and social engagement, rather than just traffic control.

'Drop that barrier' between police, Indigenous youth

They also suggested, when attending specific youth-oriented events, police could wear an "less intimidating" alternative uniform, such as a golf shirt with a logo "to drop that barrier that we are the police and you are the youth and really interact one-on-one."

The focus groups built on findings from the 2018 Thunder Bay Citizen Satisfaction Survey, which showed Indigenous young people (aged 35 and under), who responded to in-person surveys had the least amount of confidence and trust in police.

Desmoulins presented the findings from the focus groups at the July 16 meeting of the Thunder Bay Police Services Board.

She said she will be working with senior police management to determine how some of these recommendations can be implemented, based on staffing and budget.