The Current

First Nations leaders call for RCMP investigation into Thunder Bay deaths

First Nations chiefs in Thunder Bay say the deaths of Indigenous people in the area have not been getting the police attention they need.
Stacy DeBungee's body was found in the McIntyre River in Thunder Bay on Oct. 19, 2015. (CBC)

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The bodies of two Indigenous teenagers — Josiah Begg and Tammy Keeash — were pulled from a Thunder Bay river in May. Since 2000, seven Indigenous teens have been found dead in rivers that run through the city.

Their deaths have prompted First Nations chiefs to take action against what they say is a recurring theme of indifference and apathy on the part of the Thunder Bay police service.

They have asked that the RCMP conduct its own investigation into the recent deaths, as well as the death of Stacy DeBungee, who was found dead in the same river in October 2015. 
Tammy Keeash's body was found in Thunder Bay's McIntyre River system in May. (Thunder Bay Police)

There have been several incidences of Indigenous people being assaulted and thrown in the rivers, but no charges were laid.

Alvin Fiddler, the Grand Chief of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, says the police need to look at all the circumstances that led to the deaths and "to investigate other cases where allegations have been made, that there were attempts to harm people in the river systems."

"And I think the fact that right now there's a total distrust with the municipal police service here in Thunder Bay is preventing people ... people are afraid to come forward and make these disclosures," Fiddler tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

It's been really disappointing with the police services board and even the mayor … saying that racism is not a factor in these deaths.- Alvin Fiddler, Grand Chief of Nishnawbe Aski Nation

The chief is also calling for a review and oversight of the Thunder Bay Police Service Board — one that is currently investigating allegations of systemic racism within the force.

"It's been really disappointing with the police services board and even the mayor … saying that racism is not a factor in these deaths," he says.

"The key to any community resolving its issues is to first of all acknowledge that there are challenges in the community."

Thunder Bay Mayor Keith Hobbs admits there is a racism issue in the city, but thinks "it extends to all walks of life in every city and every province and every country of the world." 
Josiah Begg, 14, was found in the river after a lengthy search. (Thunder Bay Police Service)

"I think we'd be naive to say that it doesn't," he says.

Hobbs says the police and community can't babysit the youth, but they need to get measures in place to keep them away from the rivers.

"We have to street proof those youth coming down. We have to do a better job at it. Obviously we haven't done a good enough job," Hobbs said earlier this week.

The time for finger pointing is over … we need to work together.- Keith Hobbs, mayor of Thunder Bay

Despite First Nations leaders urging the police to dig deeper when it comes to investigating Indigenous deaths, Hobbs believes the police are thorough with their investigations and doesn't think we need to "politicize death."

As for the reports of Indigenous people being thrown in the river, Hobbs says those are only assertions and there has been no evidence to prove the cases.

Related: Tammy Keeash, Josiah Begg to be remembered at prayer walk in Thunder Bay

Hobbs is a former police officer, but he is certain he can be objective as the mayor of Thunder Bay with regards to police accountability in the investigations.

However, he can't do it alone. He says they would need help from the federal and provincial government as well.

"It seems like the municipalities are getting caught up in this whole colonization simulation, the residential schools and we're having to answer to it," he says.

"The time for finger pointing is over … we need to work together."

Listen to this segment at the top of the web post.

This segment was produced by Winnipeg network producer Suzanne Dufresne, Calgary network producer Michael O'Halloran and Halifax network producer Mary-Catherine McIntosh.