Police let racist attitudes hinder proper investigations into many sudden deaths of Indigenous people in Thunder Bay, according to an unprecedented review of the northern Ontario police service that has faced decades of criticisms for the way it treats Indigenous people in the city.
The 196-page report, Broken Trust, released on Wednesday by Ontario’s police watchdog, called on the police force to eliminate racism within it and ensure that new recruits “are not already imbued with racist attitudes.”
The Office of the Independent Police Review Director initiated its systemic review in November 2016 following mounting allegations of systemic racism over the way the police service treats cases involving Indigenous people, specifically that officers "devalue Indigenous lives” in a city with one of the country’s highest hate crime rates in Canada.
The report, based on a review of 37 sudden death cases going back to 2009, concludes that Thunder Bay police investigators “too readily presume accident in cases of Indigenous sudden deaths” and “placed extraordinary weight on the deceased’s level of intoxication as if it virtually determined that death was accidental.”
“If we are to understand the broken relationship between Indigenous people and police, we must first understand the history and impact of colonization on Indigenous people."
The OIPRD report lays out 44 recommendations for the police service. They include that nine of the police’s sudden death investigations be reinvestigated because they “are so problematic,” that the police service’s missing persons procedures be reevaluated, and the police service should undertake actions to “eliminate systemic racism, including removing systemic barriers and the root causes of racial inequities in the service.”
Further, the report states that the Thunder Bay Police Services Board should publicly acknowledge that racism exists within the police service and “take a leadership role in repairing the relationship between [it] and Indigenous communities.”
Thunder Bay Chief of Police Sylvie Hauth released a statement on Wednesday responding to the OIPRD report saying the police service acknowledges there are systemic barriers in policing "that must be addressed."
"This is a very extensive report and we will need time to study and consider all of the specific recommendations. With help from this report, the service continues to work towards bias-free policing," the statement continued.
The findings of the report were based on dozens of interviews and trips to Thunder Bay, and meetings with members of First Nations and Métis communities and organizations, police officers, Ontario’s Chief Coroner, and other stakeholders.
“If we are to understand the broken relationship between Indigenous people and police, we must first understand the history and impact of colonization on Indigenous people,” Gerry McNeill, the director of the Office of the Independent Police Review, wrote in the report. “Much of the suspicion and distrust that Indigenous people feel toward police is rooted in a history of colonial policies. Police were used to facilitate and carry out such policies.”
It’s only the third time the police watchdog, an arm’s-length agency of the province’s Ministry of the Attorney General, has undertaken a systemic review since it began its work in 2009. The previous ones involved probing police behaviour during the G20 Summit in Toronto and DNA sampling by the Ontario Provincial Police.
The case of Stacy DeBungee, a 41-year-old Indigenous man whose body was found in the McIntyre River in 2015 formed the basis of the OIPRD’s systemic review. A separate OIPRD investigation into DeBungee’s death found “neglect of duty” on the part of the Thunder Bay Police in a report released earlier this year. Stacey’s brother’s complaint about the police served as the catalyst for the two-year systemic review.
Other cases reviewed by the watchdog as part of its systemic review include the cases seven Indigenous high school students who died in Thunder Bay between 2000 and 2011 that were the focus of a Coroner’s Inquest. The OIPRD also evaluated the investigations into the deaths of Tammy Keeash and Josiah Begg, two Indigenous teens who were found dead in in 2017 in the city’s river referred to by many locals as the River of Tears.
The city of more than 100,000 people has among the largest proportion of Indigenous residents compared to other major cities in Canada, with nearly 13 percent of the population identifying as Indigenous. The report notes this is likely an underestimation as many Indigenous people travel there for social services, jobs, and education.
The police service also came under fire earlier this month after viral video showing a uniformed female police officer striking a 17-year-old First Nations girl in the head as she was secured to a stretcher outside of an apartment building. Nishnawbe Aski Nation said in a statement that the girl was from a remote community 500 kilometres north of Thunder Bay.
First Nations leaders have called for an independent investigation into the matter. Following media coverage, the Thunder Bay Police announced the officer had been served with a notice of investigation and is off duty.
The next week, the body of 17-year-old Braiden Jacob was found in a Thunder Bay Park. Jacob, of Webequie First Nation, had come to the city to access services that are not available in his home community
An investigation into the Thunder Bay Police Services Board by the Ontario Civilian Police Commission, lead by Senator Murray Sinclair, is ongoing. That investigation, launched last year, was prompted by concerns over the number of deaths involving young students in the city, and is expected to be released in the coming weeks.
Earlier this week, the Thunder Bay Police Services Board swore in its first Indigenous chair, Celina Reitberger of Fort William First Nation who was appointed in 2017.
“I came onto the board after both of those reports had been ordered so I'm not taking it personally, nor should anybody else on the board,” Reitberger told CBC News. “if we look at it as road map and a positive thing then I think we're going to move forward in a very good way and we just have to bring the rest of the community with us."
Cover image: Director of the Office of the Independent Police Review Gerry McNeilly delivers a report on civil rights violations during the 2010 G20 summit in May 16, 2012 in Toronto. Photo by Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail.