Indigenous leaders demanded the dismantling of the Thunder Bay Police Service on Wednesday and said it should immediately be barred from carrying out major crime investigations due to what they called “repeated failures.”
Earlier this month, a group of independent investigators shared a report with the Office of the Independent Police Review Director recommending the reinvestigation of 14 sudden deaths in the city dating back to between 2006 and 2019.
Speaking at the Ontario legislature, Anishinabek Nation Grand Council Chief Reg Niganobe said in light of that report, it is now “painfully clear” that Indigenous people have no trust in the police force and the Thunder Bay Police Services Board.
“The Thunder Bay Police Service leaves a trail of inadequate investigations and negligently managed record system and a lack of substantive oversight,” Niganobe said.
“Trust is broken and every day Thunder Bay Police Service remains in control of major crime investigations is another day Indigenous people are at risk in the city.”
Niganobe and Nishnawbe Aski Nation Deputy Grand Chief Anna Betty Achneepineskum said they’re currently reviewing their options – which include the Ontario Provincial Police – of who can serve and protect the city if the police force is dismantled.
“No more families should have to endure this racism and continued victimization at the hands of the police,” Achneepineskum said.
Nine sudden-death reinvestigations were recommended in a 2018 review by the Broken Trust committee, which was formed that year after the Office of the Independent Police Review Director found evidence of systemic racism at the Thunder Bay Police Service and that it was affecting the investigations into the deaths of Indigenous people.
At the time, the watchdog said the “inadequacy” of the police force’s sudden-death investigations was “so problematic” that at least nine cases needed to be reinvestigated.
Achneepineskum said two of the nine reopened cases involved her family members and she alleged the force’s reinvestigations of those cases were “flawed.”
A spokesman for the Thunder Bay Police Service said Chief Sylvie Hauth will be reviewing the comments made by the Indigenous leaders on Wednesday and discuss them further with the Thunder Bay Police Services Board “in the very near future.”
In a statement, the chair of that board said its work to transform the police force and address the “deep systemic issues” is ongoing.
“I, as Board Chair, understand more work needs to be done to rebuild our relationships with Northwestern Ontario Indigenous leaders and people,” Kristen Oliver said.
“Without trust in law enforcement from our community, the system doesn’t work.”
Niganobe and Achneepineskum urged the provincial government on Wednesday to work with Indigenous communities to ensure that effective police services are delivered in the city and said the government needs to prioritize listening to the Indigenous people who live in, work in and visit Thunder Bay.
A spokeswoman for Ontario Solicitor General Sylvia Jones said the provincial government is “deeply concerned about the situation in Thunder Bay.”
Hannah Jensen noted that the Ontario Civilian Police Commission has the power through the Police Services Act to appoint an administrator or disband a police service if certain conditions are met. Municipalities can also dissolve police services under the act.
“Should the municipality choose to take that direction and choose another police service, the province will respect their local decision,” she added.
At the legislature, Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner and Liberal house leader John Fraser called on the provincial government to launch an inquiry into the Thunder Bay Police Service.
“The government should be fully engaged with First Nations. They should be fully engaged with the people of Thunder Bay. And the government’s not there,” Fraser said.
“You have to take some measures. If you have a challenge where there are 14 uninvestigated deaths, why is that?”
During question period, Kiiwetinoong MPP Sol Mamakwa, the NDP’s critic for Indigenous and treaty relations, asked Jones what action the province has taken since it heard about the coroner’s office’s recommendation to reinvestigate the 14 deaths.
Mamakwa also asked if the government would have the Ontario Provincial Police immediately assume oversight of the Thunder Bay police force.
In response, Jones said she wrote to the Ontario Civilian Police Commission to investigate what she called “very serious allegations” in January. The commission launched an investigation on Feb. 10 into the police force at the request of the solicitor general and the Thunder Bay Police Services Board.
Jones added that the OPP are also conducting an independent investigation.
“Those investigations are ongoing and we will allow that to happen without political interference,” she said, noting they will “bring back trust and faith” in the police services in Thunder Bay and elsewhere.
Oliver said the Thunder Bay Police Services Board would be convening for an emergency meeting on Saturday to discuss the concerns brought forward by Niganobe, Achneepineskum and Mamakwa.
As of January, 28 of the 44 recommendations made for the Thunder Bay Police Service in the Broken Trust review were considered complete, with an additional 12 listed as ongoing.