Reports on racism and a reckoning for Thunder Bay

EXPLAINER: Two recent reports have identified systemic racism in the Thunder Bay Police Service. Here’s a look at the background, the situation as it stands, and where the city goes from here
By Jon Thompson - Published on January 17, 2019
a person talking in a crowd
Thunder Bay Police Services Board chair Celina Reitberger issues a formal acknowledgement of systemic racism in the Thunder Bay Police Service and its board at a healing circle on January 13. (Jon Thompson)

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Two recent reports found systemic racism in the Thunder Bay Police Service and its board — and could transform a city that has become nationally known for anti-Indigenous discrimination and violence.

Both the Ontario Independent Police Review Director (OIPRD) and the Ontario Civilian Police Commission (OCPC) detailed examples of overt racism and confirmed that racial biases are built into the very systems that govern the police and their investigations.

Here’s the background, where things stand now, and what’s next for Thunder Bay.

Flawed investigations

In September 2016, following a complaint from Rainy River First Nations, the OIPRD launched an investigation into how the Thunder Bay Police Service handles the deaths and disappearances of Indigenous people.

Stacy DeBungee, 41, a member of the nation, had been found dead in the Neebing-McIntyre Floodway on October 19, 2015. Within 24 hours, Thunder Bay police had issued a statement indicating there were no suspicions of foul play. But a private investigator hired by Rainy River First Nations later found a number of new leads and interviewed individuals the police hadn’t questioned, including a couple who had used DeBungee’s debit card after his death.

At least 11 First Nations youth have been found dead in Thunder Bay since 2000; a number of their bodies were found in local waterways. In 2015 and 2016, an inquest was held into seven of those cases — the cause of death in three of them remains undetermined.

The “Broken Trust” report

On December 12, OIPRD director Gerry McNeilly released a 206-page report, entitled “Broken Trust,” in which he stated that “systemic racism exists within the TBPS at an institutional level.”

McNeilly’s two-year investigation produced 44 recommendations and called for the reopening of nine Indigenous death cases — four of which had been subjects of the youth inquest. An interdisciplinary committee will determine whether the DeBungee case should be reopened.

The report also raised concerns over the department’s investigatory competence. Officers, it said, “repeatedly” failed to recognize suspicious circumstances surrounding deaths, ignored evidence, and failed to interview witnesses. Autopsy reports were “regularly” not connected to ongoing investigations. According to McNeilly’s findings, the police service is understaffed, insufficiently trained, and inadequately supervised. He recommends that outside police services oversee investigations for a period of three years.

The Ontario Civilian Police Commission’s report

Two days after the release of “Broken Trust,” the Ontario Civilian Police Commission (OCPC) issued its own report, which found that the Thunder Bay Police Services Board had failed to identify and respond to systemic racism in the department.

"The Board has failed to recognize and address systemic discrimination against the Indigenous community and the distrust between the Indigenous community and the Service,” wrote Senator Murray Sinclair, who led the OCPC investigation. “Instead, it has adopted and reflects the Service’s unwillingness to acknowledge the existence of acts of racism and systemic discrimination."

The OCPC ordered lawyer Tom Lockwood, a member of Sinclair’s investigative team, to assume the responsibilities of the board until new members can be appointed and trained. Lockwood has said that he expects he’ll be able to hand the reins back to the board as early as March.

How the police and board responded

McNeilly was still at the podium delivering his report to the public on December 12 when police chief Sylvie Hauth issued a statement acknowledging the existence of “systemic barriers in policing that must be addressed” — a phrase criticized by many for its failure to acknowledging racism explicitly. The police issued another statement within hours, this time using the term “systemic racism.” Hauth also used the term when speaking to the media that day.

The board held a healing circle on January 13 to publicly acknowledge that systemic racism exists in the Thunder Bay Police Service.

New board chair Celina Reitberger conceded that the organization had failed Indigenous people.

“The areas that failed were strategic and operational planning, meaningful engagement in the development of governance and oversight of policing, and failing to recognize and clearly address the patterns of violence and systemic racism against Indigenous people in Thunder Bay,” she said.

Each person there was then invited to make a statement. (Thunder Bay mayor Bill Mauro, Nishnawbe Aski Nation grand chief Alvin Fiddler, past board members, and the families of those whose cases will be reopened were not in attendance)

First Nations chiefs and Indigenous people expressed mixed reactions to the apology. Ed Wawia, Anishinabek Nation regional deputy grand council chief for the Robinson Superior Treaty area, said, “It was kind of a weak apology, but it’s still accepted. It’s still a step forward.”

Rainy River First Nations chief Rob McGinnis is hopeful it can bring change.

“I feel vindicated. This has been a long time coming. To finally hear it, it makes you emotional and it gives you hope,” McGinnis said. “It means a lot to Thunder Bay and probably to the rest of the country. “I’d like to think they’re looking at what’s happening here to see how they’re going to go forward. We’re just lucky we had the resources to be able to pursue it because a lot of people don’t.”

What comes next?

Hauth’s plan to address the report’s recommendations would involve hiring five new officers, introducing new training procedures, and purchasing body cameras and related surveillance equipment. She made a request for $1.1 million to council this week.

Even before he was elected in October, Thunder Bay mayor and police-board member Bill Mauro vowed to appeal to the provincial and federal governments for funding to support the police and fight crime. Mauro was critical of the OCPC order that appointed Lockwood, saying the move constituted “taking away council’s authority.”

He reminded council that it was not required to approve the request from police, as those lobbying efforts are underway.

Council’s decision on funding for the plan is expected on January 30.

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting northwestern Ontario. It's brought to you in partnership with Confederation College of Applied Arts and Technology. Views and opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the college.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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