Indigenous community representatives listen as Independent Police Review Director Gerry McNeilly presents the results of an investigation into the police service in Thunder Bay, Ontario, on December 12, 2018. Photo: Nishnawbe Aski Nation Communications

'Broken Trust': Police rebuked for supicious deaths and racism against Indigenous people

By Acee Agoyo

Law enforcement in Ontario are promising to address "systemic racism" following the release of two scathing reports that rebuked the Thunder Bay Police Service for the suspicious deaths of more than 30 Indigenous people.

Indigenous people and First Nations leaders have long complained of hostile treatment in Thunder Bay, the most populous city in the region. The new reports, released over the course of two days last week, sadly confirm their beliefs.

“We maintain our commitment to holding the Thunder Bay Police Service Board accountable for its blatant disregard for the concerns of Indigenous people in Thunder Bay," said Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, whose citizens are among the many who have been the victims of what one report described as "race-based" crime and violence.

"The report speaks for itself – the board is in need of an overhaul," Fiddler said in a news release. "We need a new board that can address the roots of systemic racism in the Thunder Bay Police Service.”

The board is indeed being overhauled. Following the release of the report from the Ontario Civilian Police Commission on Friday, the governing body was disbanded and an administrator was appointed to take over its duties pending the naming of new members.

The action came just two days after the release of another landmark yet grim report. The Office of the Independent Police Review Director called for police in Thunder Bay to reopen investigations in the suspicious deaths of 11 Indigenous people -- four of them Indigenous women and girls.

The cases examined in the report include sudden deaths, suicides, homicides and others linked to missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. According to Independent Police Review Director Gerry McNeilly, the police service too often and too quickly deemed deaths of Indigenous people as "accidental" without questioning, for example, why a number of the victims ended up in the rivers of Thunder Bay.

One restaurant owner in fact told police of an incident in which an Indigenous man, soaking wet and bleeding from the head, asked her for help after being beaten by non-Indigenous men who threw him into a river. Just a few months later, Tammy Keeash, a 17-year-old from the North Caribou Lake First Nation and Josiah Begg, a 14-year-old from Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug, also known as the Big Trout Lake First Nation, were found dead in the same waterway in separate incidents.

“The serious inadequacies and premature conclusions in TBPS investigations of Indigenous missing persons and sudden deaths have strained what was already a deeply troubled relationship," McNeilly said in a press release accompanying the report Broken Trust: Indigenous People and the Thunder Bay Police Service.

Josiah Begg, a 14-year-old from Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug, also known as the Big Trout Lake First Nation, went missing in Thunder Bay, Ontario, on May 6, 2017. His body was found in a river two weeks later. He had gone to Thunder Bay from his remote community to access medical services. Image: Find Josiah Begg

Nearly 13 percent of the population in Thunder Bay is Indigenous, a term that encompasses First Nations, Métis and Inuk peoples. It has long served a a trading grounds among Indigenous peoples and, in more recent times, as a place where young residents of rural reserves are sent to receive an education.

These young people often end up being victimized. Between 2000 and 2011 alone, seven First Nations youth who were sent to Thunder Bay for schooling all died under mysterious circumstances, with five of the deaths linked to the rivers in the city.

Yet even after a high-profile coroner's inquest into these seven cases, the police in Thunder Bay seemed unable to improve its handling of similar cases. At least three more Indigenous people have died in rivers -- Keeash, Begg and Stacy DeBungee, a 41-year-old man from the Rainy River First Nations -- since that inquiry began.

Both of the new reports blamed the lack of progress and inadequate resolution on the disbanded police board. According to the Ontario Civilian Police Commission, the former vice chair of the governing body once denied what now seems glaringly obvious.

"There are no facts that there is systemic racism in the Thunder Bay Police Service," the former vice chair said, according to the report.

"At this point, we view this blanket denial of the concerns of Indigenous communities as a complete abdication of responsibility, and leaves the community without adequate and effective policing," the commission concluded in response.

And following the release of the Office of the Independent Police Review Director's report last Wednesday, the Thunder Bay Police Service said it was "formally acknowledging that it must address the systemic racism, barriers and biases that exist within its service."

“I take this report very seriously,” said police chief Sylvie Hauth. “I have been very upfront in terms of my commitment and dedication about where we stand on the reconciliation process. Trust is very important and regaining that trust has been at the forefront of my new role.”

First Nations leaders expected the issuance of both reports. But they couldn't have anticipated that they would be mourning the loss of another young Indigenous person in Thunder Bay.

Braiden Jacob, a 17-year-old from the Webequie First Nation, went missing on December 6. His body was found three days later -- his "sudden death" is now being investigated as a homicide.

"Nothing can lessen this tragic loss, but we hope that a thorough investigation will reveal the circumstances around his disappearance and help prevent similar tragedies," Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler said in offering condolences to Braiden's family and community.

Jonathan Yellowhead, 22, has since been charged with second-degree murder and breach of probation. He was arrested with the help of the Nishnawbe-Aski Police Service, the Nishnawbe Aski Nation's law enforcement agency, according to the police in Thunder Bay.

Thunder Bay Police Service on YouTube: Homicide Investigation

Office of the Independent Police Review Director Report
Broken Trust - Indigenous People and the Thunder Bay Police Service (December 12, 2018)

Ontario Civilian Police Commission Report
Thunder Bay Police Services Board (December 14, 2018)

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