TORONTO – Deep distrust of police in a northwestern Ontario city has prompted area indigenous chiefs to ask for the RCMP to investigate the recent deaths of teens in the community.
Three chiefs travelled to the provincial legislature on Wednesday to plead for the Mounties’ intervention as well as increased oversight of the police services board in Thunder Bay, Ont.
They say the deaths of two teens whose bodies were pulled from local waterways earlier this month continue what they call an ongoing trend of indifference on the part of Thunder Bay police.
They also noted the similar death of another indigenous person in 2015 that touched off an official probe into the force’s practices around investigating the deaths or disappearances of indigenous people.
Previously, the force’s actions were also scrutinized at an inquest probing the deaths of seven students who had come to Thunder Bay to pursue an education beyond their remote fly-in communities.
Rainy River First Nations Chief Jim Leonard said the long, fraught history with local police has finally brought local First Nations leaders to the end of their collective rope.
“They’ve shown that they’re not able to come to any conclusion other than the deaths are non-suspicious and non-criminal, which doesn’t hold any water with us.”
The Thunder Bay Police Services Board said it takes issue with some of the chiefs’ assertions. It noted that while systemic racism is an issue plaguing indigenous communities, the problem goes well beyond relationships with police.
“A police service cannot cure systemic racism. We accept that our service has a role to play,” it said in the statement posted on the Thunder Bay police force’s website.
According to the chiefs, however, the solution to the situation in Thunder Bay lies in asking another force to take over the investigation into the deaths of Tammy Keeash and Josiah Begg.
Keeash, 17, was in care at a Thunder Bay group home, far from her community of North Caribou Lake First Nation. Her body was pulled from the Neebing McIntyre floodway on May 8, seven hours after she was reported missing.
Days later, the body of 14-year-old Begg from Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug First Nation was found in the McIntyre River after a lengthy search.
The chiefs have also tried to get another force to investigate the death of Stacy DeBungee who was pulled from the same river in October 2015. According to a statement posted on his family’s lawyer’s website, DeBungee’s death was publicly declared to be non-suspicious within three hours of when his body was found and non-criminal the next day.
DeBungee’s family filed a complaint with the Office of the Independent Police Review Director, which has since been expanded to include the deaths of Keeash and Begg.
When indigenous leaders appealed last summer for Ontario Provincial Police to take over the DeBungee file, the chiefs said the force declined on the grounds that the review was still underway.
On Wednesday, Ogichidaa Francis Kavanaugh of Grand Council Treaty 3 said the RCMP remained the community’s only option for justice.
He said the situation in Thunder Bay is representative of what’s happening in other communities, adding two young girls recently died under similar circumstances in his territory.
“It’s incomprehensible to me what I’m hearing, what I’m reading in the media in Thunder Bay, that each time someone is pulled out of the water, and it’s aboriginal young people, the same conclusion always comes out. That it’s no foul play, end of investigation,” he said.
The RCMP did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The chiefs also called for an administrator to step in and oversee the Thunder Bay Police Services Board, alleging it does not respond to their concerns and avoids involvement with issues they raise.
Nishnawbe Aski Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler said he’s filed a complaint to the Ontario Civilian Police Commission seeking the administrator.
The commission did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but the Thunder Bay Police Services Board said it’s been notified that the commission has launched an investigation.
“We welcome this investigation without reservation and will co-operate fully,” it said. “The board recognizes the need for public confidence in the police service and its governance.”
The board also said it is co-operating with the OIPRD review and has taken proactive measures to improve relations with Thunder Bay’s indigenous population.
These include updates to protocols for reporting missing persons, as well as partnering with Nishnawbe Aski Nation legal services as a liaison for those who are fearful of dealing with local police. The board said the force has also implemented foot patrols in high-risk areas since the fall of 2016.