The police services board in Thunder Bay, Ont., was disbanded and an administrator appointed in its place on Friday after a report found relations between the force and the city’s Indigenous community were in a crisis that constitute an “emergency.”
In the report commissioned by the Ontario Civilian Police Commission – the second such review to be released this week – Sen. Murray Sinclair said the board had failed to deal with the “clear and indisputable pattern” of violence and systemic racism against First Nations people in the city.
“The board’s failure to act on these issues in the face of overwhelming documentary and media exposure is indicative of wilful blindness,” Sinclair states. “The board has perpetuated systemic discrimination that has directly impacted First Nation peoples in Thunder Bay.”
Sinclair recommended putting in place an administrator while a new board would be put together and properly trained. Simple replacement of the current board members would not solve the problem without systemic changes, he said.
In response to Sinclair’s findings and 45 recommendations, the commission appointed lawyer Thomas Lockwood as administrator for at least one year, effective immediately.
“The board’s repeated failures to address the concerns of the Indigenous community constitute an emergency,” Linda Lamoureux, executive chairwoman of the commission, said in her order.
The decision comes after the board on Monday named lawyer Celina Reitberger as chairwoman – the first Indigenous person to lead the organization.
Alvin Fiddler, grand chief of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, agreed with Sinclair’s findings. At the same time, he criticized Lockwood’s appointment.
“It is unacceptable however that an administrator was so hastily selected without any consultation from the Indigenous community and the Thunder Bay community in general,” Fiddler said in a statement.
“Policing in Thunder Bay presents unique challenges and realities and it is critical that the administrator is well versed in these issues and has an established rapport with Indigenous people.”
In July 2017, the commission asked Sinclair, a former associate chief justice in Manitoba who chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, to look into civilian oversight of Thunder Bay’s police amid widespread concerns about systemic anti-Indigenous racism on the force.
“The circumstances that gave rise to this investigation – an extreme level of racism, and differential treatment by police towards Indigenous peoples in missing person and death investigations and violence against Indigenous peoples generally in Thunder Bay – are not new phenomena,” Sinclair concludes.
“Given the long-standing and troubling circumstances in Thunder Bay and the board’s dismissive attitudes towards taking positive steps to address them, the investigation determined that bold measures are required.”
Sinclair derides the board for a lack of leadership he says has left the city’s police without effective governance or oversight. Police, Sinclair says, have no policies to deal effectively with the situation and the board failed to fulfil its oversight role.
“The issues identified with Thunder Bay policing through this investigation are not the result of behaviours by individual racists,” Sinclair writes. “They are indicative of a broader, deeper and more systemic level of discrimination in which an unacceptable status quo is viewed as the normal state of affairs.”
On Wednesday, in a separate report, the Office of the Independent Police Review Director slammed the Thunder Bay police as rife with racist attitudes. The director, Gerry McNeilly, urged the reinvestigation of at least nine sudden deaths involving Indigenous people.
On Friday, police said the death of an Indigenous teen whose body was found in a city park is being treated as a homicide. A passerby discovered Braiden Jacob, 17, on the morning of Dec. 9. Jacob had travelled to Thunder Bay from the Webequie First Nation for grief and trauma counselling.
“The provision of effective and adequate police services in accordance with a municipality’s needs is essential to municipal governance and safety,” the commission said. “As a result, all members of the Thunder Bay community, including members of the board and the (police) service, will benefit from improved civilian oversight.”