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Families concerned over reinvestigation of Indigenous deaths in Thunder Bay, Ont.

Lawyers and family members said Tuesday that they remain in the dark about what steps have been taken since 2019 when the police chief announced the reinvestigations. The Canadian Press Images/Francis Vachon

Family members of Indigenous people whose deaths are being reinvestigated in Thunder Bay, Ont., are raising concerns about the process.

Lawyers and family members said Tuesday that they remain in the dark about what steps have been taken since 2019 when the police chief announced the reinvestigations.

Read more: Deaths of at least 9 Indigenous people in Thunder Bay to be reinvestigated by police

They’re also concerned about the police chief’s role in the process, and lawyers say their letters to the investigative team raising concerns haven’t been answered.

A 2018 police watchdog report had recommended another look at the nine deaths after a review found racist attitudes undermined the original investigations. It found a “crisis of trust” existed between the Thunder Bay police and Indigenous people.

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Thunder Bay police Chief Sylvie Hauth recommended in 2019 that new police teams re-examine the cases of Marie Spence, Arron Loon, Christina Gliddy, Shania Bob, Sarah Moonias, Jethro Anderson, Curran Strang, Kyle Morrisseau and Jordan Wabasse.

The new team was also assigned to decide whether to re-investigate the 2015 death of Stacy DeBungee, whose death was deemed not suspicious before autopsy results were in.

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Julian Falconer, a lawyer representing DeBungee’s family, said the role of Hauth in the reinvestigation process is of particular concern, because she has not publicly defined her involvement in the final report.

That’s an issue because the police force could be directly implicated in the findings, Falconer said.

A statement from DeBungee’s family said they have “have no confidence in a reinvestigation process that Chief of Police Sylvie Hauth has any sway over.”

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“The Thunder Bay Police Service is now a broken record of broken trust,” Falconer said in a statement.

“My clients are once again being left in the dark, denied the transparency and answers they deserve about what happened to Stacy DeBungee and about the role of the Chief of the Thunder Bay Police in the reinvestigation process.”

Falconer also raised concerns that the new investigative team hasn’t probed whether other Indigenous deaths should be re-examined, as was recommended by the 2018 watchdog report from the Office of the Independent Police Review Director.

Caitlyn Kasper, a lawyer with Aboriginal Legal Services who is representing the families of Morrisseau, Anderson and Wabasse, said her team has lost confidence in the process and has “grave concern for the legitimacy of any final report released by this project moving forward.”

Read more: Canada needs ‘exhaustive’ probe into burial sites at residential schools, UN says

She said none of her client’s families have been meaningfully engaged in the process, despite being advised that the investigation is “almost complete.” One family was contacted to be interviewed without proper contact with their legal team, Kasper said, and the others have not been interviewed at all.

“This is the crisis of trust that affects the relationship between Indigenous people and the Thunder Bay police,” she said.

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Thunder Bay police officers who were part of the original investigations were not to be part of the new investigative team, which was also to include Indigenous officers and someone from outside the police force.

A police force spokesman directed a request for comment to the provincial chief coroner’s office.

A spokeswoman for the Office of the Chief Coroner said the investigation team is still reviewing police and coroner’s office reports and speaking with families and witnesses.

“Work continues to move forward to complete the report and towards release in summer 2021,” Stephanie Rea said.

She said input from the victims’ families is “invaluable and is a high priority for the reinvestigation team,” and a victim liaison officer communicates with families “often.”

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