First Nations leaders seek accountability as Thunder Bay, Ont., police face external investigations

Thunder Bay

In the wake of mounting external investigations and human rights complaints against the Thunder Bay Police Service, First Nations leaders in northwestern Ontario are calling for more transparency and accountability.

Melvin Hardy is the northern Superior region deputy grand council chief with the Anishinabek Nation. He says drastic change is needed as the Thunder Bay Police Service face growing scrutiny.(Anishinabek Nation)

In the wake of mounting external investigations and human rights complaints against the Thunder Bay Police Service, First Nations leaders in northwestern Ontario are calling for more transparency and accountability.

"Something drastic needs to be done immediately to deal with the Thunder Bay police," said Melvin Hardy, the northern Superior regional deputy grand chief with the Anishinabek Nation, which advocates on behalf of 39 First Nations across the province.

"It seems far past time to have a third party manage the service and provide some length of accountability," Hardy told CBC News. "If this was a First Nation acting even a fraction of how this body behaves, Indigenous Services would have taken control a long time ago."

The police force is currently facing at least nine human rights complaints. The Ontario Provincial Police has confirmed an investigation into unnamed members of the service. The Ontario Civilian Police Commission is investigating "serious misconduct" by the now-suspended deputy chief Ryan Hughes, current chief Sylvie Hauth, police lawyer Holly Walbourne and the administration of the force.

Meanwhile, the office of Ontario's chief coroner confirmed Thursday afternoon that a final report into the Broken Trust death reinvestigations — looking into nine Indigenous people who died in Thunder Bay since 2000 — has been provided to the Office of the Independent Police Review Director (OIPRD), the Thunder Bay Police Services Board and to the families and their lawyers. The chief coroner previously confirmed there will be more death investigations re-opened and a new systemic review will soon be ordered.

A spokesperson with the police service declined a CBC News request to interview Hauth.

An emailed statement said, "we have worked diligently to improve our relationships with Indigenous people. We have also made a great deal of progress in addressing the recommendations from the Seven Youth Inquest, the Broken Trust report."

The spokesperson also pointed to their "breaking barriers" website, which documents the police service's work to address systemic racism and create organizational change within the force, after two Ontario police oversight agencies issued reports in 2018 finding evidence of systemic racism.

Leaders seek more accountability, truth

But as the police service faces renewed scrutiny from several directions, Hardy said he would like to see more accountability to the public.

"We are concerned about the transparency with some of these [external investigations] and we wish for them to be dealt with so the people living in the area can be assured there is a police service there that will be conducive to their safety."

As for the final report on the Broken Trust reinvestigations, Hardy said they want to see truth, acknowledgement of past errors, and to bring some peace to the families who have lived through two, if not three investigations into the deaths of their loved ones.

Anna Betty Achneepineskum, a deputy grand chief with the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, says it's "very disappointing" Indigenous people still have to fight to be treated fairly, with justice, and with respect.(Logan Turner/CBC)

Anna Betty Achneepineskum, one of three deputy grand chiefs for the Nishnawbe Aski Nation and a family member of two people whose deaths were reinvestigated, also called for more police accountability to the Indigenous population in the city.

She pointed to inconsistent communication between the Broken Trust investigative team and the families, noting some of the families involved had not been contacted to discuss the results of the reinvestigations months after they had concluded.

Ontario chief coroner Dr. Dirk Huyer, who is the spokesperson for the executive governance committee overseeing the reinvestigations, acknowledged that was the case in an interview with CBC News in February, and said he was sad to hear some families were concerned with the process.

But Achneepineskum said there has not been meaningful inclusion of the families from the start.

"We will continue to advocate until the point where we feel we are being treated fairly, and to the point our people are not being harmed," Achneepineskum told CBC News.

It's something she says is still not a reality in Thunder Bay.

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