THUNDER BAY – Joyce Hunter, whose cousin was murdered in Thunder Bay more than a year and a half ago, said her family continues to struggle with his death, and the relationship between the family and investigating officers is fractured. The mother cannot even come into the city of Thunder Bay.
“This city represents death, and fear, and hate, and it’s very real for her” Hunter said through tears. “I don’t think people realize enough how serious this situation is.”
Hunter shared her experiences and frustrations with Gerry McNeilly, Independent Police Review Director, shortly after he released his report that found systemic racism in the Thunder Bay Police Service at an institutional level.
An initial statement issued by Thunder Bay Police shortly after the release of the report said: “We acknowledge there are systemic barriers in policing that must be addressed.”
Thunder Bay Police chief, Sylvie Hauth, later acknowledged the existence of systemic racism and biases in the the service.
“I have acknowledged and will continue to do so that barriers do exist,” Hauth said. “There are barriers within the policing service, but also systemic racism, yes. There are also implicit biases. For me to be able to say that today is not something that is new.”
Hauth said the police service will need to go through all the recommendations carefully to determine what the next steps will be. But she added that the service, under her direction as both chief and acting chief, has already been working toward repairing its relationship with the Indigenous community.
“We have in the last the last year and a half done exceptional work to start to repair those relationships,” she said. “We haven’t waited. This report has been two years in the making. What we wanted to do already in my acting capacity, is look at ways to start mending that relationship and regaining that trust.”
With 44 recommendations handed down in McNeilly’s report, Hauth said implementation will take time.
“I can’t tell you exactly what they are going to look like,” she said. “This is a significant report and it will be given due attention and will be taken seriously.”
Hauth pointed to the Organizational Change Project as one of the steps being taken to create a more inclusive and trusting police force in the city of Thunder Bay.
“I am confident moving forward that we already have some good ground work,” Hauth continued.
Nishnawbe Aski Nation grand chief, Alvin Fiddler, who pushed for the systemic review before it was launched in November 2016, said he holds out hope the recommendations will lead to actual change, but he is not entirely confident that will happen, and pointed to the initial statement by police that referenced systemic barriers.
“Seeing the Police chief’s statement that she acknowledges systemic barriers,” he said. “She needs to acknowledge the racism in your police service. You need to have a starting point if you are serious about creating change.”
“It’s up to those in authority, those in decision making roles to demonstrate that they are serious about making things better for the city of Thunder Bay.”
Fiddler added that if the TBPS fails to implement the recommendations in the three years, the service should be disbanded and the Ontario government look at other policing options in the city.
Thunder Bay mayor, Bill Mauro, said the release of the report marks a new beginning for many people, including family of individuals whose deaths were inadequately investigated by police.
But he added that everyone needs to remain cautious and “take a little bit more time here, step back, review the report. Hopefully those families will see this as the beginning point of some change that may result from the recommendations in the report.”
Mauro added that the issues in Thunder Bay are not unique to the city and other communities across Canada experience the similar challenges, something he has said since being elected mayor.
“I know from time to time when I say that, there are people who are not happy when I say it,” he said. “It’s true we have our issues, but it’s true that all communities have similar issues.”
When asked why the Thunder Bay Police Service was the only police service in Ontario to undergo a systemic review by the OIPRD, Mauro responded by saying that they are the only one that’s been asked.
In March 2018, the OIPRD released the findings of its review of the investigation into the 2015 death of Stacey DeBungee, which found misconduct on the part of investigating officers.
“It has been over three years since I lost my brother Stacy,” Brad DeBungee said. “I could feel in my heart from the first day I dealt with a police officer that he treated me and my family differently because we are Indigenous. Now the proof is out, and they must answer for this.”
“These findings have been a long time coming,” added former Rainy River First Nations Chief, Jim Leonard. “The conclusion in the report that “systemic racism exists in the Thunder Bay Police Service at an institutional level” is an indictment of the entire leadership. If they are going to get their house in order, they need to acknowledge their problems and become accountable. We wrote the Board, offering to work with them, and they refused. Perhaps now, they will want to work with us.”
Hunter asked McNeilly about timelines for the implementation of the recommendations in the report and if there are sanctions if recommendations are not met.
The report includes a recommendation that the Thunder Bay Police Service report to the OIPRD on the progress of implementing the recommendations, which in turn report to the public.
“Is there a mechanism to enforce them? Is there a way to issue sanctions against them if they don’t do what they were asked to do?” she said. “If they don’t do what they were asked to do, and if they don’t do it well, how do we get protection from them? Because they have lots of protection but we don’t.”
“My recommendations are a great opportunity to try and move forward,” McNeilly said. “My recommendations are specifically geared to and addresses the issues this young lady raised today and how the service and how the Indigenous community can start to move forward.
“I’ve asked for reports back, I’ve set timelines, and I will be looking at it. I intend to publish responses, or lack of responses. I am going to be positive and say I will get responses and I anticipate the chief will do the right thing and implement the recommendations.”