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Families struggle to trust Thunder Bay police as Indigenous death cases could be reopened

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Four days after 30-year-old Marie Spence was found dead near a bike path, clutching a clump of grass in one hand and a branch in the other, Thunder Bay police issued a press release saying they didn’t suspect any criminal cause in her death.

The May 3, 2016, press release, which included her photograph and name, said police hoped to unearth new information about « activities prior to her death. »

But a new report by Gerry McNeilly, who heads the Office of the Independent Police Review Director (OIPRD), said investigators had potential leads on the same day that Spence was found in a wooded area about 40 metres from the Trans-Canada Highway.

Spence’s case is one of nine deaths of Indigenous people that the police watchdog wants to see reinvestigated. McNeilly said the probes should be handled by a multidisciplinary unit that does not include any of the original investigative officers.

The watchdog found that systemic racism and shoddy police work, along with questionable decisions by the local coroner, tainted the investigations.

A total of 37 cases going back to 2009 were reviewed by the police watchdog.

The OIPRD report found systemic racism against Indigenous peoples at the institutional level of the Thunder Bay police seeped down to the front-line officers.

Spence’s aunt, Anna Betty Achneepineskum, said the reopening of the case brings both hope and apprehension.

Anna Betty Achneepineskum says, ‘It is hard to think we are going to be at that place of trusting the police.’ (Nishnawbe Aski Nation)

« There are different emotions for some of us, » said Achneepineskum, a former deputy grand chief for Nishnawbe Aski Nation, who was intimately involved with the file. « It is hard to think we are going to be at that place of trusting the police. »

Nishnawbe Aski Nation is an organization that represents 49 northern Ontario First Nations.

Achneepineskum said she wants to work on setting up a support system for families so they have access to legal representation that can monitor the renewed investigations.

The OIPRD report said that « most, if not all » the problems identified in Spence’s case « were common to multiple sudden death investigations we reviewed. »

Thunder Bay Police said in a statement that the service acknowledges it « must address the systemic racism, barriers and biases that exist within its service. »

The report and its recommendations will be reviewed in the days ahead, the statement said. 

Police failed to follow leads

The investigation of Spence’s death was riddled with failures by the investigating officers and the local coroner, who immediately concluded the death was not suspicious and released the area without the lead investigator present, the report said.

There were other issues, including leads that weren’t fully pursued.

One eyewitness — a woman walking her dog who found Spence’s body — said she saw a man walking away from the spot where Spence was found. Another witness told police she walked by the spot where Spence was found earlier in the day with her husband and their dogs but didn’t see a body.

It is the unknown that causes the wound to stay open.– Sam  Achneepineskum

Police also received information in the days following the press release from a witness who said they had seen Spence with a male, who the witness identified to police by name. The witness said they ran into the man who « looked down and said nothing » when Spence’s death came up.

The man was interviewed by police and denied the witness’s account, and investigators dropped the thread.

The OIPRD found multiple examples of Thunder Bay Police investigators prematurely shutting down cases involving Indigenous people who died by hypothermia or drowning. In some cases, work wasn’t done to determine the chain of events that led to the deaths, which the report said was the result of biased police work.

The case of Arron Loon

One of the cases cited by the watchdog was that of Arron Loon, a 20-year-old who was found dead on the morning of March 25, 2015. He was dressed only in pants and socks, in the fetal position in the snow near a pathway.

Thunder Bay police closed the case as an accidental death caused by hypothermia.

Thunder Bay Fire Rescue, who had been first on the scene at 9 a.m., told police when they arrived that it looked there had been a fight.

Sam Achneepineskum says he hopes that the re-investigation, if properly done, will help bring closure to families. (Sinisa Jolic/CBC)

By 11:03 a.m. the coroner had handed over the identification tag to a constable to give to the funeral home for the body’s removal. The forensics officer left for a little over a half an hour. When he returned, the body was gone for an autopsy, the report said.

No seal had been placed on the body bag, and police didn’t keep track of the footprints around the body because they assumed they were from the first responders.   

Investigators also failed to interview all the individuals who were last known to be with Loon — who was found with multiple fresh injuries — before he was found dead, said the report.

Loon’s grandfather, Sam Achneepineskum, said a renewed investigation, if done honestly and properly, could help bring some comfort to the families.

« It is the unknown that causes the wound to stay open, » said Achneepineskum. « If an opportunity presents itself and that opportunity may provide answers to the questions of the unknown … the families have an opportunity for closure, even if the answers to the questions we have are not what we expected. »

‘I want to find the truth’

For Victoria Gliddy, the mother of 28-year-old Christina Gliddy, the reopening of her daughter’s case presents a final chance to get to the truth.

Gliddy was found clinging to life on a train bridge spanning one of Thunder Bay’s waterways on the morning of March 29, 2016. The OIPRD report said police failed to follow key leads in Gliddy’s case, including a proper interrogation of the man who told investigators he was with Christina Gliddy the night before she was found.

She later died in hospital.  

Investigators also failed to follow-up with information that a third person may have been with Gliddy that night, the report said. 

Police closed the case after concluded it was the result of accidental hypothermia.

« I just want to know the truth, that is all I want to know, » said Victoria Gliddy. « Better than just leave it like that. »

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‘Business as usual’ for Dorel Industries after terminating go-private deal

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MONTREAL — Dorel Industries Inc. says it will continue to pursue its business strategy going forward after terminating an agreement to go private after discussions with shareholders.

« Moving ahead. Business as usual, » a spokesman for the company said in an email on Monday.

A group led by Cerberus Capital Management had previously agreed to buy outstanding shares of Dorel for $16 apiece, except for shares owned by the family that controls the company’s multiple-voting shares.

But Dorel chief executive Martin Schwartz said the Montreal-based maker of car seats, strollers, bicycles and home furniture pulled the plug on a deal on the eve of Tuesday’s special meeting after reviewing votes from shareholders.

“Independent shareholders have clearly expressed their confidence in Dorel’s future and the greater potential for Dorel as a public entity, » he said in a news release.

Dorel’s board of directors, with Martin Schwartz, Alan Schwartz, Jeffrey Schwartz and Jeff Segel recused, unanimously approved the deal’s termination upon the recommendation of a special committee.

The transaction required approval by two-thirds of the votes cast, and more than 50 per cent of the votes cast by non-family shareholders.

Schwartz said enhancing shareholder value remains a top priority while it stays focused on growing its brands, which include Schwinn and Mongoose bikes, Safety 1st-brand car seats and DHP Furniture.

Dorel said the move to end the go-private deal was mutual, despite the funds’ increased purchase price offer earlier this year.

It said there is no break fee applicable in this case.

Montreal-based investment firm Letko, Brosseau & Associates Inc. and San Diego’s Brandes Investment Partners LP, which together control more than 19 per cent of Dorel’s outstanding class B subordinate shares voiced their opposition to the amended offer, which was increased from the initial Nov. 2 offer of $14.50 per share.

« We believe that several minority shareholders shared our opinion, » said Letko vice-president Stephane Lebrun, during a phone interview.

« We are confident of the long-term potential of the company and we have confidence in the managers in place.”

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Anglais

Pandemic funds helping Montreal businesses build for a better tomorrow

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Many entrepreneurs have had to tap into government loans during the pandemic, at first just to survive, but now some are using the money to better prepare their businesses for the post-COVID future.

One of those businesses is Del Friscos, a popular family restaurant in Dollard-des-Ormeaux that, like many Montreal-area restaurants, has had to adapt from a sit-down establishment to one that takes orders online for takeout or delivery.

“It was hard going from totally in-house seating,” said Del Friscos co-owner Terry Konstas. “We didn’t have an in-house delivery system, which we quickly added. There were so many of our employees that were laid off that wanted to work so we adapted to a delivery system and added platforms like Uber and DoorDash.”

Helping them through the transition were emergency grants and low-interest loans from the federal and provincial governments, some of which are directly administered by PME MTL, a non-profit business-development organization established to assist the island’s small and medium-sized businesses.

Konstas said he had never even heard of PME MTL until a customer told him about them and when he got in touch, he discovered there were many government programs available to help his business get through the downturn and build for the future. “They’ve been very helpful right from day one,” said Konstas.

“We used some of the funds to catch up on our suppliers and our rents, the part that wasn’t covered from the federal side, and we used some of it for our new virtual concepts,” he said, referring to a virtual kitchen model which the restaurant has since adopted.

The virtual kitchen lets them create completely different menu items from the casual American Italian dishes that Del Friscos is known for and market them under different restaurant brand names. Under the Prasinó Soup & Salad banner, they sell healthy Greek options and their Stallone’s Sub Shop brand offers hearty sandwiches, yet the food from both is created in the same Del Friscos kitchen.

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Downtown Montreal office, retail vacancies continue to rise

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Some of downtown Montreal’s key economic indicators are heading in the wrong direction.

Office and retail vacancies in the city’s central core continued to climb in the fourth quarter of 2020, according to a quarterly report released Thursday by the Urban Development Institute of Quebec and the Montréal Centre-Ville merchants association. The report, whose first edition was published in October, aims to paint a socio-economic picture of the downtown area.

The survey also found office space available for sublet had increased during the fourth quarter, which may foreshadow even more vacancies when leases expire. On the residential front, condo sales fell as new listings soared — a sign that the downtown area may be losing some of its appeal to homeowners.

“It’s impossible not to be preoccupied by the rapid increase in office vacancies,” Jean-Marc Fournier, the former Quebec politician who now heads the UDI, said Thursday in an interview.

Still, with COVID-19 vaccinations set to accelerate in the coming months, “the economic picture is bound to improve,” he said. “People will start returning downtown. It’s much too early to say the office market is going to disappear.”

Public health measures implemented since the start of the pandemic almost a year ago — such as caps on office capacity — have deprived downtown Montreal of more than 500,000 workers and students. A mere 4,163 university and CEGEP students attended in-person classes in the second quarter, the most recent period for which figures are available. Border closures and travel restrictions have also brought tourism to a standstill, hurting hotels and thousands of local businesses.

Seventy per cent of downtown workers carried out their professional activities at home more than three days a week during the fourth quarter, the report said, citing an online survey of 1,000 Montreal-area residents conducted last month.

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