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Scathing reports call out Thunder Bay police for racism. Is there hope for change? The Indigenous community is not so sure




THUNDER BAY—The 30-year-old woman is identified in the report only as “E.F.” but Anna Betty Achneepineskum immediately knew she was reading about her niece, Marie Spence.

E.F., the report said, was found by a dog walker on April 30, 2016 in a wooded area near a stretch of the Trans-Canada Highway that slices through Thunder Bay. She was lying on her back, her hands clutching a clump of grass and a small branch, with cigarette burns on both palms. Her pants were pulled down past her buttocks.

The scene was detailed in an Ontario police watchdog report, released Wednesday, that examined the relationship between Thunder Bay police and Indigenous communities. An autopsy later revealed ethanol intoxication and hypothermia, but also head injuries and a fractured sternum, the report said. Yet in the end, foul play was ruled out by Thunder Bay police.

Achneepineskum knew all of this already. But what she didn’t know until reading the report was that at least two witnesses had approached police on the first day of the investigation. One saw a man leaving the area shortly before Spence’s body was found; the other saw a man watching the crime scene while crouched behind a hill.

The first witness was never interviewed in a formal, recorded format; the second was never interviewed at all. From beginning to end, the investigation into Spence’s death contained “several deficiencies,” the report concluded.

“I started swearing,” Achneepineskum says. “I was like, I can’t believe this and I just think about all the other deaths.

“That’s all I could think of — there are others. There are others.”

Like many Indigenous people in Thunder Bay, Achneepineskum has long believed the alarming number of Indigenous deaths and disappearances in this northern Ontario city were not being taken seriously by police. This week, her suspicions were finally validated, in public and damning fashion, by the scathing new report by the Office of the Independent Police Review Director (OIPRD).

The report, which was two years in the making, concluded that systemic racism permeated the Thunder Bay police service and officers failed — “on an unacceptably high number of occasions” — to investigate sudden death cases without discrimination simply because the victim was Indigenous.

Investigators also analyzed more than three dozen cases dating back to 2000 and nine were found to be so deeply flawed that the OIPRD called for them to be reopened. One of those cases is Spence, Achneepineskum’s niece; another is Arron Loon, her brother’s 20-year-old grandson who died in March 2015 and was found near a pathway, lying in a fetal position in the snow while wearing only pants and socks. Four of the cases are among the “seven fallen feathers,” Indigenous youth who died in Thunder Bay after leaving their northern communities to attend high school.

Ontario’s police watchdog has recommended nine death investigations in Thunder Bay be reopened. The victims include, from top left, Christina Gliddy, Curran Strang, Jethro Anderson, and from bottom left, Jordan Wabasse, Kyle Morrisseau and Marie Lynette Spence.
Ontario’s police watchdog has recommended nine death investigations in Thunder Bay be reopened. The victims include, from top left, Christina Gliddy, Curran Strang, Jethro Anderson, and from bottom left, Jordan Wabasse, Kyle Morrisseau and Marie Lynette Spence.

The report has sent shockwaves across the country and its impact was only amplified by a second explosive report that dropped this week, this one by the Ontario Civilian Police Commission, which criticized the Thunder Bay police services board as failing to “recognize and address the clear and indisputable pattern of violence and systemic racism against Indigenous people in Thunder Bay.”

Led by respected Senator Murray Sinclair, the report described the situation as an “emergency” and ordered an administrator to take over duties of the board for one year while members underwent training.

Together, the unprecedented reports have ushered in fresh hope that change might finally be coming for how Indigenous people are treated by police in Thunder Bay. For Indigenous leaders who have long been calling out problems of racism — and receiving blowback as a result — the OIPRD report marks the first time in memory that a government-affiliated agency explicitly used the “r” word when describing problems within the police.

“This is the first time that I can actually hold a report and read the word,” says Alvin Fiddler, Grand Chief of Nishnawbe Aski Nation, which represents 49 First Nations in northern Ontario.

There are good reasons for optimism. Positive things are happening, including within Thunder Bay police service, and the report comes at a time when Canadians are more engaged than ever with Indigenous issues.

Yet there are signs, both past and present, that change won’t come easily, especially in a place like Thunder Bay. The first step, people like Fiddler say, is for Thunder Bay to “just acknowledge the problem” — but even that is a step that’s already proven difficult to take.

In the conclusions of his report, titled “Broken Trust,” OIPRD director Gerry McNeilly makes an urgent plea. “This was a painful exercise for a number of Indigenous people,” he wrote. “We cannot lose an opportunity — yet again — to make real change.”

It was an acknowledgement of the fatigue and frustration felt by Indigenous communities. McNeilly wrote in his report that the “crisis of trust” between Indigenous people and police is rooted in Thunder Bay’s colonial history, exacerbated by the reality that his systemic review is just the latest in a long string of inquests, investigations and complaints over policing in Thunder Bay.

Located on the northern shore of Lake Superior, Thunder Bay is the largest municipality in northwestern Ontario and home to the largest proportion of Indigenous residents among major Canadian cities, with nearly 13 per cent of people identifying as Indigenous in the latest census. But the city’s Indigenous population at any given moment is never truly known because Thunder Bay is also a hub for remote First Nations communities in northern Ontario, who fly into the city to access basic services like high schools and doctors.

The city also has the “dubious distinction” of having one of the highest rates of reported hate crimes in the country, McNeilly wrote in his report. And for decades, Indigenous communities have alleged that police are also a source of racism and discrimination in Thunder Bay.

In 1989, a task force established by the Solicitor General of Ontario heard presentations in three cities, including Thunder Bay, where a spokesperson for the Ontario Native Women’s Association said that nine members of her family died violently, but no charges were laid. “Every one of those cases I’m talking about has been passed off as a natural death,” she said. “Police consider solving crimes against native people a low priority and don’t make a strong effort to catch those responsible.”

The task force concluded that “native peoples argue, with conviction, that they are viewed stereotypically by the police with terribly negative results,” but made no recommendations.

In the 1990s, Indigenous communities again raised concerns with Thunder Bay police investigations into Indigenous deaths, forming a grassroots committee that identified more than 30 suspicious deaths they allege were insufficiently investigated. A petition with 3,000 signatures called for a public inquiry. “If all of these murders were French or Finnish people, somebody would be addressing this issue,” Fort William Chief Christi Pervais said at the time.

Thunder Bay police “flatly denied the allegations that its investigations were affected by racism” and no inquiry was ever held, McNeilly wrote in his report.

Gerry McNeilly, Ontario's Independent Police Review Director.
Gerry McNeilly, Ontario’s Independent Police Review Director.  (Rene Johnston / Toronto Star)

In 2002, a study by a group called Diversity Thunder Bay identified police as “one of the top social locations where racism occurred” in the city and urged police to stop racial profiling. The study recommended the recruitment of Indigenous police officers. Nearly two decades later, there are still only a handful of Indigenous officers with Thunder Bay police, which according to the TBPS website has just over 300 members.

Two years later, a “Diversity in Policing Project” was launched and consulted 155 community members, most of whom were Indigenous. The project found the perception of racial profiling was “prevalent” and criticized the lack of diversity training and representation within the force.

The project was disbanded before it could be completed and in 2009, an anti-racism group, at the request of city council, published a report that found Thunder Bay police still had not “eliminated perceptions and persistence of racism in policing.” The report recommended the service develop a system for tracking complaints of racial discrimination — one that has also never been implemented, though Thunder Bay police say a new “organizational change project” is underway to look at a “more sustainable effort.”

Meanwhile, Thunder Bay has seen a number of high-profile incidents that have inflamed racial tensions in the city, including the unexplained deaths and disappearances of Indigenous youth like the seven fallen feathers, who were the subject of a 2016 coroner’s inquest that made 145 recommendations. More recently, a video surfaced depicting a 17-year-old Indigenous girl on a stretcher who was struck by a police officer who accused her of spitting on her.

Mere days before the OIPRD released its report, the body of 17-year-old Braiden Jacob was discovered in a Thunder Bay park after he was reported missing for several days. Jacob lives in Webequie First Nation — a fly-in community 540 km north of Thunder Bay — and according to Chief Cornelius Wabasse, he was in the city seeking counselling for grief and trauma, services he couldn’t access back home.

Family and friends mourn the loss of Webequie First Nations youth Braiden Jacob during a candle light vigil at Chappel's Park in Thunder Bay, Ontario.
Family and friends mourn the loss of Webequie First Nations youth Braiden Jacob during a candle light vigil at Chappel’s Park in Thunder Bay, Ontario.  (David Jackson/ Toronto Star)

Jacob was struggling after losing his sister and father to suicide, according to Wabasse. Webequie First Nation is also home to Jordan Wabasse (a distant cousin of the chief), one of the seven fallen feathers whose body was found in the Kaministiquia River in 2011. On Thursday, one day after the OIPRD report’s release, Jacob’s death was categorized as a homicide by Thunder Bay police.

“This is the second member that we’ve lost in Thunder Bay and it’s very concerning,” Wabasse said. “Whenever our kids go to Thunder Bay, we tell them it’s not safe there anymore.”

A palpable sense of anger and frustration hung over the news conference on Wednesday, when the OIPRD publicly unveiled its report to a packed room of residents, many from Indigenous communities.

One Indigenous woman said through tears that her cousin was murdered in Thunder Bay and her family has had a difficult experience with investigators assigned to the case. The mother can no longer visit the city without medication because she associates it with “death and fear and hate,” she said.

“I don’t think it’s fair or right that they continue to do this to our people,” Joyce Hunter said, as she struggled to maintain her composure. “I want it to stop.”

But will it stop? That was a question on many people’s lips after the release of the OIPRD report, which made 44 recommendations to Thunder Bay police, Ontario’s chief forensic pathologist, and the regional and provincial coroner.

One recommendation was that leadership at the Thunder Bay police, along with the board, “publicly and formally acknowledge that racism exists at all levels within the police service.” Yet even as the news conference was still underway, police chief Sylvie Hauth — who sat in the audience, taking notes — issued a statement that referenced only “systemic barriers” within the service.

Candles and prayer ties filled with tobacco sit at the scene during a candle light vigil where Webequie First Nation youth Braiden Jacob's body at Chappel's Park in Thunder Bay, Ontario.
Candles and prayer ties filled with tobacco sit at the scene during a candle light vigil where Webequie First Nation youth Braiden Jacob’s body at Chappel’s Park in Thunder Bay, Ontario.  (David Jackson/ Toronto Star)

Her avoidance of the word “racism” raised fierce and immediate criticism from Indigenous leaders in the room. When pressed by reporters, Hauth eventually conceded “there is systemic racism within our service” and the force later released a second statement “formally acknowledging that it must address the systemic racism, barriers and biases that exist within the service.”

But for Indigenous leaders like Rainy River First Nations Chief Robin McGinnis — whose community pushed for the OIPRD systemic review after the unexplained death of one of its members, 41-year-old Stacy DeBungee — the police chief’s hesitation to use the word “racism” was a discouraging sign.

“Thunder Bay has always denied, denied, denied,” McGinnis said. “The leadership in Thunder Bay, the mayor and council, has always denied it. The police services board has always denied it. I don’t know why it’s so hard for Thunder Bay to admit that (racism) is here.”

Hauth said she was still perusing the report and its recommendations, but noted she was only a month into her job as police chief and regaining trust was a priority. In the Thunder Bay police’s submissions to the OIPRD, they noted the service “faces issues not faced by other police services in the province or the country.”

They pointed to the fact many Indigenous people have an inherent distrust of police “rooted in the historical context of broken treaties,” residential schools, and the “Sixties Scoop,” the large-scale removal of Indigenous children from their homes. “The police are burdened with a legacy of social conflict with Indigenous people,” it said. “This conflict is most apparent in communities with a significant Indigenous population, such as Thunder Bay … the geography, not the police practices of Thunder Bay lends itself to being the epicentre of police-Indigenous relations.”

Beverly Jacob (centre) from Webequie First Nation mourns the loss of her son Braiden Jacob during a candle light vigil at Chappel's Park in Thunder Bay, Ontario.
Beverly Jacob (centre) from Webequie First Nation mourns the loss of her son Braiden Jacob during a candle light vigil at Chappel’s Park in Thunder Bay, Ontario.  (David Jackson/ Toronto Star)

Thunder Bay police also noted the force covers a large geographic area with a limited budget and resources. Many people the force investigates have no fixed address or refuse to co-operate with police, it said. Several officers interviewed by the OIPRD expressed frustration with what they felt were media exaggerations of the racial divisions in Thunder Bay and “some individuals in the Indigenous community who have all the clout, all the say, and they have the media’s ear.”

The police submission acknowledged that problems exist within the service but also pointed to several steps it’s taken in recent years, including community-building projects, working with students and an “organizational change project” launched last year, and reviews of its sudden death and missing persons policies.

McNeilly said he acknowledged that Thunder Bay police have taken important steps to address its relationship with Indigenous communities, but also noted a lack of resources was no excuse for the “nature and severity” of the failings he observed, which include the inadequate investigations and premature conclusions based, at least in part, on racist attitudes and stereotypes.

He also noted a minority of officers expressed “very disturbing views,” which were shared by more than “just a few bad apples.” One officer told the OIPRD he would like to see the federal government “abolish all the reserves” (though he specified it shouldn’t be a “forceful thing, but an option”) and said he feels angry when he visits certain neighbourhoods and sees Indigenous “kids hanging out of trees like monkeys.”

Another officer complained about Indigenous people being “pissed drunk,” “pissing up against a building,” “defecating,” and “fornicating on the riverbanks and on people’s cars.” One officer flatly admitted to being biased. “Am I biased? Absolutely. I would stand up in court, put my hand on the Bible and swear that I’m biased because I don’t know how you could do this job for 33 years and three days and see the same thing over and over and over and not be biased.”

Fiddler says strong leadership is now crucial if Thunder Bay is to truly turn the page. The last few months have seen a new police chief, the appointment of the city’s first Indigenous police services chair, and a new mayor, Bill Mauro, who was just sworn in earlier this month.

“One (hate crime) is too many,” says Thunder Bay Mayor Bill Mauro. But he added he didn’t know how this data was captured or whether the numbers might be skewed. “Again … it’s a bit concerning that we would be portrayed as the hate crime capital of Canada, based on that.”
“One (hate crime) is too many,” says Thunder Bay Mayor Bill Mauro. But he added he didn’t know how this data was captured or whether the numbers might be skewed. “Again … it’s a bit concerning that we would be portrayed as the hate crime capital of Canada, based on that.”  (JENNIFER YANG / TORONTO STAR)

Mauro, formerly a long-time MPP with the Liberal government, is replacing his predecessor of eight years, Keith Hobbs, a former cop who now faces criminal charges in connection with an alleged attempt to extort a Thunder Bay lawyer. Fiddler was pleased to see Mauro make an appearance at the OIPRD’s news conference, but also criticized the mayor for avoiding the word “racism” in his public statements thus far.

In an interview with the Star Thursday, Mauro said he hadn’t yet had a chance to fully review the OIPRD’s findings and will be examining them together with the OCPC report. When asked for his comments on the OIPRD’s finding of systemic racism within the city’s police service, Mauro said “that’s Mr. McNeilly’s conclusion.”

“We’ll see what the chief has to say and what she has to recommend in that regard.”

Mauro said McNeilly has “potentially provided a path forward,” but many of his recommendations will require significant resources. “We would likely need some support to be able to implement some of those recommendations that require financial resourcing,” he said, adding support should come from both the provincial and federal government.

When asked if systemic racism was a problem in Thunder Bay, however, Mauro said no. Repeating comments he has previously made in media interview, he said he worried Thunder Bay is being singled out for issues that also exist in other communities.

“Nobody would suggest that there aren’t, from time to time, racially-motivated actions by individuals in the community,” he said. “But as the mayor, it’s important for people to understand that these are issues that are present right across the country.”

But is there something different about Thunder Bay? What about a recent analysis of Statistics Canada data by Maclean’s that found Thunder Bay had the country’s worst increase in its hate crime rate last year?

“One (hate crime) is too many,” Mauro said. But he added he didn’t know how this data was captured or whether the numbers might be skewed. “Again … it’s a bit concerning that we would be portrayed as the hate crime capital of Canada, based on that.”

For Celina Reitberger, former director of Nishnawbe-Aski Legal Services, she agrees there are other cities with similar problems to Thunder Bay. But she also believes the city has its unique issues.

On Tuesday, Reitberger was appointed as the city’s first Indigenous chair — just four days before the OCPC issued its report and placed an administrator in charge, while suspending her voting rights along with the rest of the board.

For a historical appointment, this marks a pretty unusual start. But Reitberger says she is impressed by the report and welcomes the outside help during this crucial time in Thunder Bay’s history.

Both the OCPC and OIPRD report identified serious issues, she said, and the time for denial is over. “I only see positive things coming out of this,” she said. “It’s going to be hard for some people to admit there is racism but it’s systemic.

“We have to put our differences aside and move forward.”

Few people have waited longer for the OIPRD’s findings, perhaps, than Dora and Tom Morris. They welcome its recommendations and sincerely hope it will bring changes to Thunder Bay. But they also know it is unlikely to bring them the closure they have been searching for now for 18 years.

Their nephew, Jethro Anderson from Kasabonika Lake First Nation, was the first of the seven fallen feathers and his case was among the oldest reviewed by the OIPRD.

Tim And Dora Morris hold up a photo of their nephew, Jethro Anderson, whose body was found in the Kaministiquia River in November 2000. Dora Anderson, who was like a second mother to Anderson, says she never believed her nephew had drowned, as the Thunder Bay police concluded in their initial investigation.
Tim And Dora Morris hold up a photo of their nephew, Jethro Anderson, whose body was found in the Kaministiquia River in November 2000. Dora Anderson, who was like a second mother to Anderson, says she never believed her nephew had drowned, as the Thunder Bay police concluded in their initial investigation.  (JENNIFER YANG / Toronto Star)

Anderson was only 15 when he went missing in 2000. He was living with the Morrises at the time and when he didn’t come home one day, Dora — who considers herself a second mother to Anderson — immediately knew something was gravely wrong.

She called police the next morning; an officer told her Anderson was probably out partying like “every other native kid” and hung up. For days, she kept calling again and again and again. Four days passed before there was any police activity on his file.

Anderson was finally found in the Kaministiquia River, nearly two weeks after Dora reported him missing. She was never notified by police, however, and only received official confirmation through a press release.

An initial autopsy report concluded Anderson’s death was caused by “asphyxia due to drowning” but the 2016 coroner’s inquest into the seven fallen feathers reclassified his cause of death as “undetermined.”

In its report, the OIPRD concluded the police investigation into Anderson’s death was “wholly inadequate” but the Morrises have known this all along. After her nephew’s body was found, Dora filed a complaint with Thunder Bay police but was eventually forced to withdraw it because her sister-in-law, Anderson’s mother, decided not to pursue it.

She remembers how police showed up on her doorstep within 15 minutes of her calling to withdraw her complaint, holding the paperwork she needed to sign. “What I said to them is it sure didn’t take you long to get here, while it took you a long time to respond when I needed help,” she recalled with a tight smile.

Dora said she filed her complaint because she didn’t want anyone else to go through what she and her family went through. But in the 18 years since, she has seen so many other Indigenous children die in Thunder Bay’s waterways, their deaths never adequately explained, and joined search parties for boys like Jordan Wabasse and Josiah Begg, whose body was found in the McIntyre River last year. Braiden Jacob, the boy found dead last week, is also close friends with her grand-nephews, who are now broken over the loss.

When she first heard about the OIPRD report, Dora contemplated going to the news conference but ultimately decided against it. Her husband drove by the venue but couldn’t bring himself to go inside.

They decided to watch it at home on their living room TV and when the news conference ended, they clapped. But now, Dora is left with mixed feelings about the OIPRD’s recommendation to reopen her nephew’s file; his case was already painfully combed over by the coroner’s inquest and she’s not sure she or her family can go through it all for a third time.

She wonders when she will finally be able to put it all behind her. “After all this time, it’s still not over,” she says. “It didn’t have to be this way.”

Jennifer Yang is a Toronto-based reporter covering identity and inequality. Follow her on Twitter: @jyangstar


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