Systemic racism throughout the Thunder Bay police force has compromised the investigation of the sudden deaths of Indigenous people, a scathing and unprecedented review has found.
Thunder Bay police's efforts have been so inadequate, it should re-investigate at least nine cases, said the the Office of the Independent Police Review Director, an Ontario police watchdog, in its 208-page report, Broken Trust, released Wednesday.
"The serious inadequacies and premature conclusions in TBPS investigations are at least in part because of racial stereotyping," said OIPRD's Gerry McNeilly.
"Officers repeatedly relied on generalized notions of how Indigenous people likely came to their deaths and acted based on those biases. The investigations were too often handled differently because the deceased was Indigenous."
Investigators also lacked experience, failing to find out autopsy results, understand their significance or know what was in their own investigation file, including other reports filed by patrol officers, and they weren't properly supervised, McNeilly found. Thunder Bay police also doesn't have a major crimes unit, meaning investigators don't always receive the proper training on how to handle serious cases.
Thunder Bay police said in a statement it will review all the recommendations in the coming days and that it will be "of great value" in building trust with Indigenous communities.
"We acknowledge that there are systemic barriers in policing that must be addressed," said police Chief Sylvie Hauth. "With help from this report, the service continues to work towards bias-free policing."
OIPRD looked at 37 Thunder Bay police investigations, including the deaths of Stacy DeBungee, 41, in 2015, and Josiah Begg, 14, and Tammy Keeash, 17, in 2017. For years, Indigenous leaders had raised concerns about the way police handled cases involving sudden deaths and disappearances of Indigenous people, many in their teens.
Keeash's body was found in one of Thunder Bay's waterways, after she'd been last seen at a nearby park, drinking with friends. Police informed her family she had died by suicide, said Keeash's uncle Tyson Matawapit. But her mother, Pearl Keeash, never believed them.
"I remember my late sister Pearl wanting answers, calling around, asking people questions on the streets about what they heard or seen about Tammy," Matawapit said from North Caribou Lake First Nation. "But she got very little answers. Everybody had their assumptions and ideas, but nobody knew exactly why or how Tammy died. It was frustrating.
"I just know that I can't trust any of the Thunder Bay police officers."
York Regional Police were called in to assist with the investigation. They found Keeash likely fell down an embankment into the river, suffered hypothermia and drowned, the review said. Her death does not appear to be one of the nine cases that OIPRD recommended should be re-investigated.
Like many First Nation youth from Northern Ontario, Keeash had travelled hundreds of kilometres to Thunder Bay to access counselling services, which seemed like a good idea at the time, said Matawapit.
"I thought 'Oh, good. She'll be safe there. She'll do good there' but I didn't know she was going to end up dead in that couple of months she was in Thunder Bay," Matawapit said. "After what happened with Tammy, I was in complete daze.
"I just hope for any clarity. Then maybe Pearl as well as Tammy can rest in peace. And for the rest of my family."
The report comes less than a week after Braiden Jacob, a 17-year-old boy from Webequie First Nation, was found dead in the same area as Keeash's body was found. He'd been reported missing by his family Dec. 6, when he did not return to their hotel room, police said.
"When I heard another teenager was found dead outside, I kept thinking to myself 'how is this still happening to our youths?'" said Matawapit. "Why are so many youths mysteriously missing and being found dead? When is something going to be done?
"It breaks my heart nothing was done before and after my niece's death."
Like Keeash, Jacob had travelled the 540 kilometres from Webequie to Thunder Bay for counselling not provided on the reserve, Chief Cornelius Wabasse said on CBC Radio Tuesday. Jacob had lost his sister and father and was seeking help coping with the grief.
"He was a bright kid, Braiden. You know, just a young kid, energetic, liked sports, hockey and going about with his friends," Wabasse said. "And just being in the community doing hunting and fishing, and going out to the land with hunters. Just being out there and having fun in the community."
A Go Fund Me page is raising money to support Jacob's family, and pay for his funeral expenses.
This is the second teenager from Webequie to have died in Thunder Bay in recent years. Jordan Wabasse was 15 years old, attending high school in the city, when he went missing in 2011. His body was discovered three months later in a nearby river and a coroner's inquest into the cause of his death ruled it undetermined.
OIPRD previously reviewed Wabasse's death, and the deaths of six other First Nations youth who'd travelled to Thunder Bay for high school between 2000 and 2011. Jethro Anderson, Reggie Bushie, Robyn Harper, Kyle Morrisseau, Paul Panacheese and Curran Strang all drowned.
In its latest report, McNeilly made 44 recommendations and presents "an opportunity for the Indigenous community and Thunder Bay police to get together and start to talk to move forward," he said.
"Let's make this a real first day of doing something different in Thunder Bay so the situation that exists now goes away."
Thunder Bay police should establish a team to reinvestigate at least nine deaths, including First Nations police officers, coroners and forensic pathologists, OIPRD recommends.
Police should also formally and publicly acknowledge that racism exists at all levels within the force and that it will not tolerate racist views or actions; create a permanent advisory group involving the police chief and Indigenous leadership; and set up a major crimes unit and hire more officers in the Aboriginal Liaison Unit.
Other recommendations include police officers wearing body cameras and undergoing psychological screening for racial biases.
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