The Thunder Bay Police Have Been “Torn Open”

Reporter Jon Thompson explains how recent developments offer an unprecedented look inside one of the country's most troubled police forces

In December 2018, two Ontario government bodies published reports that affirmed what the Indigenous residents of Thunder Bay had long known: that both the city’s police force and the board that oversees it were so encumbered by their own systemic racism that they had been failing to carry out even basic responsibilities.

“Our detailed review of cases involving sudden deaths of Indigenous men and women found [Thunder Bay Police Service] investigators failed on an unacceptably high number of occasions to treat or protect the deceased and his or her family equally and without discrimination because the deceased was Indigenous,” said the report by the province’s Office of the Independent Police Review Director (OIPRD). It was titled Broken Trust [pdf].

A separate investigation of the police board, conducted by Senator Murray Sinclair on behalf of the Ontario Civilian Police Commission (OCPC), concluded that “the Board has failed to recognize and address the clear and indisputable pattern of violence and systemic racism against Indigenous people in Thunder Bay. Moreover, the Board’s failure to act on these issues in the face of overwhelming documentary and media exposure is indicative of willful blindness” [pdf].

Canadaland explored the state of affairs that led to these reviews in our 2018 series Thunder Bay. Two years later, we returned to Thunder Bay to learn what, if anything, had changed.

Recently, however, a whole lot has changed, at least in terms of the public’s understanding of what’s been going on in police HQ.

“You know how long we’ve been trying to get inside of that building,” reporter Jon Thompson, who worked on Return to Thunder Bay, tells host Jesse Brown on this week’s CANADALAND. “And what’s happened over the past couple of weeks is it’s just torn open.”

On today’s show, Brown gets an update from Thompson on the sad, spiralling saga of policing in Thunder Bay:

The following is a condensed and edited version of their conversation.

What’s happened since the release of the OIPRD report?

The mayor, Bill Mauro, immediately said that racism does exist here, but that racism exists everywhere. And that was perceived by a lot of people as possibly minimizing that. This is a line Mauro continues to toe.

The following day, from all of the officers that we’ve been able to speak to, there was no followup of any kind. There was no email sent, there was no meeting, there was no sort of messaging from leadership whatsoever. And I think that really got things off on an angle that it was apparent that the power structure didn’t accept the findings.

Were any of the recommendations implemented?

A report that came back to the board last month said that the police service has now completed 80 percent of those recommendations [pdf]. So it has created a Major Crimes Unit — which you might have in a city that had the highest murder rate per capita in eight of the last 11 years. You might have improved forensics. They’ve revamped and rebuilt the Indigenous liaison office. They’ve trained officers how to communicate with the coroner, because in many cases there were issues where it wasn’t clear that officers understood what the coroner’s function was. There’s name tags and body cameras.

But that was an update report written by the police for their board, and there’s no actual independent oversight that stamps it as being true. Look at recommendation 36: they have to design and implement antiracism training. And so I reached out to the police, and they told me that they’ve confirmed that 65 members have received their Reconciliation training. Another 24 in the spring. That’s out of 343 total staff. And so they’re planning to have their members take that training over the next 2.5 years. But in the report they issued to their board, it says that they’ve completed that recommendation.

Can you fill me in on the recent developments?

In October, Indigenous board member Georjann Morriseau filed a human rights complaint against the leadership of the police and members of the board and the secretary. And separately, between eight and 11 officers, and counting, have filed human rights complaints against their leadership. The deputy chief of the police has been suspended, and the OCPC, which oversees police bodies, is now once again investigating the Thunder Bay Police Service.

Who is Morriseau?

She was board chair, but she’s now just a member of the police board. Morriseau is a former chief of Fort William First Nation. At one point, she put in to run as the Liberal candidate in Thunder Bay–Rainy River. She was also the Indigenous spokesperson for Resolute, which is Canada’s largest forestry company.

When Ryan McMahon and I were making Return to Thunder Bay, she said something about how she wasn’t sure how much longer she was gonna be able to be chair of the board. And we didn’t have any insight into it at the time, but what happened was she was out with her family in the summer of 2020, shopping at HomeSense. An officer approached her and told her a rumour that a certain officer was leaking information to a Facebook page that was known for its racism, classism, sensationalism, just seeing mostly poor people and people with mental health and drug addictions at their worst.

“Somebody who didn’t want that meeting to be happening dropped pornographic images and blast beats until it had to be shut down.”

Is this “The Real Concerned Citizens of Thunder Bay,” which we covered in the podcast?

It’s the sister page to that. They’re huge. Like, only the CBC has a bigger online footprint. Almost every other journalist in town combined doesn’t meet the audience of these sites.

What kind of information were the police allegedly leaking to this page?

The way that site runs is by publishing an accused person’s entire criminal history, putting details that would have been in officer notes. What it appears is happening is that officers are leaking that information out the side door.

Morriseau takes that to the leadership, and instead of looking into the leak, she claims in her human rights complaint that they instead started an investigation into her. The police chief had her investigated by the Ontario Provincial Police for breach of trust, because she’s not supposed to be speaking to officers as a member of the board — the board responds to the leadership. Ultimately, the OPP found no breach of trust or any other criminal wrongdoing in that case.

She files a second human rights complaint because the board then allegedly tries to remove her over leaking the first complaint to The Globe and Mail. And then she suggests that there is reprisal and retaliation, naming all board members, including the mayor and the board secretary and the new chair, and alleging that they made racist comments to her over the process of doing this.

When she held a press conference to present her allegations, that turned into a shitshow. Can you describe what happened?

She released the statement on a Monday that the police service was on “the brink of collapse,” and by Thursday, when she held a press availability on Zoom, a user shows up named “TBay Police.” And on a hot mic, you can hear them joking about what name they ought to change it to.

The police say that they’re investigating who that might have been.

You’re not gonna say that it was the Thunder Bay police, because we don’t know that for a fact, but somebody on the call hacked the meeting and took it over somehow?

Somebody who didn’t want that meeting to be happening, for political reasons or just for chaos reasons, suddenly dropped pornographic images and blast beats until it had to be shut down.

What can you tell me about the others who made human rights complaints?

To date, there are eight officers and civilian members that have filed complaints with the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario, alleging that the leadership mistreated them. Most of those relate to post-traumatic stress. And it should be said that it’s unusual for it to get to this point, even for a single officer — never mind the number that we’re seeing here. The trauma that these officers face is compelling. The mental health issues within the service are phenomenal.

We’ve been seeing for the first time what the toll is: what the officers on the inside, as well as the union that represents them, are saying about unsuitable resources and workplace culture around mental health. You would think that there would be a supportive environment for officers when they feel like they reach the edge, and that’s not what they’re saying. This paints a picture of a workplace that is resistant to supporting their staff, right down to allegations that the police chief personally attempted to interfere, and in one case successfully delayed, the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board claims of officers when they had physician notes proving that they had post-traumatic stress.

The police association’s survey of its members shows that 81 percent of officers are saying that they don’t feel comfortable approaching management, especially regarding these specific issues that are in the media, being the systemic racism problems. The OCPC is going to investigate the police chief, Sylvie Hauth, Deputy Chief Ryan Hughes — who has since been suspended unrelated to this, we understand — and members of the administration, and that will include the board.

How does all of this relate to the original problem that Thunder Bay is the hate-crime capital of Canada and that its police force, as a documented fact, is racist and in dire need of reform?

Morriseau’s complaints, due to the nature of the investigation into the Facebook page, relate to that systemic racism. She claims that the systemic racism that she faced when she brought the first complaint was a continuation of that. And there is one officer who is Indigenous among those that have filed human rights complaints. Constable Ken Ogima claims he was passed over 32 times for promotions, apparently due to alleged infidelity in his romantic relationship, which is not happening at work, was not investigated by the police, and might have very little to do with his ability to do the job if he is promoted. They say that that reveals those systemic concerns.

You’ve reached out to the Thunder Bay police for comment. What do they have to say?

The Thunder Bay Police Service is not commenting. They’re saying that they’re letting the processes do their work at this point. The police association hasn’t spoken to us, and the police board chair is not speaking to us. The police board secretary will not comment.

So where are we in terms of the external-facing racism of the Thunder Bay Police Service and the improvements that were supposed to be made to correct that?

As part of the Broken Trust report, Independent Police Review Director Gerry McNeilly said that there were nine investigations that were done so poorly that they ought to be reinvestigated. Those have now been reinvestigated, and the results are being communicated to the families. The OIPRD told me today they’re expecting that we’re going to see those become public in the spring.

Where does this leave us?

Here we are back in 2016, with the Ontario Civilian Police Commission once again investigating the police and their board. And I think that it probably speaks to some extent to what is really meant by systemic racism. It’s not just the people at the top, it’s not just the people who are on the front lines — it’s the system itself, but it’s also them.

Are there reasons to feel optimistic?

A lot of people I talked to for this story, including officers, don’t believe that this is gonna make any difference, no matter what the outcome is. And when this started breaking again, the feeling in the general public… you could feel it, people are upset. But there are so many people who love Thunder Bay, who are doing everything that they can, because they want to make a difference.

Top image incorporates a Google Street View capture of Thunder Bay’s police headquarters as well as the Return to Thunder Bay podcast artwork by Blake Angeconeb and Michah Dowbak.

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