Police chief should have no say in reinvestigations of sudden deaths, Thunder Bay, Ont., families say

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A long-awaited report into the reinvestigation of the sudden deaths of nine Indigenous people in Thunder Bay, Ont., is expected sometime this summer, but the families of the deceased and their representatives are already casting doubt on it.

A team reviewing nine sudden death cases in Thunder Bay, Ont., is preparing its final report, but families of the deceased are raising concerns about the transparency and independence of the process. (Marc Doucette/CBC)

A long-awaited report into the reinvestigation of the sudden deaths of nine Indigenous people in Thunder Bay, Ont., is expected sometime this summer, but the families of the deceased and their representatives are already casting doubt on it.

The concerns centre on a lack of transparency about the reinvestigations, and the uncertain role of Thunder Bay’s police Chief Sylvie Hauth in the drafting and review of the final report, according to former Nishnawbe Aski Nation deputy grand chief Anna Betty Achneepineskum, who was also the aunt to two people whose deaths are being reinvestigated.

“When we talk about trust, there must be transparency. Our families that are involved in the reinvestigation have not witnessed that,” Achneepineskum said at a news conference in the northern Ontario city on Tuesday. 

“We keep hoping that there is going to be some answers, that there is going to be some sense of closure provided for the families. At this point in time, we don’t see that.”

The reinvestigations came as a recommendation of the Broken Trust report, by an independent police watchdog in 2018, which found evidence of systemic racism in the Thunder Bay Police Service.

The Office of the Independent Police Review Director (OIPRD) reviewed 37 sudden death investigations over nearly 20 years by the force, and concluded that nine were “so problematic” they had to be reinvestigated.

Anna Betty Achneepineskum, aunt to two of the deceased, says it’s ‘very disappointing’ Indigenous people still have to fight to be treated fairly, with justice and respect. (Logan Turner/CBC)

Four of them — Jethro Anderson of Kasabonika Lake, Curran Strang from Pikangikum, Kyle Morrisseau of Keewaywin and Jordan Wabasse from Webequie — had already been reinvestigated by an inquest in 2016. 

For those four families, this latest probe was the third time the deaths of their loved ones were investigated. 

At the news conference, with a feather in hand and wearing an orange “every child matters” T-shirt, Beulah Wabasse spoke about the pain her family still feels from the loss of her grandson Jordan. 

“I still want to know some answers. My daughter, my family, my community of Webequie, we are all still waiting,” she said. 

The reinvestigations are supposed to provide those answers.

But the families say they’ve been left in the dark. Broadly, they say, though investigators spoke with them and seemed interested in each case, they have not heard from them since and their own questions have gone unanswered — how will their remarks be used in the final report? How is the report being prepared? When will it be published and what will be included?  

‘Loss of confidence’

The investigatory team of six, which includes officers from the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) and Nishnawbe Aski Police Services, is supported by an expert committee of at least four people and overseen by an executive governance committee of six including Hauth, the police chief.

The executive committee is mandated with the “review, approval and public release … as appropriate” of the final report.

In a number of letters obtained by CBC News, families and legal representatives have asked if Hauth has recused herself from that process.

“It is not acceptable that the chief of the Thunder Bay Police Service, a service directly implicated in sheer incompetence [and] in devaluing the lives of Indigenous people, would have a controlling hand in the issuance of this report,” said lawyer Julian Falconer.

Caitlyn Kasper of Aboriginal Legal Services, which represents three of the families involved, also expressed a “loss of confidence in the management of Project Broken Trust and great concern for the legitimacy of any final report released by this project.”

Hauth declined an interview request, referring questions to the province’s Office of the Chief Coroner.

Lawyer Julian Falconer says it’s ‘not acceptable’ for the Thunder Bay police chief to be on the team’s executive committee. (Logan Turner / CBC)

Asked whether Hauth has recused herself, a spokesperson for the coroner wrote, “any real or perceived conflicts of interest will be addressed.”

The statement also said that “input from the families of the victims is invaluable and is a high priority,” and that a victim liaison officer communicates with the families “often.”

The OIPRD report also recommended the 2015 death of Stacy DeBungee be considered for reinvestigation, having found “substantial” deficiencies that amounted to neglect of duty, and which led to an ongoing criminal investigation of three officers involved in the case. 

That case, CBC News learned on Tuesday, has been handed to the OPP and will not be included in the Broken Trust final report. 

Brad DeBungee has been calling for a reinvestigation into his brother’s death for nearly six years. He says it was frustrating, not knowing whether the Broken Trust team was looking into it.

“It’s hard to plead all the time, when you have to plead and plead and you get no answers with what they’re going to do, how they’re going to handle things properly,” said DeBungee.

“How are you supposed to trust a system like that?”

CBC has asked for more information from the Ministry of the Attorney General, which directed the OPP to reinvestigate the case, about the reason for that decision.

Brad DeBungee has been calling for the reinvestigation of his brother Stacy’s death for nearly six years. (Logan Turner/CBC)

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