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Something must be done about the Thunder Bay police

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In October 2015, Stacy DeBungee, an Ojibway man from the Rainy River First Nation, was pulled from Thunder Bay’s McIntyre River. His name was added to the likes of Jethro Anderson, Reggie Bushie, Robyn Harper, Kyle Morriseau, Paul Panacheese, Curran Strang, Jordan Wabasse and others­­—all of whom were found dead in the same city under suspicious circumstances, and all of whom, young and Indigenous, were the subject of a months-long coroner’s inquest in 2016.

The Thunder Bay Police Service mishandled DeBungee’s investigation, declaring it “non-criminal” before an autopsy, hours after his body was recovered, and failed to follow important leads that suggested his debit card had been used after his death, according to a report that came out earlier this year from the Office of the Independent Police Review Director (OIPRD), which oversees complaints about police in Ontario.

Following the case, the OIPRD launched an investigation into the Thunder Bay police force’s conduct. “One would have reasonably expected that investigators would be particularly vigilant in ensuring that the investigation of the sudden death of an Indigenous man found in the river was thorough and responsive to the community’s concerns,” the report read. “Unfortunately, the opposite was true here.”

The report confirmed what First Nations people in the northern Ontario city had already worried—that police devalued their lives. “It’s obvious in this case that somebody made the assumption that it’s just another drunk Indian rolling in the river,” said Rainy River’s former chief. DeBungee’s death, along with the concerns and complaints that shadowed the botched investigation, launched another two-year probe into the police force’s handling of Indigenous deaths over several years.

READ MORE: The troubles in Thunder Bay should trouble all Canadians

On Wednesday, in front of a room of concerned citizens that cheered with each profound revelation, the OIPRD released the findings of its latest unprecedented report. And a dark conclusion was reached: systemic racism exists within the Thunder Bay Police Service. “The failure to conduct adequate investigations and the premature conclusions drawn in these cases is, at least in part, attributable to racist attitudes and racial stereotyping,” wrote Gerry McNeilly, the head of the OIPRD. “Officers repeatedly relied on generalized notions about how Indigenous people likely came to their deaths and acted, or refrained from acting, based on those biases.”

McNeilly examined allegations of racism within the force pertaining to its dealings with Indigenous victims and families, describing a long-fractured relationship—a “crisis of distrust”—between Thunder Bay’s police and First Nations people. He looked at more than three dozen investigations into the deaths of Indigenous men and women dating back to 2009, including the names of the seven students involved in that 2016 coroner’s inquest.

McNeilly notes in the report that the findings do not suggest all Thunder Bay officers engaged in “intentional racism,” instead he found that “systemic racism exists at an institutional level.”

Perhaps more alarming, the report calls for “at least” nine cases to be reopened and reinvestigated, a number that includes four of the death investigations from the 2016 inquest.

McNeilly pointed to a lack of expertise, experience, training and a “neglect of duty” among investigators and officers, compounded by a careless disregard when handling autopsy reports and case files. He noted that a lack of communication with other police forces has often led to Thunder Bay police officers working in “silos.”

RELATED: Inside the impossible work of Canada’s biggest Indigenous police force

The report makes 44 recommendations, many of which are reiterations from previous reports and inquests that the Thunder Bay police force has somewhere in its offices. And there will be one more soon: Senator Murray Sinclair, who chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, is investigating the Thunder Bay Police Services Board on behalf of the Ontario Civilian Police Commission.

In addition to the nine reinvestigations, it makes clear that a team should be formed to determine whether DeBungee’s case and others should be reopened. Among some of the more pertinent suggestions, the city’s police department is urged to undergo a “peer-review process” by another force for at least three years, to contract out some of its investigations, to improve almost every facet of its operation and for its leaders to “publicly and formally acknowledge that racism exists at all levels within the police service.”

The problems for the city’s police force go beyond its investigations involving Indigenous people. Its former police chief, J.P. Levesque, was charged with obstructing justice and breaching trust in 2017 (the charges were dismissed earlier this year). Levesque returned to work and retired in April. Over the years, Levesque had heard repeated calls from First Nations leaders to step down. Sylvie Hauth, the former deputy chief, took over the role in November, despite a nationwide search for a new boss.

In response to this week’s report, Hauth said in a statement: “I take this report very seriously. I have been very upfront in terms of my commitment and dedication about where we stand on the reconciliation process. Trust is very important and regaining that trust has been at the forefront of my new role.” She added that the force has “introduced a number of initiatives” over the past two years. Those include better community policing and efforts to recruit Indigenous officers.

“This report is as tragic as it is unsurprising, and it reinforces what First Nations have been saying for years—systemic racism is clearly something that needs to be addressed in a profound and substantial manner,” said AFN National Chief Perry Bellegarde.

The city of Thunder Bay is at an impasse. A decision will inevitably have to be made about what to do next because the question in front of its council is unambiguous.

If the problem within its police force is systemic, if it’s rooted at all levels within the department, then is the Thunder Bay Police Service worth keeping in its current form? Does the force need to be entirely reorganized and reimagined from the bottom up? And would that even go far enough to address the depth of the problem in Thunder Bay? Julian Falconer, the lawyer for the DeBungee family and the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, which represents 49 First Nation communities in northern Ontario, said if the police force doesn’t implement all of the recommendations in three years, it should be disbanded.

The threat of violence and racism also goes beyond the men and women in uniform. In 2015, one-third of the hate crimes directed at Indigenous people in Canada occurred in Thunder Bay, according to Statistics Canada. Nearly 13 per cent of its roughly 110,000 residents are Indigenous. Last year, a trailer hitch thrown from a moving vehicle took the life of Barb Kentner, a member of the Waabigon Saaga’igan Anishinaabeg (Wabigoon Lake Ojibway Nation). It’s not the last horrifying incident to grab national headlines, and seems tragically unlikely to be the last.

Chiefs have tried to convince the RCMP and the Ontario Provincial Police to investigate the deaths of Indigenous people before. Vested with the responsibility to “serve and protect,” police officers in Thunder Bay have failed to fulfill this duty for a vulnerable segment of its population, and Wednesday’s report, fittingly titled “Broken Trust,” will do anything but reconcile the racism and discrimination they’ve encountered at the hands of law enforcement over the years.

In the OIPRD’s interviews with Thunder Bay police officers, some “exhibited a contempt bordering on hostility toward Indigenous people.” Their views are described in the report as “very disturbing” and they were expressed by “more than a few bad apples.” If that’s the case, then perhaps it’s time the city of Thunder Bay look elsewhere.

CORRECTION, DEC. 13, 2018: An earlier version of this story stated that all of the victims in the 2016 coroner’s inquest were found in Thunder Bay’s McIntyre River. In fact, only Reggie Bushie, Kyle Morriseau and Curran Strang were recovered there.

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‘Too soon to celebrate’ Ottawa’s low case count, says Etches

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Ottawa Public Health (OPH) logged just 11 new cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday, the lowest daily total since Sept. 1.

Because of the lag between testing and reporting, the low number could simply reflect low turnout at the city’s testing sites on weekends — all month, new case counts have been lower on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. 

During a virtual news conference Tuesday, the city’s medical officer of health Dr. Vera Etches said she doesn’t read too much into a single day’s report.

“I don’t think we can make too much of 11. Actually, it could be a lot higher tomorrow — I would expect that, on average,” she said. “It’s too soon to celebrate.”

Provincewide, public health officials reported 1, 249 new cases Tuesday.

OPH also declared 62 cases resolved Tuesday, lowering the number of known active cases in the city to 462. Two more people have died, both in care homes currently experiencing outbreaks, raising the city’s COVID-19 death toll to 361. 

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Santa Claus isn’t coming to Ottawa’s major malls this year

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Santa Claus may still be coming to town this Christmas, but he won’t be dropping by any of Ottawa’s major malls, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic.

On Friday, Cadillac Fairview said Santa won’t be making an appearance at any of its 19 malls across Canada, including Rideau Centre in downtown Ottawa. On Tuesday, Bayshore and St. Laurent shopping centres confirmed they, too, are scrapping the annual tradition.

“Due to the evolution of the situation in regards to COVID-19, we have made the difficult decision to cancel our Santa Program and Gift Wrap Program this year,” Bayshore spokesperson Sara Macdonald wrote in an email to CBC.

Macdonald said parent company Ivanhoé Cambridge cancelled all holiday activities “due to the rising number of COVID-19 cases across the country.”

Macdonald said families that had already booked an appointment to visit Santa will receive an email with more information.  

Virtual visits with Santa

Rideau Centre said based on customer research and discussions with public health officials, its North Pole is going online this year.

“Children will be able to have a private chat with Santa,” said Craig Flannagan, vice-president of marketing for Cadillac Fairview. “You’ll also be able to join a 15-minute storytime with Santa over Facebook Live.” 

At Place d’Orléans Shopping Centre, visitors are invited to take a “selfie with Santa” — actually, a life-size cutout of Santa Pierre, the man who’s been playing Santa at the east end mall for years.

“We understand that this is not ideal, but in lieu of this tradition we will be doing what we can to maintain and encourage holiday cheer,” according to a statement on the mall’s Facebook page.

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Ottawa Bylaw breaks up two large parties in Ottawa over the weekend

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OTTAWA — Ottawa Bylaw is investigating social gatherings of more than 10 people in private homes across Ottawa last weekend.

Mayor Jim Watson tells Newstalk 580 CFRA that Ottawa Bylaw broke-up two house parties over the weekend, with 20 to 25 people at each party.

“That’s the kind of stupidity that angers me, that’s where the bulk of the transmissions are taking place, if we exclude the tragedy of the long-term care homes; it’s these house parties with unrelated people,” said Watson on Newstalk 580 CFRA’s Ottawa at Work with Leslie Roberts.

“The message doesn’t seem to be getting through, particularly to some young people who think they’re invincible.”

In a statement to CTV News Ottawa, Bylaw and Regulatory Services Director Roger Chapman says, “There are still ongoing investigations from this past weekend that could result in charges.”

Chapman says recent investigations led to two charges being issued for social gatherings of more than 10 people in a private residence in contravention of the Reopening Ontario Act.

“In one case, up to 30 individuals were observed attending a house party in Ward 18 on Oct. 24,” said Chapman.

“The second charge was issued following a house party in Ward 16 on Oct. 31, where up to 16 individuals were observed to be in attendance.”

The fine is $880 for hosting an illegal gathering.

Alta Vista is Ward 18, while Ward 16 is River Ward.

Ottawa Bylaw has issued 24 charges for illegal gatherings since the start of the pandemic.

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