When will the Thunder Bay Police be held to account?

Hill Times March 28, 2022

A few years ago, I attended a memorial for a First Nations youth who died in Thunder Bay. Like many other First Nations youth who have died in mysterious circumstances in the river that runs through the city, his death was not followed up by the local police. The stories are haunting from families who endured the most horrible loss of a child, and then were brushed off by police: youth who did not get appropriate investigations and families who did not receive answers, after years. Youth have disappeared, yet police didn’t respond to the cries of families. Neighbours and friends organized their own search parties, and the police didn’t do a thing.

And they were all First Nations youth. It is the story of Thunder Bay, and this story is owned by the Thunder Bay Police.

Let’s be clear, it’s dangerous to be First Nations in Thunder Bay. There are obviously levels of criminal elements that somehow led to the deaths of First Nations, and clearly the police won’t protect First Nations.

What have we done about it? Flash forward a few years when a few different commissions and investigations have been completed with some damning findings on the Thunder Bay police force, naming systemic racism, lack of accountability in the hierarchy, sloppy investigations, and more.

Has anything changed? Well, in the past year the only Indigenous police board member has complained of experiencing racism, so let’s assume things have not improved much. When a police board member is experiencing it, what could it possibly feel like on the street for a First Nations youth when a patrol car drives by?

So here we are again, stuck with an unaccountable police force.

Not all police officers in Thunder Bay are problematic or are committing racist acts against Indigenous peoples. One might say something similar about the RCMP who has its own sordid history of complaints of racism—not all officers are problematic. But on the other side are the numerous complaints of racism which create a serious public policy issue for us all. What is going on in police forces? Why can’t we resolve this, so Indigenous peoples can feel like policing is there to protect them? Is it the hiring process? Is it the training process? Is it the hierarchy?

Is it too much to demand that policing in this country is culturally competent? No, it is not too much to ask.

In the 1960s, in southern United States, Black Americans might have faced similar fears. Knowing that the police are not safe and might even be the perpetrator. It was called corruption. When First Nations youth can’t trust Thunder Bay Police, what else could we possibly call it, but corruption?

Maybe it’s time for a federal regulator of policing in Canada who has national legislative enforcement powers over police forces themselves, covering all federal, provincial, and municipal forces. It should be a regulator with bite and an oversight body driven by citizens. We should have high standards for policing that is culturally competent, equitable and safe for us all. We need to demand transparent accountability for policing, the kind that is not shrouded in secrecy. Policing is a civil service, we pay for it through our taxes.

The alternative is to do nothing. We could sit and see if the next Indigenous board member selected for a police force is listened to and respected, surely that will work out, right? We could sit and wait to see if the demands for change on cultural competence and services to Indigenous peoples by the Thunder Bay Police and the RCMP magically resolve all by themselves. The choice is to leave Indigenous kids and families in fear of police, or fundamentally change the structure of accountability of policing in Canada.