THUNDER BAY — After a year that has seen Thunder Bay frequently featured in national headlines for death and racism, the trials the city faced in 2017 will continue to occupy the city in 2018. The calendar has changed, but Thunder Bay has to undergo a serious reckoning of its institutions before it can turn the page.
The loss of public faith in the municipality and its police force, particularly among Indigenous people, had been simmering for years. The situation came to a boil in late 2016 and 2017 when organizations outside of the community announced a series of high-profile arrests and investigations that broadened the concern among Thunder Bay residents that wider reform could be needed.
A legal matter entangling Thunder Bay’s mayor and police chief will be resolved early in 2018, but investigations into systemic racism in the police service and its board won’t conclude until the end of summer.
Mayor Keith Hobbs’s extortion pretrial will begin Jan. 19. Hobbs was arrested in June on allegations he extorted lawyer Alexander (Sandy) Zaitzeff to purchase a home for the latter’s then-romantic interest, Mary Voss. Hobbs and his wife, Marissa, are also alleged to have obstructed the resulting police investigation. As 2017 drew to a close, Hobbs used his State of the City address to declare that the couple would be exonerated.
“We have no doubt that the court of law — not the court of public opinion — will clear our name and that the truth will one day wash to shore,” he said.
On a related note, on Jan. 25 a judge is expected to deliver a verdict in an obstruction of justice and breach of trust case against the chief of the Thunder Bay Police Service. In a trial that took place last month, J.P. Levesque pleaded not guilty to the charges, but admitted in court to having told the mayor that the RCMP was investigating the alleged extortion incident.
While the trials involving the mayor and police chief will conclude relatively soon, the public will have to wait deep into the year for resolution on a major investigation into systemic racism within the city’s police force.
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Since November 2016, the Ontario Independent Police Review Director (OIPRD) has been reviewing nearly 40 cases to determine whether the force handles investigations into the deaths of Indigenous people differently from those of non-Indigenous people. A public submission period that was expected to last three months has been extended three times and its final report is now scheduled to be released in August.
The Ontario Civilian Police Commission (OCPC) launched a separate investigation into the Thunder Bay Police Service Board in July, after regional First Nations leaders declared a “crisis of confidence in policing.” Retired judge, former Truth and Reconciliation Commission chair, and current Canadian senator Murray Sinclair’s interim OCPC report, released in November, suggests his final report will recommend both policy and operational changes.
That likely means what acting Thunder Bay police chief Sylvie Hauth characterized as a “difficult situation” in 2017 will continue into 2018. Hauth was a newly-minted deputy chief when Levesque was arrested in May and has been the public face of the police department ever since. Three deaths of First Nations youths in 2017 in the Neebing-McIntyre Floodway that runs through the middle of the city exacerbated unanswered questions that arose in a 2016 inquest into the deaths of seven First Nations youth, five of whom died under similar circumstances.
Taking notes from a trip to visit police services in Regina, Saskatoon, and Prince Albert — all services that have suffered strained relations with Indigenous communities — Hauth is hoping to have a plan in place to mend local relationships by the end of 2018.
“I want to make sure our new business plan gives us strong next steps,” Hauth says. “That we take a stand and say, ‘Here are our goals for the next three years and here’s what we want to achieve with our work in the community,’ in terms of repairing relationships, regaining that trust, and really showcasing the positive relationship and image of our service — regaining that faith of our community.”
The service also suspended and charged Const. Rob Steudle with discreditable conduct in 2017 after he published anti-Indigenous comments on the Thunder Bay Chronicle Journal’s Facebook page in response to an editorial from Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler. Steudle is back at work, but remains under investigation. Four other officers were assigned to administrative duties in relation to the incident.
As the police attempts to rebuild its relationship with the city’s Indigenous community, a seasoned First Nations lawyer and advocate for victims of police violence will strive to hold the service responsible through its board. The board swore in Fort William First Nation member Celina Reitberger in December, fulfilling a recommendation of the youth inquest that the police board should include Indigenous representation.
Reitberger was instrumental in establishing the local Indigenous Peoples’ Court, a restorative justice process that held its first proceedings last March. She spent the last seven years as the executive director of Nishnawbe Aski Legal Services, providing counsel to members of Nishnawbe Aski Nation’s 49 remote communities across Ontario’s Far North. Over the final years of her tenure, she led an effort to facilitate complaints against the police.
She attributes that work and the heightened profile of the OIPRD in the city to increasing complaints against Thunder Bay police, which have risen from 27 in 2015 to 40 in 2016, then to 53 between May 2017 and the end of the year. Although the OIPRD didn’t substantiate any of those complaints in 2015 and have yet to substantiate a case from 2016 (six cases are pending), Reitberger says the organization “took every file” she had on the subject after it announced the systemic racism investigation, which she hopes is a sign that the cases are being taken seriously.
“People don’t like change. People will fight as hard as they can not to change,” Reitberger says. “We saw the pushback when we wanted to do [healing] circles in the courthouse. We saw pushback when we wanted to do Gladue cases [which take an Indigenous person’s background into consideration in sentencing] in that courthouse. We’re slowly chipping away.”
This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting northwestern Ontario. It's brought to you in partnership with Confederation College of Applied Arts and Technology. Views and opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the college.
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