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Ontario First Nation leaders call for disbandment of Thunder Bay police

Dorothy Sakanee, second from left, hangs her head as she holds a photo of her granddaughter Mackenzie Moonias, a 14-year-old found dead in Thunder Bay in December, 2023, during a press conference calling for the disbandment of the Thunder Bay Police Services at Queens Park in Toronto, Monday, April 22, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Cole Burston

TORONTO — First Nation leaders have renewed calls to dissolve the Thunder Bay police service as the former chief of the northern Ontario force faces criminal charges in a widening misconduct probe.

Nishnawbe Aski Nation, several chiefs of northern Ontario First Nations and several families with loved ones who died in the city said Monday that Thunder Bay police can no longer conduct credible investigations.

They said they would like the Ontario Provincial Police to take over for Thunder Bay police.

"Our people are dying. My daughter's gone, we'll not have her back," Vincent Ostberg said of his daughter, Jenna, both from Bearskin Lake First Nation in northwestern Ontario. 

She died on Dec. 30, 2023 in Thunder Bay at the age of 21. The Special Investigations Unit, the province's police watchdog, said there were three 911 calls for service from a Thunder Bay home. By the time police arrived after that third call, officers found Jenna Ostberg dead. 

Vincent Ostberg and two other families visited Queen's Park in Toronto on Monday to deliver a message to politicians.

"We can't get our children back, but the province, Doug Ford, has the power to give us justice," Ostberg said. "If we can't have our loved ones, we want justice."

Several reports since 2018 have documented systemic racism in the Thunder Bay police force and outlined how investigations into the sudden deaths of Indigenous people have been tainted by racist attitudes and stereotyping. Thirteen of those investigations were so poorly handled they had to be reinvestigated.

The families that visited Queen's Park have filed complaints with the province's Inspectorate of Policing, a new agency tasked with inspecting police forces for compliance with the Community Safety and Policing Act. 

All three families have asked the province's inspector general to reassign the death investigations into Jenna Ostberg, Corey Beleskey and Mackenzie Moonias to a different police service from Thunder Bay police.

"The Thunder Bay Police Service has turned into a cold-case factory," said Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, which represents 49 First Nations in northwestern Ontario.

"When it comes to investigations into the deaths of Indigenous peoples, there is a complete lack of trust, everything has broken down."

The Ontario Provincial Police announced criminal charges this month against the former Thunder Bay police chief and another high-ranking member. 

Ex-chief Sylvie Hauth and former in-house lawyer Holly Walbourne both face charges of obstruction of justice and breach of trust for allegedly making false statements to the police board and the Ontario Civilian Police Commission.

The commission investigated allegations of misconduct in 2022 and charged Hauth under the Police Service Act for allegedly overseeing an improper criminal investigation into the former police board chair and then allegedly trying to cover up her involvement, but Hauth resigned just before she was set to go before a police oversight tribunal. 

In December, as part of their misconduct investigation, OPP also charged officer Michael Dimini with two counts of assault, and one count each of breach of trust and obstruction of justice for alleged offences taking place in 2014, 2016 and 2020.

Current Thunder Bay police Chief Darcy Fleury vowed last week to rebuild the community's trust in the force.

On Monday, Fleury extended condolences to the families and others who are feeling the pain and trauma of loss. He said the force will continue with its "renewal" and work with families, Nishnawbe Aski Nation and Indigenous leaders.

"We are simply not the same service," Fleury wrote in a statement. "Change and trust take time. Progress has been made, and more will come."

The Thunder Bay Police Service Board said Monday it "understands the process of building trust with Indigenous communities requires transparency, acknowledgment, and accountability."

The board said it "believes having strong local decision making with respect to public safety is critical to the future of policing in our region."

The New Democrats asked the solicitor general in the legislature what the province intended to do with Thunder Bay police.

"There's a new chief and there's a new police service board in Thunder Bay with good intentions to keep their community safe," Solicitor General Michael Kerzner said. 

"We have to give the new police service board and command leadership an opportunity to work with all community stakeholders so that members of the community feel served and protected."

The families at the legislature on Monday said Thunder Bay police had not taken their loved ones' cases seriously.

Mackenzie Moonias, 14, died while in Thunder Bay for high school. She, like several hundred other students from remote First Nations, left home in order to get a high-school education. 

Moonias was last seen on Dec. 13, 2023, and her body was found five days later near the marina. The family and Neskantaga's leadership have questioned the police's handling of the missing person's case.

 "When Mackenzie's grandmother reported her missing, she was not taken seriously," said Chris Moonias, chief of Neskantaga First Nation.

"I often lay awake in the night wondering if the three days would have made a difference." 

Four months later, detectives assigned to investigate Mackenzie Moonias's death have not spoken to the family, he said.

"I also wonder, if she had been white, would the police have responded right away?" the chief said. 

Corey Beleskey, 31, died on Nov. 1, 2022, at a home in Thunder Bay. Police responded for a report of an injured man, but when officers arrived, they found Beleskey dead. They said the sudden death investigation was a homicide. The force identified suspects, but has yet to lay any charges more than two years later, his family said.

"We still know nothing, we don't even know his exact cause of death," said Donna Beleskey, Corey's sister.

"We have so many questions and no answers. We feel like the Thunder Bay police forgot about my brother and our family."

Sol Mamakwa, a New Democrat and the lone First Nation representative at Queen's Park, said Thunder Bay police and its board need to go. 

"The rot is in the upper echelons of their leadership," Mamakwa said. "There has to be change."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 22, 2024.

Liam Casey, The Canadian Press

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