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Families express concerns over reinvestigation process into 9 sudden Thunder Bay deaths

The reinvestigation into nine sudden deaths involving Indigenous people was recommended as part of the 2018 OIPRD report that found the initial investigations were insufficient and family members are expressing concerns of Thunder Bay Police Service Chief Sylvie Hauth’s role in the final report

THUNDER BAY - For nearly six years, Brad DeBungee has been looking for answers into the circumstances surrounding his brother Stacy’s death in 2015 and he, along with family members of nine other Indigenous people whose deaths are now being reinvestigated, are expressing frustration over a lack of communication and concerns over Thunder Bay Police Chief Sylvie Hauth’s role in the upcoming report.

“Its hard to plead all the time when you have to plead and plead and you get no answers, like what they're going to do, how they're going to handle things,” DeBungee said. “So how are you supposed to trust a system like that?”

On Tuesday, attorney Julian Falconer, who represents the DeBungee family, detailed concerns of a potential conflict of interest on the part of Hauth and her role in the report on the reinvestigation of nine sudden deaths involving Indigenous people as recommended by the Office of the Independent Police Review Director. 

“To this day, chief Sylvie Hauth has yet to advise as to her role in the issuance of the report with respect to the reinvestigation into these nine deaths,” Falconer said.

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

Former Office of the Independent Police Review Director Gerry McNeilly, in his 2018 report, Broken Promises, called for the reinvestigation into the sudden deaths of Christine Gliddy, Shania Bob, Marie Spence, Aaron Loon, Sarah Moonias, as well as four cases involved in the Seven Youth Inquest – Jethro Anderson, Curran Strang, Kyle Morrisseau, and Jordan Wabasse.

In October 2019, the terms of reference for the reinvestigations were announced, which included a three-tier framework consisting of an executive governance committee comprised of the Thunder Bay Police Service chief, Grand Chief of Nishnawbe Aski Nation, the chief coroner, chief forensic pathologist, and a retired judge.

According to Falconer, his office, along with Aboriginal Legal Services, have reached out to all levels of the three-tiered framework regarding Hauth’s role in the upcoming report on the reinvestigations, but have not received a response.

“Because the Broken Trust team is refusing to confirm she was recused from the process the only inference that can be drawn is the chief of the Thunder Bay Police Service and her lawyer Holly Walbourne remain involved in the content and issuance of this report,” Falconer said. “That is unacceptable and embarrassing.”

A Thunder Bay Police spokesperson referred all inquires on the reinvestigations to the Office of the Chief Coroner.

According to a statement from the Office of the Chief Coroner, any real or perceived conflicts of interest in the report will be addressed.

“The Executive Governance Committee is part of a three-tiered, independent, multi-disciplinary, and multi-agency team,” the statement reads. “The Executive Governance Committee will approve all completed reinvestigations and release findings to stakeholders and the public.”

OIPRD Recommendations

Falconer went on to say the Thunder Bay Police Service has been failing family members of the nine individuals at the centre of the reinvestigations, as well as Brad DeBungee.

Five of the 44 recommendations from the OIPRD report relating to the reinvestigation of sudden deaths involving Indigenous people have not been addressed by the Thunder Bay Police, according to Falconer.

One of the recommendations states a multi-discipline investigation team should establish a protocol for determining whether other sudden death investigations conducted by the Thunder Bay Police Service should be reinvestigated.

According to the Thunder Bay Police Service’s most recent annual OIPRD progress report released in January 2021, the service “continues to revise how to conduct sudden death reviews and recently implemented an internal streamlined plan of sudden death reviews as of February 2020. The plan will continue to be revised to ensure the best possible sudden death review process.”

But Falconer said that does not meet the criteria of the recommendation.  

“When we use a grading system with respect to the Thunder Bay Police, broken trust becomes broken record,” he said. “A failing grade by the Thunder Bay Police again in June.”

Another recommendation called for the team to assess whether DeBungee’s death should be reinvestigated as well.

While the executive governance committee agreed that DeBungee’s death should be reinvestigated, the Office of the Chief Coroner said on Tuesday that the Ministry of the Attorney General recently engaged the Ontario Provincial Police to conduct the investigation.

“The OPP will be leading that investigation separately from the Broken Trust investigative teams,” the statement reads.

Family's still looking for answers

Family members have expressed frustrations and concerns about a lack of communication on behalf of the re-investigative team and the executive governance committee.

“(Hauth’s) actions when she spoke to me before when the OIPRD report came out that she would be honest and open with me, that if I had any questions she could answer, but I haven’t heard anything back in the last year or so on any direction they are taking,” DeBungee said.

Beulah Wabasse, whose grandson Jordan died in 2011 while in Thunder Bay, says she, her daughter, and community of Webequie First Nation are all still waiting for answers on why he never returned home.

“Broken Trust, the name says it all,” she said. “To this day we are still wanting justice for my grandson. I want to know what really happened so I can tell my grandsons because as a grandmother it is our duty to tell our grandkids what happened. Especially when they die.”

But Wabasse added that without transparency and communication from the reinvestigation team, she doesn’t know if she will be able to trust its conclusions.

“If they rule Jordan’s death the result of drowning, I’m still not going to accept that,” she said. “There’s more to that.”

Falconer went beyond giving the Thunder Bay Police Service a failing grade at its implementation of the OIPRD’s recommendations, going so far as to call for the service to be shutdown.

“Now all things must come to an end and this service is one of them. The reality of the Thunder Bay Police Service is they are precisely the police service that those in power in the city of Thunder Bay want and they won’t change because those in power in the city of Thunder Bay don’t want them to change,” he said.

“Indigenous people will remain in danger, in jeopardy as long as the Thunder Bay Police are responsible for protecting their safety. We must bring this to an end. Another police service accountable beyond the borders of Thunder Bay, beyond a power structure for whom Indigenous people are an inconvenience is a necessity. The time has come to bring this horrible experiment to an end.”  

The report on the reinvestigation of the nine sudden deaths has been delayed several times due to the COVID-19 pandemic and is now expected to be released in the summer of 2021.

Doug Diaczuk

About the Author: Doug Diaczuk

Doug Diaczuk is a reporter and award-winning author from Thunder Bay. He has a master’s degree in English from Lakehead University
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