THUNDER BAY – A Northwestern Ontario MPP whose nephew died recently at the Thunder Bay District Jail wants the province to take action to prevent any more deaths from occurring at the aging facility.
Sol Mamakwa, the NDP’s opposition critic for Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation, who represents the riding of Kiiwetinoong, stood up in the Ontario legislature on Tuesday to demand Premier Doug Ford take action, noting nine people have died at the jail since 2002.
Seven of the deaths were Indigenous men.
“The correctional system across Ontario is a factory that produces broken Indigenous people and dehumanizes our young men and women,” said Mamakwa. “This includes my nephew Kevin. He died in June while he was in custody at the Thunder Bay District Jail.
“Like Kevin these young people are our sons, fathers, and nephews. How many more Indigenous people need to die at the Thunder Bay jail before the government takes action to solve this crisis?”
Ford stood up and left as Mamakwa asked a follow-up question to the premier, asking what he plans to do to ensure no more families have to see their child’s body flown away from home for another autopsy.
Solicitor General Syliva Jones did respond, saying she had committed to Mamakwa and his nephew’s family that when the investigation into Kevin Mamakwa’s death was completed, any information that could be shared with the family would be shared.
“I know that these are tragedies; that we must do better. But when deaths occur in our corrections facilities, there are very strict guidelines that must happen,” Jones responded. “It starts with an internal investigation. It continues with the coroner’s investigation, and, if necessary, a police investigation.
Mamakwa’s brother, along with Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler have recently called for the jail to close. The Ontario Human Rights Commissioner and multiple coroner’s inquests have also called for a replacement facility.
The previous Liberal government in 2017 announced plans to replace the often overcrowded facility on MacDougall Street with a state-of-the-art 325-bed correctional centre. The current jail has room for 147 beds, but its population routinely hovered in the 200-inmate range, before the COVID-19 pandemic struck.
The jail was the site of a riot in December 2015 that saw an officer taken hostage, an inmate escape in 2016 and became infamous when it became public that murder suspect Adam Capay had been held there in solitary confinement for nearly four-and-a-half years.
Last week it was learned the request for proposal for the replacement facility will be tendered this coming winter.
Jones told Mamakwa the province remains committed to building a new jail for Thunder Bay.
“We are working with the community, with the corrections officers and with our justice partners to make sure that the facility we build in Thunder Bay, that we need in Thunder Bay, will be appropriate for the community (and) for the workers that work there and for the inmates we are serving,” she said.
Mamakwa responded by saying most of the Indigenous men and women in the justice system do not belong behind bars because of suffering they’ve endured for generations and a lack of support for mental health and other issues.
“The Thunder Bay jail should close ... but the problem cannot be fixed by simply creating a bigger jail, a newer jail, that will fill with even more Indigenous people. The shift must happen across systems, that addresses the underlying issues of colonialism, that ripped children away from our families and brought us to where we are today.”
Jones said it’s an issue all legislators in Ontario must work together on to resolve, adding her ministry is working to provide a safe environment and cultural services to inmates in the system.