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District chief calls report 'ground-breaking'

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A 200-page report released last week by the Ontario Independent Police Review Director found strong evidence of systemic racism in the Thunder Bay Police Service.

“Our community has been waiting for this [report] for two years,” said Rainy River First Nations Chief Robin McGinnis.

The OIPRD investigation was spurred after the suspicious death of Rainy River First Nation band member Stacy DeBungee back in 2015.

An independent review of the TBPS's investigation into DeBungee's death found substantial deficiencies that are being considered neglect of duty.

When DeBungee was found in the McIntyre River in Thunder Bay, police deemed it an accidental drowning within three hours of finding him—before the body even had been identified.

“When his brother [Brad DeBungee] went to go see him, he said he had bruising on his face [and] his hands were all scrapped up,” Chief McGinnis noted.

“He came to us with serious questions and when he went to the police, they just turned him away—they didn't give him any answers.”

A private investigator hired to review Stacy DeBungee's death also was turned away from the TBPS when trying to find answers.

Chief McGinnis said the private investigator found out more in a couple of days than the TBPS did throughout its whole investigation.

It was confirmed that DeBungee had bruising on his face and his bank card had been used days after his death.

“I could feel in my heart from the first day I dealt with a police officer that he treated me and my family differently because we are indigenous,” Brad DeBungee said in a press release.

“Now the proof is out and they must answer for this,” he added.

The OIPRD report found a pattern of the TBPS's handling investigations of the sudden deaths of indigenous people differently than those who were non-indigenous.

OIPRD director Gerry McNeilly found the inadequacies of the TBPS's sudden-death investigations of indigenous people were so problematic that at least nine of these cases should be reinvestigated.

“They're not treated with the same level of importance,” Chief McGinnis said.

He added that locally, members of Rainy River First Nations have shared with the OIPRD that they have experienced racism from the TBPS while visiting Thunder Bay.

“They felt they were singled out because they're indigenous,” Chief McGinnis explained.

The report, meanwhile, gives a little insight into where the mistrust between indigenous people and the TBPS stems from, he added.

“This report was very ground-breaking and I think Thunder Bay isn't the only town that experiences racism,” Chief McGinnis noted.

“I hope it can effect change throughout the country for towns that are experiencing similar situations.”

Here in Rainy River District, Chief McGinnis said racism in the police force does exist but not to the same extent as the TBPS.

“I think we're a little better here for the most part,” he remarked.

“There's racist undertones everywhere, and there's going to be a few bad apples in every police force, but I think the report that Gerry McNeilly did shows it's not just a few bad apples.”

The OIPRD's findings indicate systemic racism is running rampant throughout the TBPS at an institutional level.

There are 44 recommendations in the report—from acknowledging racism in the police force to working with indigenous leaders of the community and government committees to ensure there is cultural competency.

The report even recommended the implementation of psychological testing to remove applicants who have racist views or attitudes, which currently is not done in Ontario.

The OIPRD has three years to implement the recommendations and at the end of the time frame, if the TBPS hasn't made a strong effort, the province will consider other policing options for the city.

“What I hope happens is that they [the Thunder Bay Police Service] take these recommendations seriously and implement them,” Chief McGinnis stressed.

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