First Nations leaders are calling on the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) to investigate the deaths of three community members in the city of Thunder Bay, something acting Thunder Bay Police Services (TBPS) Chief Sylvie Hauth says is unnecessary.
On May 6, two Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN) youth went missing in separate incidents. The body of 17-year old Tammy Keeash, from North Caribou Lake First Nation, was found in the Neebing-McIntyre floodway on May 7. Less than two weeks after on May 18, the body of 14-year old Josiah Begg, from Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug, was also found in the same river.
In the case of Keeash, who was living in a Thunder Bay group home, her disappearance was allegedly reported after she missed her 10 PM curfew on May 6. While being questioned about gaps between the time Keeash was noted as missing from her group home and the time of her discovery in a press conference held at the TBPS on June 7, acting Deputy Don Lewis stated that without getting into details, the TBPS was contacted the night of May 6 regarding Keeash, but it was not in relation to a missing person’s report.
Lewis said that the missing person’s report happened the next day. A post-mortem examination determined her death was consistent with drowning. TBPS announced on May 15 at that point in the investigation, there was no evidence to indicate criminality.
Begg, who was in town with his father for medical appointments, was discovered twelve days after he went missing. During this time, NAN and the Bear Clan patrol commenced volunteer search efforts, and encouraged the TBPS to search the waterways. TBPS stated that there was no evidence that the young man had gone in the river, regardless of the fact that surveillance footage showed Begg near a bridge over the floodway before his disappearance.
In the same press conference on June 7, Lewis stated that there were many tips and leads that had to be looked into regarding Begg. TBPS called in an underwater recovery team to commence an underwater search on May 18, and discovered Begg’s body in the Neebing-McIntyre floodway in the area adjacent to the East End baseball fields that evening.
NAN stated that the deaths come after the drowning of Stacy DeBungee, a member of Rainy River First Nation, in October 2015. Within three hours of his discovery in the Neebing-McIntyre floodway, the TBPS announced that the initial investigation did not indicate a suspicious death. Soon after that release, the TBPS announced DeBungee’s death was non-criminal.
After the investigating officers determined that DeBungee’s death was an accident prior to identifying him, conducting a post-mortem, or taking any meaningful investigative steps, his family and community, Rainy River First Nation hired a private investigator, stated NAN.
The investigator’s report concluded that the TBPS made determinations about the death in the absence of information.
The drowning death of DeBungee was the subject matter of a documentary by The Fifth Estate entitled No Foul Play, which aired in the fall of 2016. His death also instigated a systemic review of racism in the TBPS by the Office of the Independent Review Director (OIPRD).
In addiction to calling on the RCMP to investigate the deaths, NAN and Grand Council Treaty#3 (GCT#3) also called for an inquiry into the Thunder Bay Police Services Board and the appointment of an administrator to oversee the board.
“In the face of the OPP’s refusal last fall to support our communities with an independent investigation into the Stacy DeBungee death, the logical step is to bring in the RCMP with respect to the three latest river deaths including the DeBungee case,” said GCT#3 Chief Francis Kavanaugh. “With all that has transpired to date, it is painfully obvious that the Thunder Bay Police cannot credibly investigate the river deaths.”
The First Nations leaders in a joint statement expressed a lack of confidence in the TBPS to the Ontario Minister of Community Safety and Correctional Services, and formally requested the intervention of the RCMP to investigate the three recent deaths.
Acting Chief Hauth addressed the statements made by NAN leadership regarding the call for an RCMP investigation of the deaths at the June 7 press conference.
“At this time, we do not believe that this is a practical or necessary action to take. The OIRPD will be reviewing these two death investigations as part of their current review and we are fully cooperating with the Director in this matter,” said Hauth.
Hauth also said that the TBPS and Police Service Board are prepared to work with those whole share “common goals of community safety and wellness and the rights of all individuals to live without fear.”
“There is much to do. There is much to learn. We encourage all members of this community to join us to work together, to make this an inclusive community for all who live, study, and visit here,” Hauth said.
When questioned about possibility of a crisis in the city regarding the river deaths, and the police conduct, Hauth said that she does not view the situation as a crisis.
“I see it as a current situation that we can work through. It’s something that involves all of our community members,” she said.
“For us currently, what we see is business as usual,” Hauth said. “We have a job to do, we have a community to serve and protect. We need to keep doing so as a policing agency.”
In late May, TBPS Chief J.P. Levesque was charged obstruction of justice under section 139, and breach of trust under section 122, of the Criminal Code.