Thunder Bay

First Nations leaders urge Ontario to disband Thunder Bay police, get outside service to investigate deaths

First Nations leaders from northwestern Ontario are calling for the Thunder Bay Police Service to be disbanded and pressing the province's inspector general of policing to bring in an outside service to investigate recent deaths of Indigenous people. Family members of those who died were also in Toronto for the news conference.

Families, NAN leaders, MPP at Queen's Park after ex-police chief charged by OPP

A group of people stand together and comfort each other.
Vanessa Sakanee, second from right, is comforted as she speaks about her daughter Mackenzie Moonias, a 14-year-old found dead in Thunder Bay in December 2023, during a news conference on Monday at Queen's Park in Toronto. The families are calling for the disbandment of the Thunder Bay Police Service. (Cole Burston/The Canadian Press)

First Nations leaders from northwestern Ontario are calling for the Thunder Bay Police Service (TBPS) to be disbanded and pressing the province's inspector general of policing to bring in an outside service to investigate recent deaths of Indigenous people.

Leaders from Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN) were at Queen's Park in Toronto on Monday, joined by Kiiwetinoong MPP Sol Mamakwa other First Nations leaders and family members of Indigenous people who died recently in Thunder Bay. 

"The Thunder Bay Police Service has turned into a cold case factory when it comes to investigations into the deaths of Indigenous Peoples," NAN Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler said. "There is a complete lack of trust; everything has broken down." 

The call comes after Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) laid multiple charges against the former police chief and others linked to the force, in the wake of three recent deaths: 

In a statement, the Thunder Bay Police Services Board extended its condolences to the Belesky, Moonias and Ostberg families and the members of their home communities, and said "the process of building trust with Indigenous communities requires transparency, acknowledgment and accountability." 

The board is constantly updating its polices based on community feedback and inquests, said the statement. 

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

WATCH | NAN Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler says trust of Thunder Bay police has broken down:

Indigenous community has 'complete lack of trust' in Thunder Bay police, NAN grand chief says

26 days ago
Duration 1:50
Police in Thunder Bay, Ont., have become a 'cold case factory' when it comes to investigations into deaths of Indigenous people in the city, says Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler.

NAN represents 49 First Nations in Treaty 9 and Treaty 5 in northern Ontario, a land mass covering two-thirds of the province. 

Numerous reports and expert panels have documented the Thunder Bay police's failures to serve Indigenous people in the city and a 2018 report found systemic racism within the force. 

"Please remember that these were individuals that were loved and that they meant a lot and their deaths shouldn't have happened," said NAN Deputy Grand Chief Anna Betty Achneepineskum.  "It shouldn't be deaths that are cast aside like they don't matter."

The TBPS is under renewed scrutiny after OPP laid multiple obstruction and breach of trust charges against former police chief Sylvie Hauth and ex-Thunder Bay police lawyer Holly Walbourne earlier this month. In December, OPP also charged Staff Sgt. Michael Dimini with assault, breach of trust and obstruction of justice.

Police chief gives update on death cases

In response to those charges, current police Chief Darcy Fleury said last week he and the new oversight board are working to move the service forward from the challenges it inherited from previous leadership.

Leaders from NAN were joined at Queen's Park by: 

  • Kiiwetinoong MPP Sol Mamakwa.
  • Anishinabek Nation Grand Council Chief Reg Niganobe. 
  • Bearskin Lake Chief Lefty Kamenawatamin. 
  • Family members of Ostberg, Moonias and Belesky. 
  • Julian Falconer, the lawyer for the Ostberg, Moonias, Belesky and Debungee families. 

Fleury, in a statement issued after Monday's news conference, also expressed condolences to the families and community members, and re-committed to making meaningful change to rebuild trust with the community. 

"I am here as chief of police because of a renewal of both the board and administrative leadership as part of that commitment. TBPS began the path we're on now a year ago and will continue this journey. We are simply not the same service," he said. "Change and trust take time. Progress has been made, and more will come.

"I empathize with the pain and frustrations we heard from families and leaders. More can and will be done to communicate with the families about their loved ones' investigations."  

Fleury issued updates on the three cases brought up at Queen's Park, saying:  

  • Belesky: The investigation is active and ongoing.
  • Moonias: Mackenzie was last seen on Dec. 13 and an investigation began Dec. 15 after it was reported Mackenzie was missing. Family and community chiefs were informed throughout the search.
  • Ostberg: TBPS received multiple 911 calls in the hours before her death. The initial call was not related to violence involving her and the second call indicated she was no longer present.

Fleury also said the administration is co-operating with OPP on its 13 reinvestigations of cases involving Indigenous people

WATCH | Thunder Bay police chief promises reform, but skepticism remains:

Thunder Bay police chief vows to rebuild public trust

1 month ago
Duration 2:01
The Thunder Bay Police Service vowed to rebuild public trust after charges were filed against a former chief, but some community members and Indigenous leaders say they’re skeptical that the force can reform.
 

This is the second time in recent years there has been a call from First Nations leaders to disband the TBPS. 

Achneepineskum and other First Nations leaders in the region made a similar call in 2022. That April, the province appointed a board administrator, Malcolm Mercer, to take over decision-making authority for the oversight board.

Mercer has not had a vote on the board since June 30, 2023, but remains in place until April 30 to be available as an adviser to the board as he works to make his final report to the Ontario Civilian Police Commission (OCPC).

"I stood here in Queen's Park and shared these same words, and we still have not seen any results from that," Acheepineskum said Monday. 

But this time, the complaint is going to Ryan Teschner, Ontario's inspector general of policing, a new police oversight position created last year, explained lawyer Julian Falconer, who is representing the families in this matter. 

Teschner is responsible for Ontario's Inspectorate of Policing, an independent organization to monitor police and police board performance as well as promote improvements to public safety. 

"He has the power [to disband the service], he has to — otherwise what's the point of the quality control?" Falconer said. "This is the unfixable."

A man holds a picture.
Glen Belesky holds a photo of his son Corey Belesky, a 31-year-old found dead in Thunder Bay in 2022, during the news conference. (Cole Burston/The Canadian Press)

Fiddler said he wants to spur conversations between the Ontario government, NAN community members and leadership on the future of policing in Thunder Bay. 

"We want to ensure that the government hears us, the minister responsible for policing hears us, he reaches out to us and the families," Fiddler said. "Our hope is that the government reaches out to us."  

But any combination of the OPP and a First Nations-led policing force would be preferable to the TBPS in the interim, Fiddler said. 

"We need to have that conversation right away." 


Support is available for anyone affected by the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous people. Immediate emotional assistance and crisis support are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week through a national hotline at 1-844-413-6649. You can also access, through the government of Canada, health support services such as mental health counselling, community-based support and cultural services, and some travel costs to see elders and traditional healers. Family members seeking information about a missing or murdered loved one can access Family Information Liaison Units.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Alex Brockman is the executive producer with CBC Thunder Bay. He's worked across Canada in a number of roles for CBC News.