THUNDER BAY – The majority of the Thunder Bay Police Services Board has resigned, throwing a police force that was already embroiled in controversy into further disarray.
Chair Kristen Oliver and members Roydon Pelletier and Michael Power each confirmed to Dougall Media they submitted letters of resignation to board secretary John Hannam on Thursday or Friday.
Mayor Bill Mauro, who also sits on the board, said he shared the trio's objections, but would remain on the board for now.
In an interview, Oliver said her resignation came in reaction to the Ontario Civilian Police Commission’s decision to appoint an outside administrator to oversee the board, a move announced Tuesday after the OCPC launched an investigation into police leadership including the board in February.
OCPC chair Sean Weir said the board was unable to effectively conduct its work, pointing to well-publicized disputes between members, and calling the situation an emergency.
“It certainly came as a big surprise – I didn’t quite see the need for it,” Oliver said. “I have some concerns with regard to how that played out, because at no time did OCPC contact any of us board members to have any discussions as part of this so-called investigation that apparently took place.”
Oliver, who is also the city councillor for Westfort, said the OCPC hadn’t requested documents like meeting minutes or updates on progress in implementing recommendations from the Sinclair report before appointing Malcolm Mercer, a Toronto lawyer and chair of the Law Society Tribunal, to serve as administrator.
“When I took all that information into account, to me, it seemed there were other driving factors that saw the administrator put in place,” Oliver said. “Now that we’ve been neutered essentially and no longer have a vote, I just don’t feel that I’m going to be able to represent the community the way I would like to on the police services board and continue to work on the recommendations and drive the change we were working on.”
It's unclear how the departures will impact governance of the Thunder Bay Police Service. With only two of five members still sitting, the board will be unable to meet quorum until at least one vacancy is filled, meaning it could not hold official meetings.
Mercer is not able to make decisions on his own without the board under the OCPC's order, said board secretary John Hannam. However, he said it wasn’t clear whether the order would allow Mercer to make decisions simply by working with the remaining two members.
The board's next meeting is currently scheduled for May 17, Hannam said.
In an interview, Mauro said he also strongly disagrees with the appointment of an administrator to oversee the TBPS, but felt an obligation to remain on the board, "at least in the near term."
“I want to be clear – I don’t understand why this decision was made, none of us do," he said. "As a group, we don’t agree with it.”
“The decisions [administrator Malcolm Mercer] now gets to make as the only voter, with the full authority and powers of the board, have potentially significant implications for the city. So I at least want to meet with him once or twice and have discussions about the financial considerations around decisions he may or may not make, but certainly he has the authority to make.”
The OCPC investigation came in response to a request from Ontario’s Solicitor General, Sylvia Jones, and also will examine the conduct of chief Sylvie Hauth and deputy chief Ryan Hughes, who has since been suspended.
The request came as police leadership including Hauth and members of the police services board face numerous human rights complaints brought by current and former police officers and other staff. That includes allegations of racist treatment filed by board member Georjann Morriseau, who is currently on leave from the board.
The terms of reference for the OCPC investigation cited allegations the TBPS had launched an improper investigation against Morriseau after she reported concerns over police leadership from a rank and file officer.
Her colleagues on the board have levelled accusations she leaked confidential information while on the board.
Oliver expressed her belief the board had worked in good faith toward implementing recommendations to address flawed death investigations of Indigenous people, and to restore trust with the Indigenous community, though Indigenous leaders have continued to express concerns, with some calling for the force to be disbanded.
Pelletier also defended the board’s tenure, saying he was proud of work including a new strategic plan, the implementation of many Sinclair Report recommendations, and advancing plans for a new police headquarters.
"I signed up because I love this community, and I believe our police force is a vital part of our city's future success," he said in a text message. "Being an Ojibwa man, I can deal with my voting right taken away and essentially being fired, but I won't sit and watch an appointed official make decisions for our community."
Oliver described a “constant barrage of social media attacks” against the police services board based on what she called “misinformation,” saying the OCPC provided “little direction or support" despite requests from the board.
“All in all, that certainly demonstrates to me that while this is a complex situation, without a doubt, the system is broken," she said. "Not only in Thunder Bay, frankly – police services boards across the province are essentially saying the same thing. We are struggling with delivering the oversight that we need when we don’t have the tools and resources that our oversight board, through the Commission, is supposed to be supporting us through."
It's not clear how quickly the vacant seats, which now make up three of five on the board, will be filled.
The process to replace the provincial appointees, Pelletier and Power, can normally take anywhere between three months and two years, said Hannam, the board secretary. However, he noted the Solicitor General has the power to make interim appointments in the meantime.
The City of Thunder Bay is required under Ontario's Police Services Act to fill any vacancies as quickly as possible, he said. Mauro raised the possibility other city councillors may not be eager to fill the role, however.