THUNDER BAY – An expert panel convened to review policing in Thunder Bay heard from just two members of the public in the first of two open consultations Tuesday evening.
Members of the panel expressed hope a second public session at the Oliver Road Community Centre on Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. would see higher participation.
Tuesday's session was held at the West Arthur Community Centre, outside of the urban area of the city and not served by a regular public transit route at the time of the meeting.
Panel chair Alok Mukherjee, who has served as chair of the Toronto Police Services Board and as chief commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission, said the panel is hearing from a robust cross-section of over 60 people and groups in private consultation sessions during its five-day visit to Thunder Bay this week.
That includes meetings with First Nations chief and grand chiefs, current and former Thunder Bay Police Service officers, civilian staff, and members of the police services board, and residents, panel members said.
“We are very pleased with the response we have received from Indigenous leadership,” said Mukherjee. “We have been spending long days since yesterday having meetings one on one with people who have responded, and we’re getting some very valuable advice, information, analysis, and ideas from them.”
The nine-member panel was appointed by the Thunder Bay Police Services Board to address concerns about how policing is being delivered in the city.
It has a broad mandate to review the board’s strategic plan, policies, and procedures related to human rights concerns and mental health issues in the force, to consult the community and within the force on barriers to effective actions, and to review the implementation of past external reports on the TBPS.
The panel was convened by the board as the service faced growing questions about how it has investigated the deaths of Indigenous people, human rights complaints from current and former officers and other staff, and investigations by the Ontario Civilian Police Commission (OCPC) and OPP into police leadership.
The panel was called together before outside administrator Malcolm Mercer was appointed to act in place of the police services board.
Elder Rita Fenton from Fort William First Nation, who helped open Tuesday’s event with a smudge, also spoke out on the lack of community representation.
“We don’t have the people that should be here talking – the youth especially,” she said.
Fenton warned the panel Indigenous people are skeptical after years of investigations and reports about policing in the city, which she said draw attention at first, then fade away without seemingly making a difference.
“We’re used to that – that’s just par for the course,” she said. “People come here – consultants, studies are done. The Anishinaabe people have been studied to death… We want action.”
In an interview, Mukherjee said that sentiment has been heard loud and clear, and raised the bar for the panel to provide timely and practical recommendations for change.
“I know when the announcement was first made by the board about creating this panel, there was some skepticism about why do we need another report, we’ve had so many reports,” he said. “We don’t want to retrace the steps they have followed.”
“We want to find out what has happened since those reports and their recommendations were made – what changes have happened, what issues are still outstanding, why is it that in spite of those reports there is again expressions of dissatisfaction.”
The panel could recommend steps for parties beyond the police services board, including the OCPC, the City of Thunder Bay, and First Nations, he said.
Panel member Mi’Azhikwan, or Janine Seymour, a Wauzhushk Onigum Nation lawyer focused on Indigenous law and child protection, said she hopes to see a bigger turnout at the public consultation on Wednesday. She noted there are emotional supports available, with several elders including a social worker in attendance.
The private consultations have been significant, she agreed.
“We’ve really accommodated a lot of people who have been forthcoming from the community, although they have wanted to have the private space to share what they needed to say, and we’ve respected that."
She also called Tuesday’s session impactful.
“Those one or two community members definitely made their voices heard,” she said. “I felt they brought a lot of solutions, actually.”
Two members of the public attended on Tuesday.
Alain Joseph, a policy analyst in the area of Indigenous relations for the City of Thunder Bay, said he’d attended as a private citizen mostly to listen.
He told the panel he’d like to see more investment in social supports, pointing to initiatives in other cities that include support workers as a first response option alongside police.
“Rather than coming at people with a big stick, they’re coming at people with fresh socks and offering support,” he said. “I would like to see something like that in this city.”
Those approaches too often rely on limited funding for pilot projects, rather than serious permanent funding, he said.
Iqbal Khan, who is also a candidate in the upcoming municipal election, told the panel he’d too often seen Indigenous people treated without respect in Thunder Bay, including by police officers.
He referred to low Indigenous representation among TBPS officers and staff as a problem.
He also argued police are underfunded to carry out the work they’re asked to do in the community.
Khan questioned the $1.2 billion being spent on a new district jail, imagining what half that amount could do if put toward housing and other supports.
After this week of consultations, the expert panel will assess feedback and identify themes. Mukherjee said he intends to return to Thunder Bay to share a draft with stakeholders to ensure buy-in.
The panel is aiming to produce a final report within four months, he said.
“The commitment of my panel is that we don’t want to stretch this out – we need action now,” he said. “This is a critical moment in terms of the fact that the board is not there, really – there is an administrator; the chief is not there, there will be a new chief; there may be a new deputy chief, who knows? We need to provide our input while all of these things are taking place, so that our report has a bearing on the decisions that are made.”
Residents of Thunder Bay and Northwestern Ontario who are interested in having their voices heard can continue to email email@example.com to provide feedback and comments.