An expert policing panel held public consultations in Thunder Bay this week. Here’s what you need to know

An independent expert panel tasked with making recommendations to improve the state of policing in Thunder Bay has wrapped up its first round of public consultations in the northwestern Ontario city. 

The panel was formed in March by the Thunder Bay Police Services Board at a time when there were a growing number of human rights complaints being filed by current and former officers, and a sitting board member.

Since then, the Ontario Civilian Police Commission (OCPC) appointed an administrator to take over control of the board for the second time in four years. That prompted three of the five board members at the time to resign.

The OCPC has initiated disciplinary proceedings against Police Chief Sylvie Hauth, which prompted her suspension by the board due to what it called the “serious allegations” that she faces.

Last week, just before the panel started its consultations, another incident came to light showing the fractured relationship between the service and Indigenous people in the city. Photos emerged showing an officer allowing a bridal party to shoot photos in a police cruiser at the scene where an Indigenous woman was found dead.

The panel held a press conference on Thursday to provide an update of what they heard, how they view their role, and what their work might mean for the future of policing in Thunder Bay.

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What did the panel do this week?

The nine-member panel held a series of meetings, both in public forums and behind closed doors.

“We’ve been overwhelmed by how many are looking to our panel, for speaking their truth to us. By the end of the week, we will have heard from over 60 individuals, from the frontline to Indigenous communities to community partners and stakeholders,” panel chair Alok Mukherjee said.

“There’s one common theme that emerges, and that is a feeling of being let down. But they trust this process to have their voices heard, the process that we are embarked upon. They hope for action to happen in response to our recommendations. And there’s a significant desire for the situation to improve from inside and outside the service.”

Mukherjee said there are still many more people who have said they want their voices to be heard by the panel. He said they will likely propose to return for more public consultations at a later date.

Why does this matter?

It has been only a few years since a similar series of public consultations were held about the state of policing in Thunder Bay.

In 2018, the Office of the Independent Police Review Director and the OCPC both publicly released their reports reviewing the police service and its oversight board.

Yet, less than four years later, control of the board has again been handed off to an administrator, questions abound over the service’s ability to provide adequate investigations involving the deaths of Indigenous people, and the force’s leadership is in a state of crisis.

“The public skepticism about whether this is going to be yet another report is well-founded,” Mukherjee said. “We want to make sure it is owned by the community and is something that is a living document and not another bureaucratic document that sits on somebody’s shelf.

“We want to make it public. We want to make sure the recommendations are supported by people so it is a public item of conversation and discussion and advocacy.”

What about the search for a new police chief?

Just hours prior to the Ontario Civilian Police Commission announcing disciplinary charges against her last month, Hauth had announced that she intended to retire from the position in June 2023.

All three of the city’s full-time police chiefs hired since 2000 had already been working within the police service when they were appointed to the helm.

Sylvie Hauth had been hired as Thunder Bay’s full-time police chief in 2018, following two stints in the role on an interim basis. She had joined the city police service in 1993. (Sinisa Jolic/CBC)

“We don’t have a position on whether it should be an internal or external [hire], but we have been hearing quite a bit about the attributes,” Mukherjee said. “A phrase that has stayed in my mind that I heard … was hurt people, hurt people. So we need police officers to be healthy themselves and supported so that they can do their job. 

“We’ve heard a great deal about leadership that ensures that people, regardless of who they are, are treated equally, fairly, without discrimination. The phrase systemic racism has come up again and again in our consultations. That needs to be addressed very strongly and actively into training, education, leadership, supervision.”

Panel member Paul Cook, a retired city police chief in North Bay, Ont., said the timing of the group’s work is critical.

“It would make no sense for this panel to come up with recommendations after a new chief is named,” Cook said. “So there will be some discussion on perhaps some interim recommendations that need to be acted on right now to help assist the board and the administrator.”

How could policing in Thunder Bay be structured?

There have been a number of calls in the last few months for the Thunder Bay Police Service to be disbanded. Others have demanded that the city police service lose the authority to investigate major cases, suggesting that provincial police instead should have the responsibility to investigate deaths of Indigenous people.

Mukherjee said the panel has heard questions asking whether a standalone municipal police force is adequate to provide services in the city, referring to Thunder Bay’s role as a regional hub in northwestern Ontario.

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He pointed out there are at least three different types of police services in the region — the Thunder Bay Police Service, Ontario Provincial Police, and First Nations police services.

He said he thinks they work informally, but raised the idea of a regional model.

“A regional model will involve them working more formally, systematically, together. And that would also mean a consideration of what kind of governance would be required to make that happen and to oversee that,” Mukherjee said.

“That doesn’t to me mean OPP governance,” he said. “The governance still needs to be civilian. And we use the phrase nation-to-nation. It has to be nation-to-nation based.”

Would recommendations actually change anything?

The Thunder Bay Police Services Board formed the panel. And it’s the police services board that will receive the reports and any recommendations that are provided.

The recommendations wouldn’t be binding, and would have to be implemented by the administrator or a newly formed board.

“We’ll go away and people need to hold the decision makers here accountable for acting on them,” Mukherjee said. “The fact that we are here, the fact that OCPC has appointed an administrator, the fact that the change is happening says that there’s a need to really demonstrate that action has been taken.

“There’s a question about what and how much action was taken on those [previous] recommendations. So it’s a question of credibility, of legitimacy, on the part of the decision makers here.”

When is a report expected?

Mukherjee also said the panel hopes to have interim recommendations to the administrator and the board in the coming weeks.

He said the panel aims to have a full report “in a reasonably short period of time” and are “committed to be aggressive” in finalizing the report.

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