APTN National News
Ontario’s police watchdog is reviewing nine cases of murdered and missing Indigenous women in Thunder Bay.
Independent Police Review Director Gerry McNeilly said the nine murdered and missing Indigenous women cases primarily stem from 2009 to the present.
McNeilly said the nine cases are part of a total of 39 Thunder Bay death cases going back to the 1990s his office is reviewing as part of a wide-ranging probe of the city’s police force.
“It is detailed, it is time consuming,” said McNeilly, in an interview Tuesday. “We are going over all the evidence from the investigations.”
McNeilly said the majority of the death cases under review involve Indigenous peoples, but his office’s investigators are also combing through files involving non-Indigenous deaths to gauge whether Thunder Bay police handled investigations differently based on race.
“For me in regards to Thunder Bay what we see is of great concern to us,” said McNeilly.
McNeilly’s office has included the May waterway deaths of Tammy Keeash, 17, and Josiah Begg, 14, as part of its review. Keeash, from North Caribou Lake, was found dead in a marsh area of shallow water known as the Neebing-McIntyre Floodway. Begg, from Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug, was found in the McIntyre River.
McNeilly’s team is also reviewing the case of Stacy DeBungee, 41, who was found dead in the McIntyre River on Oct. 19, 2015. McNeilly said he expects to release a separate report on the Thunder Bay police’s conduct in handling DeBungee’s death investigation by the middle of next month.
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Thunder Bay police publicly announced there was no foul play suspected in DeBungee’s death before the completion of an autopsy. A separate investigation conducted by a private investigator discovered that two sets of identification documents — one belonging to DeBungee and the other belonging to an individual that has yet to be tracked down — were found by the river where DeBungee was found. DeBungee’s debit card was also used after his death.
In addition to the 39 death cases, McNeilly’s office is also reviewing the deaths of seven First Nation youth which were the subject of a coroner’s inquest that concluded last summer.
Five of the seven youth were found dead in the city’s waterways. The coroner’s jury concluded it could not determine what led to three of the five drowning deaths.
McNeilly’s office stepped in to investigate the Thunder Bay police last fall after First Nation leaders began to loudly question the police’s handling of death cases involving Indigenous peoples.
The public record shows Thunder Bay police investigators have for years been quick to rule out foul play in the apparent drowning death of Indigenous peoples.
McNeilly said his office has received numerous complaints from Thunder Bay over the years and some have been withdrawn because complainants feared reprisal.
“It has to get better,” he said. “We have to work together to fix this, to make it better.”
McNeilly will be in Thunder Bay on Sept. 25 for a public meeting.
He plans to travel regularly to the northern Ontario city over the next several months to complete a report on allegations of systemic racism against the Thunder Bay police.
McNeilly’s office has been given full access to Thunder Bay police files as part of the review, he said.
“I am a friend. I am not an enemy of the people,” he said. “Or an enemy of the police.”
McNeilly is familiar with some of the issues facing the Indigenous community is Thunder Bay as a result of his experience running Legal Aid in Manitoba.
“I know there is hope,” he said. “I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t think so.”
McNeilly said he expects to deliver his final report on the Thunder Bay police by the end of next winter.
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