A report called Project Floodway written by the Thunder Bay police shows that officers responded to 400 floodway related incidents involving more than 1,200 people in the last 18 months.
The numbers come from a study that was recently tabled by police.
“We might get called in for an ice rescue. We may get a call down to these areas for a group of people who may be consuming liquor or other intoxicants,” said Det. Brook Pilley. “We may get called down for a person who may be sleeping along the riverbank, maybe people fighting nearby, people who are taking shelter under bridges, things like that. Basically, calls where people feel there’s a concern for public safety.”
It’s not noted in the report, but Pilley said he found the majority of tracked incidents involved alcohol, and many of the individuals encountered were Indigenous people.
“If I had to say just to be honest and blunt, a fair number unf, unfortunately,e been Indigenous,” he said.
Pilley said he initiated Project Floodway in response to the recommendations from a 2015 inquest looking into the deaths of seven First Nations students in the city. Five of them died in the city’s floodways, and rivers.
Not long after the recommendations were released, the city identified high risk areas along the waterways that needed increased safety measures. Pilley said these areas were already known to police.
Data was collected from calls for service and daily foot patrols.
Pilley said more than 100 of the floodway related incidents were life-saving interventions. In 2017, the police responded to five water and ice rescues.
“I personally, on the other side of that bridge, jumped in for somebody who was face down in the river last year in September.”
In the summer of 2017, APTN News covered the story of a young First Nations woman who was rescued when a young man walking by saw her floating face up and unconscious in the river.
In 2017, Project Floodway tracked five sudden deaths in waterways.
Jonathan Rudin is a lawyer who represented a number of families during the inquest.
While he praises the police and city for their efforts to implement recommendations, he said it’s important to look at the broader picture of risky behaviors.
“If you’re a young person in Thunder Bay and you want to drink, you go over to your friend’s house when your parents are gone and you drink there, which is not as risky a place to go,” he said. “But if you’re a student from Thunder Bay from a remote First Nation and you want to drink, you don’t have those options so you go to a place where you won’t be found and those places are inherently risky.”
Rudin said it’s not only young people who are vulnerable to these risks. The data in Project Floodway indicates middle aged males were most likely to be involved in floodway related incidents.
Pilley said the goal of Project Floodway is to deter people from drinking by the rivers. In the meantime, the city is working to implement safety measures like improved lighting and clearly areas with poor visibility.
But Rudin said that is only going to move the risky behaviours to other locations.
“This is something that’s more than just the police departments’ job is to think about why people are engaging in this behaviour and what has to change so that people don’t die,” he said.
Pilley agreed that it’s not a problem the police can fix on their own. They rely on the support of community partners.
“I think that’s the biggest challenge is that you come down here and you encounter somebody and you encounter them the next day and the next day and the next day and your hands are a little bit tied as to how you can help that person,” said Pilley.
Rudin said it’s difficult to know if these measures are effective at this point.
“I think the real challenge with this is that we still see Indigenous people being found dead in water,” said Rudin.
In 2015, the body of Stacey Debungee was pulled from the McIntyre River. Police were quick to call his death non-criminal, even before an autopsy was conducted.
Debungee’s family and community believe police treated his death like another drunk “Indian” who rolled into the river.
An independent investigation by the Office of the Independent Police Review Director into how police investigated Debungee’s death determined there was misconduct and neglect of duty.
The service and police board are also both under investigation by Ontario’s police watchdog.
Acting Police Chief Sylvie Hauth told APTN News she is committed to addressing the concerns from the public.
It was a year ago when the city and police refused to acknowledge they were facing a crisis after two young people were found dead in the river.
Hauth told the media that it was “business as usual” for them.
It wasn’t received well by the public.
“We had to be able to show that we were still able to function as a police service,” said Hauth.
The Thunder Bay police now have a dedicated page on its website to provided updates on efforts to respond to the inquest recommendations.
Rudin said while setting up programs and initiatives is a good thing for Thunder Bay, there’s still something missing in these efforts.
“Confront the fact that racism in Thunder Bay against Indigenous people is still very much alive and that has to be acknowledged,” he said.
Hauth said her priority is expanding training opportunities so officers have access to education throughout their entire careers.
Pilley said he will continue to track floodway related incidents as they prepare for busier, warmer months.