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First Nation leaders renew call to disband Thunder Bay police

Family members of three Indigenous people who died in the city of Thunder Bay say there is a lack of communication from the Thunder Bay Police Service on the investigations and join calls by First Nation leaders to disband the police service and board
The families of Mackenzie Moonias, Jenna Ostberg, and Corey Belesky joined NAN leaders and MPP Sol Mamakwa at Queen's Park to call for the Thunder Bay Police Service to be disbanded.

TORONTO — First Nations leaders and families of three Indigenous people who have died in the city are renewing calls to disband the Thunder Bay Police Service, citing inadequate investigations and other issues within the service.

“After so many years of knowing the poison that is the Thunder Bay Police Service, we shouldn’t be surprised when we continue to face racism and oppression. And we shouldn’t be surprised that when left unchecked, the poison in the service has gotten worse,” said Neskantaga First Nation Chief Christopher Moonias.

“You cannot remove the head from the snake. Another will grow. There must be changes.”

Moonias, along with leaders from Nishnawbe Aski Nation, Bearskin Lake First Nation, Anishinabek Nation Grand Council, Kiiwetinoong MPP Sol Mamakwa, and family members of Jenna Ostberg, MacKenzie Moonias, and Corey Belesky participated in a media conference at Queen’s Park in Toronto on Monday morning calling for the disbandment of the Thunder Bay Police Service.

Mamakwa said the Moonias, Belesky, and Ostberg families need support from the provincial government to move the death investigations out of Thunder Bay Police Service and to a police service capable of conducting credible investigations.

“We cannot let the continued corruption of the upper echelons of the Thunder Bay Police Service and incompetence to prevail,” he said.

Mamakwa added the recent obstruction of justice and breach of trust charges against former Thunder Bay Police Service chief Sylvie Hauth and former in-house lawyer Holly Wallbourne have shed light on ongoing issues within the local police service.

“Those charges have breathed new life into the investigations that need to be properly examined,” he said. “We stand here today alongside the Moonias, Belesky, and Ostberg families. These families have been left without credible investigations into the deaths that happened recently to their loved ones by the Thunder Bay Police Service.”

The Ostberg and Belensky families have filed complaints with the Inspector General of Policing of Ontario related to the police investigations into the deaths of their loved ones and the Moonias family is also finalizing a complaint to be filed.

A spokesperson with the Inspector General of Policing of Ontario said in a statement that it has received the two complaints and is reviewing them carefully.

Jenna Ostberg, 21, died on Dec. 30, 2023 at a north side residence in Thunder Bay. According to the Special Investigations Unit, which is currently investigating the incident, three calls were made to 911, the first being a report of a unwanted visitor at the home and the second to cancel the initial call because the person was no longer there. Police did not respond to the residence until a third 911 call was made advising Ostberg was deceased.

“We are certain if the police had responded at that very moment, the very first call, that young Jenna would still be alive today with us and her whole life would have still been in front of her,” said Bearskin Lake First Nation Chief Lefty Kamenawatamin.

“Police services are supposed to protect us at all times. Jenna needed the police to intervene and help her that very night but they never arrived, help never arrived. We need answers now and we demand justice.”

Jenna’s father, Vincent Ostberg, said he has received contradictory information from investigators with the Thunder Bay Police Service and the coroner’s office regarding Jenna’s death, that the family is still waiting for answers, and the family has lost faith and trust in the service.

“We are calling for the disbandment of the Thunder Bay Police Service and we want the police services board dissolved,” he said. “This kind of stuff has to end. We need a competent police service in Northern Ontario. We need to be safe.”

A lack of communication was also cited by Vanessa Sakanee, mother of 14-year-old Mackenzie Moonias of Neskantaga First Nation, who was found deceased in Lake Superior near Marina Park last December.

“The loss of my daughter needs to be resolved and fully investigated,” she said. “We never got answers from police. And they promised us everything but no one ever contacted us yet.”

According to Chief Moonias, Mackenzie’s grandmother attempted to report her missing to the Thunder Bay Police Service three times before an investigation was launched three days after she was last seen.

“I often lay awake at night wondering if the three days would have made a difference. I also wonder if she had been white if the police would have responded right away,” he said.

“We need something done for Mackenzie. We need a proper investigation done. We need a credible investigator assigned with the appropriate resources to make sure an investigation is done properly so the family can have closure about what happened to her.”

The family of 31-year-old Corey Belesky, who was the victim of a homicide in November 2022, also said there has been a lack of communication from the Thunder Bay Police Service on the status of the investigation. To date, no arrests have been made in connection to Belesky’s death.

“Most of the communication has been us reaching out to them,” said Corey’s sister, Donna.

“They haven’t really been telling us anything. They just keep telling us they are actively investigating. It has been one year, five months, and 21 days since my brother was taken from us.”

“The Thunder Bay Police need to do their jobs,” added Corey’s mother, Colleen. “They need to forget about the skin colour of people. Because regardless, Corey meant the world to me and his family. The people here need to get justice. I will keep fighting for my son.”

NAN Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler said there is a long list of other Indigenous families still waiting for answers from the local police service about loved ones who have died in the city of Thunder Bay.

“We are here today to tell you the Thunder Bay Police Service has turned into a cold case factory when it comes to the investigations of Indigenous peoples. There is a complete lack of trust. Everything has broken down,” he said.

“We are here to support them in their call for the disbandment of the Thunder Bay Police Service and to appoint a new police service to investigate the deaths for these families.”

This is not the first time First Nation leaders have called for the Thunder Bay Police Service to be disbanded.

In March 2022, NAN Deputy Grand Chief Anna Betty Achneepineskum called on the Solicitor General of Ontario to dismantle the Thunder Bay Police Service and institute an immediate moratorium on the service from conducting major crime investigations.

The call came following the release of a report as part of the re-investigation into nine sudden deaths involving Indigenous people as recommended by the 2018 Office of the Independent Police Review Director’s report.

That report found an additional 16 sudden death investigations involving Indigenous people in the city of Thunder Bay to be re-investigated.

“There have been many reports, many events such as this where we have raised our voices and our concerns and our situation continues to be the same,” Achneepineskum said on Monday from Queen’s Park.

“I want those that have the authority and responsibility that are administering justice and policing to look through the eyes of these families who are here and other families. It is very important that you hear their words and that you hear our recommendations as well.”

Response from Thunder Bay Police Service

In written statements issued Monday afternoon, both the current Thunder Bay Police Service chief, Darcy Fleury and police services board chair Karen Machado expressed condolences to the families for their loss.

“We will continue to do our work to achieve the closure they deserve, including fully cooperating in any investigations into or complaints regarding the Thunder Bay Police Service,” Fleury said.

“I know TBPS is under scrutiny. I take very seriously my responsibility to build confidence and welcome the involvement and wisdom of Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN) and other Indigenous community leaders at any time as we continue in our commitment to advance Truth and Reconciliation.”

Fleury added that the police is not the same service it was a year ago, and change and trust takes time, but progress has been made.

“I empathize with the pain and frustrations we heard from families and leaders,” Fleury said. “More can and will be done to communicate with the families about their loved ones’ investigations.”

Regarding the investigations involving Corey Belesky, Jenna Ostberg, and MacKenzie Moonias, Fleury said certain information cannot be released to protect the integrity of the investigations.

But Fleury did say the investigation into Corey’s death remains open and ongoing.

According to Fleury, an investigation was launched on Dec. 15, 2023, when MacKenzie was reported missing to police and family and community Chiefs were informed throughout the search.

Fleury added with respect to the 911 calls received regarding Jenna’s case, the first call was not related to violence and the second call indicated she was no longer present at the residence.

Fleury also pointed to a March 2024 report by the Director of the Office of the Independent Police Review that indicated the Thunder Bay Police Service has fully implemented or work is ongoing on 100 per cent of all recommendations from the 2018 Broken Trust report.

“Current administration is cooperating with the OPP reinvestigations at a level not before seen,” Fleury said. “Information regarding the reinvestigations must be provided by the OPP.”

Machado added the board understands rebuilding trust with the Indigenous community requires transparency, acknowledgement, and accountability.

In November 2023, the Board passed its Missing Persons Policy, which requires that ‘families are consulted and informed of investigative status on a regular and ongoing basis,’” she said.

“The Board’s policies are frequently reviewed and evaluated. We will continue to develop and update our policies and direct the Service when appropriate to update its procedures.”

Machado added that the board remains “open and committed to working with First Nations and other Indigenous-led organizations across Northwestern Ontario, including Nishnawbe Aski Nation.”