A “decisive moment”? Police in Thunder Bay, Ontario, face a hearing after a botched investigation into the death of an aboriginal

Nearly seven years after Stacy Debungee’s body was discovered in a river running through Thunder Bay, Ontario, disciplinary hearings for two officers involved in the flawed sudden death investigation are due to begin today.

Staff Sgt. Shawn Harrison and Staff Sgt. Shawn Whipple are both facing charges of neglect of duty and dishonorable conduct under the Police Services Act for their role in the investigation into Debungee’s death. Staff Sgt. Susan Kaucharik was also charged with negligence of duty under the Police Services Act, but she retired before the disciplinary hearing took place.

Debungee’s body was found in the McIntyre River on the morning of October 15, 2015. Within hours, the Thunder Bay Police Department (TBPS) issued a press release stating the death was not suspicious. The following day, before an autopsy was performed, police said the death appeared to be non-criminal.

The Office of the Independent Police Review Director (OPIRD) reviewed the TBPS investigation. A February 2018 report detailed several shortcomings in the initial police investigation, saying officers prematurely concluded that DeBungee had been intoxicated and had rolled in the river.

The report found that officers failed to follow up with witnesses and pursued additional leads, including a potential deathbed confession from someone claiming to have pushed DeBungee into the river.

Brad Debungee has spent the past six years seeking justice and fighting for answers over the death of his brother Stacy.

Brad DeBungee has demanded accountability and justice for his brother Stacy, who died over six years ago. (Logan Turner/CBC)

As disciplinary hearings are about to begin, Brad said he doesn’t know what to expect, but it’s been a while.

He wants the officers involved in the original, flawed investigation “to be held accountable for what they did, so that the next people who try to do what they do, won’t be allowed to do it.”

Asha James, the attorney representing the DeBungee family, said she hopes this case sends a message to other officers investigating Indigenous deaths in the city.

“Police departments are not allowed to provide one type of justice for Indigenous victims and another type of justice for non-Indigenous victims,” ​​she told CBC News.

A long legal battle before the hearing could begin

There are three weeks set aside for disciplinary hearings, which will be publicly available for people to watch in person or online.

The hearings, however, almost did not take place.

While the OIPRD ordered the local police force to hold disciplinary hearings against officers in 2018, the city’s police services board had to decide whether to grant an extension to allow proceedings to continue – because that It had been over six months since the conduct took place.

Retired Judge Lee Ferrier was appointed to make that call. He decided he would hear arguments about whether it was reasonable to hold the disciplinary hearings, given the time that had passed since Debungee’s death. But he wanted to do it behind closed doors, without public access.

The Debungee family, Rainy River First Nation and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation opposed this decision, which ultimately led Ferrier to make the hearing public. In February 2021, after a years-long legal battle, Ferrier ruled that the delay was reasonable and that the public was interested in the disciplinary hearings.

Under provincial police services law, the chief of police of the service can choose who he wants to prosecute officers being disciplined and who he wants to judge hearings.

Joel Dubois, an Ottawa lawyer, will act as prosecutor, and retired OPP Constable Greg Walton will act as arbitrator for the hearings.

A history of inadequate police investigations

There is a long documented history of incomplete or inadequate police investigations into Aboriginal deaths in Thunder Bay.

Caitlyn Kasper, a lawyer with Indigenous Legal Services, remembers the day Debungee’s body was found. She represented several of the families during the Seven Youth Inquest, which examined the circumstances surrounding the deaths of seven First Nations children who died while attending high school in the town. The bodies of some of these children were also found in rivers running through the town in northwestern Ontario.

Caitlyn Kasper, senior counsel at Aboriginal Legal Services, said she hopes these disciplinary hearings send the message that police officers who fail to properly investigate Aboriginal deaths will face consequences. (Susan Goodspeed/CBC)

“It’s really explained there, racism and how much it influences [the Thunder Bay police’s] ability and willingness to investigate [when Indigenous people die].”

The OIPRD’s findings from the Debungee death inquest led to a closer look at 39 sudden Indigenous deaths in Thunder Bay. While then OIPRD chief Gerry McNeilly later told CBC News he wanted the 39 deaths re-investigated, he ultimately recommended that a mixed police team reinvestigating nine of the deaths as part of the “Broken Trust” project to build relationships and trust with the city’s indigenous people.

The Broken Trust team completed these re-surveys last year and have spent the past few months sharing the results with family members – who themselves have been highly critical of the process.

But as part of the Broken Trust team’s mandate, investigators looked at other TBPS sudden death investigations. In March 2022, they filed a confidential report with the Attorney General of Ontario. This report, which was leaked to several media outlets, including CBC News, recommended that 14 other Indigenous deaths be re-investigated. Some of those deaths were as recent as 2019. The news sparked outrage from Indigenous leaders across the province, as well as growing calls for the complete dismantling of the police department.

A decision on what to do with these cases had not been made before the provincial election was called.

(CBC News Graphics)

Kasper said this whole process of seeking justice for Indigenous families has been tedious and frustrating. But she hopes these disciplinary hearings, holding the officers involved in the inadequate investigation into Debungee’s death to account for their actions, will be a “watershed” moment.

“Each death had to fit into what we see now, which is that if officers are incompetent or unwilling to do their job, they should be held directly accountable,” Kasper said.

“I really hope this is a catalytic moment, hopefully for self-reflection on the part of the police force, because moving forward has to be done every time.”

But after so many years of fighting for justice, Brad Debungee doesn’t have such high hopes.

“It took so long. I don’t know what the penalties will be, but I think it’s fair [going to be] A pat on the wrist.”