Major fallout as chair, 2 members of Thunder Bay, Ont., police board resign after administrator appointed

·5 min read
Kristen Oliver, a city councillor in Thunder Bay, Ont., resigned as chair of the city's police board, effective Friday. (Logan Turner/CBC - image credit)
Kristen Oliver, a city councillor in Thunder Bay, Ont., resigned as chair of the city's police board, effective Friday. (Logan Turner/CBC - image credit)

A majority of the five board members who oversee the police service in Thunder Bay, Ont., have resigned.

Board chair Kristen Oliver as well as Michael Power and Roy Pelletier, the two provincial appointees, submitted their resignations effective Friday, confirmed John Hannam, secretary of the Thunder Bay Police Service Board (TBPSB).

The move, first reported by local news outlet TBNewswatch, comes just days after a provincial police watchdog agency appointed an administrator to oversee the TBPSB for at least the next six months.

The order from the Ontario Civilian Police Commission (OCPC) said that based on preliminary findings from their investigation, which began on Feb. 11, they believed "an emergency exists in the [Thunder Bay] board oversight" of the Thunder Bay Police Service (TBPS).

It's the second time in four years the OCPC has appointed an administrator to run the board. The last time was in 2018.

Toronto lawyer Malcolm Mercer has been granted significant authority and sole vote over all matters coming before the board. His job, which began on April 19, is to restore public confidence in police oversight and policing services in the community.

However, the OCPC denied a CBC request for an interview with Mercer.

'I'm essentially being fired'

Before the decision was made, Oliver said the OCPC didn't reach out once to request board documents, interviews or an update demonstrating the progress in implementing recommendations from the 2018 Sinclair report, which laid out 45 recommendations to improve police governance and address systemic discrimination in the board.

"To me, it seems like this so-called investigation was very one-sided. I had faith in the integrity of the process, and I was finding through the week … I started to lose faith," said Oliver, who is also a city councillor for the Westfort ward.

Without the ability to vote or "voice the concerns of the community," Oliver said, she decided it was time to resign.

The decision to take away the voting rights of the existing board members was a key issue for Pelletier.

I'm not willing to sit and watch an appointed official make decisions for our community. So in light of this, I chose to resign. - Roy Pelletier, former Thunder Bay Police Service Board member

"Our police force is a vital part of the city's future success, and so I wanted to be a part of doing anything I could to help move it forward," said Pelletier, an Ojibway man from Fort William First Nation who owns an auto-body shop in the community.

"I'm essentially being fired," he added. "I'm not willing to sit and watch an appointed official make decisions for our community. So in light of this, I chose to resign."

In an emailed statement, Power did not specify why he resigned, but said he was proud of his contributions to the police board, and wants to assist with the building of a new police headquarters "if I can as a private citizen."

Mayor says he may also resign

Thunder Bay Mayor Bill Mauro said he understands and supports the decisions by Oliver, Pelletier and Power to resign, adding he may still decide to do the same before the end of his term.

"As mayor, I feel like I need to stay there at least for a little while, to represent the city interest," he said in an interview.

When Mercer was appointed administrator, he was given full power and authority of the board, Mauro said, meaning the decisions Mercer will make could have tax and cost implications for Thunder Bay.

Matt Prokopchuk / CBC
Matt Prokopchuk / CBC

While he won't have a vote, Mauro said, he still wants to meet with Mercer and share his concerns and thoughts about key issues, policy and oversight of police.

The mayor also shared his surprise that the OCPC appointed an administrator in the first place, saying he and other board members were not contacted by the provincial oversight body.

"We don't know what emergency they are referencing. We certainly don't feel like we're dysfunctional as a board, as the letter from the executive director asserts. So yeah, we're all very surprised they've taken away the vote of the two members democratically elected to city council and given it to one man."

Lack of support for boards a provincial problem

The fact board members were not forewarned about an administrator being appointed was shocking to hear, said Michael Kempa, a University of Ottawa expert on police governance who has been following developments with the Thunder Bay police.

"It's surprising that wouldn't be communicated to [the board members] saying, 'Look, until we can get your house in order, or at least until the investigations into the allegations of discriminatory behaviour within the board can be dealt with, we will have an administrator and you will lose your voting powers,'" Kempa said.

Steve Fischer/CBC
Steve Fischer/CBC

The lack of support and resources from the OCPC is something Kempa said many police service boards across the province are experiencing.

"They need to ask hard questions of police organizations and the police command to make sure that what's happening in policing reflects the needs and priorities of communities. That is the very role of police services boards, and many of them are saying they are not equipped to do it."

Both the problems and the solutions to these issues are well documented in successive reports, Kempa said, but governments have failed to implement those solutions.

If governments want to maintain civilian governance of the police, they need to take action, he added.

"This is not rocket science. It's the same recommendations. Commit to implement them, or cut bait with the model … and put in the model that we intend to implement and actually adhere to."