Ontario appoints administrator to run Thunder Bay, Ont., police force for 2nd time in 4 years

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Malcolm Mercer, current chair of the Law Society Tribunal and an adjunct professor of legal ethics at York University in Toronto, has been appointed administrator of the troubled Thunder Bay Police Service in northwestern Ontario. (Malcolm Mercer/Twitter - image credit)
Malcolm Mercer, current chair of the Law Society Tribunal and an adjunct professor of legal ethics at York University in Toronto, has been appointed administrator of the troubled Thunder Bay Police Service in northwestern Ontario. (Malcolm Mercer/Twitter - image credit)

For the second time in four years, an administrator has been appointed to oversee the police service in Thunder Bay, Ont.

The Ontario Civilian Police Commission (OCPC), a police watchdog agency, announced Tuesday it's appointing lawyer Malcolm Mercer as administrator of the Thunder Bay Police Service Board (TBPSB) for an initial term of six months, according to an order made by Sean Weir, executive chair of Tribunals Ontario.

The OCPC has been investigating the leadership and administration of the police service for over two months.

Mercer has been granted significant authority, essentially filling the role of the oversight board to oversee the Thunder Bay Police Service (TBPS) and the delivery of policing services in the community. He will hold the sole vote on all matters that come before it.

"Having reviewed the information gathered by the commission, I am of the opinion that an emergency exists in the [Thunder Bay] board oversight of the [TBPS]," Weir says in the order.

Weir said the board is not able to work effectively, and it's alleged the recommendations made during the last investigation by the civilian police commission remain unfulfilled. The investigation was led by Murray Sinclair, and resulted in a 2018 report that included 45 recommendations to address systemic discrimination and ineffective police governance.

"The dysfunction of the [board] is being regularly reported in the media. It is reasonable to conclude that this continued public display of fundamentally divergent opinions among TB board members will have created significant doubt in the Thunder Bay community of [their] ability to provide adequate oversight of the TB Police Service."

Mercer is full-time chair of the Law Society Tribunal and an adjunct professor with York University's Osgoode Hall Law School. He also worked as a partner with the corporate law firm McCarthy Tétrault from 1990 to 2019, according to his website.

A spokesperson for the civilian police commission said Mercer was unavailable for an interview at this time, given the ongoing investigation.

SIU, OPP also investigating TBPS

As well as the police commission's investigation that was announced Feb. 11, the Special Investigations Unit (SIU) and Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) have ongoing investigations into unnamed members of the police force. As well, at least 10 current and former civilian and uniformed employees of the TBPS have filed human rights complaints against the police service's brass.

More recently, political leaders representing two-thirds of all First Nations in Ontario called for the TBPS to be dismantled. The call came after a confidential report was leaked to media organizations, including CBC News. It detailed serious concerns with TBPS investigations into the sudden deaths of almost exclusively Indigenous people and recommended 14 sudden deaths in Thunder Bay be reinvestigated.

But Weir's order to appoint an administrator focused on the discord between former police board chair Georjann Morriseau and the four other members of the police services board.

In January, Morriseau published a letter on social media saying the police service "is on the brink of collapse at the hands of its board, its leadership and its administration."

She has also filed a human rights complaint and three reprisal complaints naming police Chief Sylvie Hauth and the other four members of the police board.

None of the allegations have been tested in court.

In his order, Weir mentioned those details as part of the ongoing issues within the police board.

"There are allegations of reprisals by one TB board member against the rest of the TB board coupled with allegations of improper disclosure of confidential information and breaches of conflict of interest by those board members against another member," Weir said, adding the interim appointment of Mercer is necessary in the public interest.

Broad powers assigned to Mercer

Mercer has been tasked with restoring "proper governance, to ensure that the [board] is providing sufficient oversight of police services in Thunder Bay, and to re-establish public confidence in the [board and police services's] ability to deliver adequate and effective policing services in the community."

To do so, Mercer:

  • Will preside over all regular and special board meetings, and have the sole vote on all board matters.

  • Will liaise with OCPC investigators as part of the ongoing investigation.

  • Will have unrestricted access to all current and past records of the police oversight board.

  • May make recommendations on the board's composition, including the power to suspend any or all of its members.

The administrator will also review the implementation of the recommendations made in Sinclair's report, which was issued four years ago at the conclusion of the last OCPC investigation into the Thunder Bay police board.

Sinclair's report found "the board has failed to recognize and address the clear and indisputable pattern of violence and systemic racism against Indigenous people in Thunder Bay," and set out 45 recommendations to address systemic discrimination.

The report also led to the temporary dissolution of the oversight board, and the controversial, one-year appointment of southern Ontario-based lawyer Tom Lockwood as administrator.

Lockwood was appointed in December 2018, although that decision was criticized by First Nations leaders, who said he was appointed without consultation.

When Lockwood left the board in June 2020, he expressed confidence it would implement the recommendations, and that the chief and the deputy chief (who was suspended in recent months) would improve policing and relationships with Indigenous people.

Now, Mercer is required to prepare a public report on the status of those very same recommendations, and make decisions on "which of the unfulfilled recommendations should be implemented on a priority basis."

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