This week's surprise announcement that an administrator has been appointed to oversee the Thunder Bay, Ont., police board has left First Nations leaders and community members wondering what will come next for the embattled police service.
The announcement by the Ontario Civilian Police Commission (OCPC), a police watchdog agency, was also met with skepticism by two Indigenous leaders, who collectively represent and advocate on behalf of two-thirds of all First Nations in Ontario.
"The appointment of an administrator is progress, but [is] a Band-Aid solution to a much larger problem," said Melvin Hardy in an interview with CBC News. He's the Northern Superior Region deputy grand chief with the Anishinabek Nation, which represents 39 First Nations, and has previously called for the dismantling of the Thunder Bay Police Service (TBPS).
Mercer was appointed to the position in an order issued Tuesday by Tribunals Ontario executive chair Sean Weir, who said "an emergency exists" in the board's oversight of policing services in the community. That finding came more than two months after the OCPC began its investigation into TBPS leadership and administration, and its relationship with the oversight board.
Hardy said the interim, six-month appointment of Toronto-based lawyer Malcolm Mercer was done without consultation with First Nations, and called on Mercer to immediately engage with Indigenous communities and leaders in the region.
"For the longest time, First Nations had to sit at the kids' table and get thrown the crumbs or the paternalistic pat on the head," Hardy said, adding he doesn't think he will hear from Mercer anytime soon.
Recent attempts to meet with government leaders have been unsuccessful, Hardy said, as they've cited ongoing investigations into the police service and its leadership.
Anna Betty Achneepineskum, the Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN) deputy grand chief who has led calls for the TBPS to be dismantled, also expressed concern they were not consulted about the appointment of Mercer — having only been consulted a few hours prior to the public announcement, according to a written statement.
"As we do not have any knowledge of Mr. Mercer's experience with policing issues or his engagement with Indigenous community, we cannot comment on what he will be able to accomplish or how effective he will be," Achneepineskum said in the statement, adding NAN has been raising concerns with the actions of the TBPS and its board for years, but have not seen any improvements.
The last OCPC-appointed administrator, a controversial one-year term for Toronto-based lawyer Thomas Lockwood in 2018, did not resolve the persistent issues of systemic discrimination and incomplete investigations of Indigenous sudden deaths, Achneepineskum said.
Mercer was selected to become the administrator based on his experience in the justice system and with public law and governance issues, according to the OCPC order. He is currently the full-time chair of the Law Society Tribunal and an adjunct professor of legal ethics at York University, and spent decades as a partner at the major Bay Street law firm McCarthy Tétrault LLP.
The OCPC order says it is expected Mercer will gain the respect of both the Indigenous and non-Indigenous community over the course of his work.
Police association, lawyer welcome appointment
The announcement of Mercer's appointment came as a surprise to Thunder Bay-based lawyer Chantelle Bryson, who represents 12 former and current civilian and uniformed TBPS employees who have or will be filing human rights complaints against the service and its leadership.
"My clients welcome fresh oversight to the Thunder Bay Police Service, which we've been calling for since last fall," Bryson told CBC News.
"We are concerned, however, given that the appointment was done without any consultation regarding the real complaints of professional misconduct and criminal conduct, and continuing failures to investigate Indigenous deaths," Bryson said. "The announcement doesn't speak to those matters, but only internal dysfunction at the board."
The police service has faced intense public scrutiny in recent months, including investigations by the Ontario Provincial Police and the Special Investigations Unit into alleged criminal misconduct by unnamed members of the police force.
In March, a confidential report was leaked to media organizations, including CBC News. It detailed serious concerns with TBPS sudden death investigations and recommended the reinvestigation of 14 sudden deaths of Indigenous people in Thunder Bay.
Recent developments with the Thunder Bay Police Service in Ontario:
Bryson said she is cautiously optimistic Mercer will move to address all these issues, which would include meeting with her clients to discuss their human rights complaints, open investigations into their concerns and work toward reasonable resolutions.
Colin Woods, president of the Thunder Bay Police Association, said his members were also surprised by the appointment of Mercer, but they too were happy to hear the news.
"It was a relief to us that, you know, through the steps we've taken, that finally somebody else recognizes that there's issues here and have stepped in to deal with those issues," Woods told CBC News.
A survey of the police association membership that was released in October 2021 found 76 per cent of respondents described morale at the TBPS as being negative, or very negative, with 60 per cent of people surveyed saying they don't feel valued.
"He's going to have a busy job, but I just hope that he comes in and starts … dealing with the issues," Woods said, adding he hopes to hear from Mercer soon to discuss his ongoing concerns.
A spokesperson for the police service declined an interview request for Chief Sylvie Hauth.
City councillor and board chair Kristen Oliver also declined an interview request, saying "the administrator speaks for the board now."
Future of expert panel uncertain
One of the outstanding questions is what will happen with the expert panel struck by the police services board in March to provide advice on how it should address the wide range of challenges facing the body.
Hardy said he hopes Mercer will retain the panel, and particularly Kimberly Murray, a member of the Kahnesatake Mohawk Nation, former executive director of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the only Indigenous person member of the panel
"We need to have somebody at the table," Hardy said.
Alok Mukherjee, former chair of the Toronto Police Services Board from 2005-2015, was tapped to lead the expert panel. But he said he too is not sure what will happen next.
"The panel was approved by a legitimate board process. We have begun our work, but until we receive clarity, we are in a wait-and-see mode," Mukherjee told CBC News.