A First Nation's leader says it's disturbing that a Thunder Bay, Ont., police officer allowed a wedding party to take photos at the scene where an Indigenous woman was found dead while he was tasked with guarding the scene.
Anna Betty Achneepineskum, deputy grand chief of Nishnawbe Aski Nation, was reacting to a social media post that showed the officer alongside the bridal party at the city's waterfront Marina Park over the weekend.
Thunder Bay Police Service officers sent to Marina Park, where the woman's body was found on July 8, started holding the scene that morning. The scene was released Monday.
"We want things to change. We want to build a good relationship with the Thunder Bay Police Service," Achneepineskum said. "But actions like that … it's just not right."
Dave Guilbeault, who said the woman who died was his daughter's best friend, had gone to Marina Park over the weekend to show support for the family. He said he saw a bridal party taking photos in a police vehicle at the scene. He posted photos and the video to Facebook on Saturday night.
"That's the true Thunder Bay right there," a voice in the video can be heard saying.
In the Facebook post, Guilbeault said the officer showed a lack of respect and was laughing until he confronted the group, which led to the officer apologizing.
CBC News has been unable to obtain the name of the police officer involved in the incident.
Police spokesperson Chris Adams said the bride had a connection to a retired officer in the force.
"This was an impromptu situation where the bride approached the officer and requested a photo be taken in the cruiser," Adams said in a written statement.
"There was no intent to cause any indignity or disrespect to anyone based on where the officer was located. Public interactions with our officers who are parked or situated in settings which have a high number of pedestrians, such as a park, are quite common."
A history of broken trust
Achneepineskum, however, said: "The conduct was not only harmful in terms of the family members who were involved, but also in terms of the public's views of the Thunder Bay police."
Thunder Bay police leaders have long said they are committed to repairing a fractured relationship with the Indigenous community.
External reviews of the force and its oversight board released in 2018 identified systemic racism at an institutional level within the police service, along with a pattern of deficient and inadequate death investigations involving Indigenous people. That led to reinvestigations of nine deaths.
As well, 14 additional cases involving the deaths of Indigenous people between 2006 and 2019 have been recommended for police reinvestigation.
First Nations leaders have called for the Thunder Bay force to be disbanded and to lose the authority to investigate major cases.
In the last several months, the service has faced a leadership crisis, with both Chief Sylvie Hauth and Deputy Chief Ryan Hughes suspended. The Thunder Bay Police Services Board, which provides oversight, is being helmed by an administrator appointed by the Ontario Civilian Police Commission. Following that appointment, three of the five sitting board members resigned.
Achneepineskum said she has been in contact with the family of the woman who died last week, and is working on filing a formal complaint. The video was posted just a few hours after the family members were notified of their loved one's death, she said.
The family members are upset and angry, Achneepineskum added.
She said the family is considering asking for a public apology or for the officer to participate in a sharing circle.
As of Monday, police said the investigation into the woman's death is ongoing and an autopsy had taken place in Toronto. Police have not publicly said if foul play is suspected.
'Nothing has changed'
Adams said Thunder Bay's acting police chief, Dan Taddeo, has reminded officers that, while public interactions are encouraged, there may be times when they can potentially be seen as being insensitive.
"Officers were reminded that the nature of an assigned duty shall take precedence over other requests; especially when the nature of the request could conflict with that of the assigned duty," Adams said in the written statement.
The incident happened just days before an expert panel that was formed to examine and provide recommendations to improve policing issues in Thunder Bay is scheduled to hold consultations with the public.
Achneepineskum said she is scheduled to meet with that panel on Friday.
"The behaviours and the conduct of some of these officers continues and this is just another example that when I go and speak to the expert panel to say 'You know what, nothing has changed, and what are you going to do about it,'" she said.
"This is the most recent situation that has taken place. They have to take it seriously."