Hearing underway for Thunder Bay, Ont., police accused in flawed investigation of First Nations man's death

·6 min read
Stacy DeBungee's body was found in the McIntyre River in Thunder Bay, Ont., on Oct. 19, 2015. An independent review found the initial police investigation into his death was inadequate, and disciplinary hearings for the officers involved begin on Monday.  (CBC - image credit)
Stacy DeBungee's body was found in the McIntyre River in Thunder Bay, Ont., on Oct. 19, 2015. An independent review found the initial police investigation into his death was inadequate, and disciplinary hearings for the officers involved begin on Monday. (CBC - image credit)

Nearly seven years after the body of Stacy DeBungee of Rainy River First Nation was found in a river flowing through Thunder Bay, Ont., disciplinary hearings for two officers involved in the deficient sudden death investigation are set to begin today.

Staff Sgt. Shawn Harrison and Sgt. Shawn Whipple are both facing Police Service Act charges of neglect of duty and discreditable conduct for their roles in the investigation into DeBungee's death. Staff Sgt. Susan Kaucharik was also charged with neglect 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 Oct. 15, 2015. Within a few hours, the Thunder Bay Police Service (TBPS) issued a media release saying the death was not believed to be suspicious. The next day, before an autopsy was conducted, police said that the death appeared to be non-criminal.

The Office of the Independent Police Review Director (OIPRD) reviewed the TBPS investigation. A report released in February 2018 detailed several deficiencies in the initial police investigation, saying officers made a premature conclusion that DeBungee had been intoxicated and rolled into the river.

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

Brad DeBungee has spent the last six years seeking justice and fighting to get answers as to how his brother Stacy died.

Logan Turner/CBC
Logan Turner/CBC

With the disciplinary hearings about to get underway, Brad said he doesn't know what to expect, but it's been a long time coming.

He wants the officers involved in the original, deficient investigation to "be held accountable for what they did, so the next people that try to do what they're doing, they won't be allowed to do it."

Asha James, the lawyer representing the DeBungee family, said she hopes this case will send a message to other officers tasked with investigating the deaths of Indigenous people in the city.

"Police services 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 lengthy legal battle before hearing could begin

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

The hearings almost didn't happen.

While the OIPRD directed the local police force to hold disciplinary hearings against the officers in 2018, the city's police service board needed to decide whether to grant an extension to allow the proceedings to go ahead — because it had been more than six months since the conduct took place.

Retired judge Lee Ferrier was appointed to make that call. He decided he would hear arguments on whether it was reasonable to hold the disciplinary hearings, given the length of time that had passed since DeBungee's death. But he decided to do it behind closed doors, without public access.

The DeBungee family, Rainy River First Nation, and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation fought that decision — ultimately leading Ferrier to make the hearing public. In February 2021, after a years-long legal battle, Ferrier ruled the delay was reasonable, and there was public interest in the disciplinary hearings going ahead.

Under the provincial Police Service's Act, the service's police chief can select who they want to both prosecute the officers being disciplined, and who they want to adjudicate the hearings.

Joel Dubois, an Ottawa-based lawyer, will act as the prosecutor, and retired OPP officer Greg Walton will serve as the adjudicator for hearings.

A history of inadequate police investigations

There's a long, documented history of incomplete or inadequate police investigations into the deaths of Indigenous people in Thunder Bay.

Caitlyn Kasper, a lawyer with Aboriginal Legal Services, remembers the day DeBungee's body was found. She was representing several of the families at the Seven Youth Inquest, which examined the circumstances surrounding the deaths of seven First Nations children who died while attending high school in the city. The bodies of some of those children were also found in rivers flowing through the northwestern Ontario city.

Susan Goodspeed/CBC
Susan Goodspeed/CBC

"It really laid it out there, the racism and how much that influences [the Thunder Bay police's] ability and willingness to investigate [when Indigenous people die]."

The OIPRD's findings from the DeBungee death investigation led to a further review of 39 sudden Indigenous deaths in Thunder Bay. While the head of the OIPRD at the time, Gerry McNeilly, later told CBC News he wanted to see all 39 deaths reinvestigated, he ultimately recommended a blended team of police officers reinvestigate nine of the deaths as part of the "Broken Trust" project to build relationships and trust with Indigenous people in the city.

The Broken Trust team completed those reinvestigations this past year, and they spent the past several 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 reviewed additional TBPS sudden death investigations. In March 2022, they filed a confidential report to Ontario's attorney general. That report, which was leaked to several media organizations including CBC News, recommended a further 14 deaths of Indigenous people be reinvestigated. Some of those deaths were as recent as 2019. The news led to outrage from Indigenous leaders across the province, along with growing calls for the police service to be completely dismantled.

A decision on what to do with those cases had not been made prior to the provincial election being called.

CBC News Graphics
CBC News Graphics

Kasper said this entire process of seeking justice for Indigenous families has been tiresome and frustrating. But she hopes these disciplinary hearings, holding the officers involved in DeBungee's inadequate death investigation to account for their actions, will be a "watershed" moment.

"Every single death has had to build and build into what we're now seeing, which is that if officers are incompetent or unwilling to do their job, they need to be held directly responsible," Kasper said.

"I really hope that it's a catalyst moment, hopefully for self-reflection on behalf of the police force, because moving forward, this needs to be done each and every single time."

But after so many years fighting for justice, Brad DeBungee doesn't hold such high hopes.

"It's taken so long. I don't know what the penalties are going to be, but I think it's just [going to be] a slap on the wrist."

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