Tensions high as Thunder Bay police face scrutiny for dismissing Indigenous deaths

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The body of 17-year-old Tammy Keeash was pulled from Thunder Bay’s McIntyre River on May 7. On May 18, 14-year-old Josiah Begg’s body was found in the same river. Both Indigenous teens went missing the night of May 6.

Keeash hailed from Weagamow (North Caribou) Lake First Nation, a community surrounded by water, and was a member of the Junior Canadian Rangers. Her death was quickly ruled a drowning by police despite “strong encouragement” from the Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN) to treat the case as a potential homicide.

“We have lakes and rivers all over the 49 First Nations we represent,” said NAN Deputy Grand Chief Anna Betty Achneepineskum. “And we have people who use alcohol but we don’t find our people floating in the river in our communities.”

Begg, from the fly-in community of Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug (Big Trout Lake) First Nation, was accompanying his father to medical appointments in Thunder Bay at the time of his disappearance. The cause of Begg’s death has been determined but is not being released to the media at the family’s request. An investigation into his death is ongoing.

“It’s disturbing, I was very frustrated with the lack of urgency that the police displayed,” said Achneepineskum. “Our people wanted to have the river dragged and we were told by police there wasn’t any evidence he went into the water. But with the number of our people who have been found in that river, we have historical reasons to believe that.”

The cases of Begg and Keeash are the most recent in long line of alleged “drownings” of Indigenous youth in Thunder Bay. From 2000-2011 the bodies of five Indigenous teens were found in the McIntyre River: Curran Strang, 18; Jethro Anderson, 15; Jordan Wabasse, 15; Reggie Bushie, 15; and Kyle Morriseau, 17.

All the boys were living in Thunder Bay and attending Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School (DFC), a school for students from remote First Nations communities without secondary education institutions.

As with Keeash, the Thunder Bay Police Service (TBPS) ruled the boys’ deaths as accidental drownings. The deaths of seven children who attended DFC – five of whom were found in the McIntyre River – were the subject of an inquest that concluded in 2016. The inquest made 145 recommendations and ruled that three of the seven deaths were accidental while the cause of the other four were undetermined.


During the inquest, in October 2015, the body of 41-year-old Stacie DeBungee was found in the same river. Once again, his death was quickly ruled an accidental drowning. But private investigator Dave Perry, who was hired by Rainy River First Nation Chief Jim Leonard, found evidence pointing to the contrary.

DeBungee’s debit card was used six times after his death, a detail that according to Perry should have been easy for Thunder Bay police to find. However, the TBPS never looked into the use of the debit card and to this day hasn’t formally interviewed two witnesses who say they were with DeBungee the night before his body was found.

The gaps in the investigation into DeBungee’s death triggered a systemic review of the TBPS, currently being conducted by Ontario’s civilian police oversight body. The investigation is probing how the department treats the deaths of Indigenous peoples.

“It is the first time they have investigated an entire police service for institutionalized racism,” Akwasi Owusu-Bempah, an assistant sociology professor at the University of Toronto, told the CBC.

At a May 31 press conference in Toronto, NAN Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler spoke of the disillusionment with the TBPS. “The recent losses of Tammy Keeash and Josiah Begg have once again confirmed the inability of the Thunder Bay Police Service to conduct competent and credible investigations into the epidemic of deaths of NAN and Treaty No. 3 community members in Thunder Bay’s rivers,” said Fiddler.

Ontario chiefs at the press conference demanded the RCMP step in to investigate the deaths – and to disband the TBPS.

“It’s just a case of finding another dead Indian, a drunk Indian that rolled in the water – that is the feeling that we get from the community in Thunder Bay,” said Rainy River First Nation Chief Jim Leonard.

On May 24 a letter to the editor was published in the Thunder Bay Chronicle Journal asking, “Is there a serial killer amongst us?” A theory also broached by AFN Ontario Regional Chief Isadore Day in an interview with the CBC: “Is there one individual, or a set of individuals targeting Indigenous people?”

According to media reports, at least two attacks near the river since 2007 involved a group of white men said to have attacked an Indigenous teen and thrown the teen into the river. Both teens survived, but the cases remain unsolved.


The apprehensiveness of the Indigenous community of Thunder Bay was further elevated by two attempted abductions that took place during the week of May 22. An Indigenous woman was also hit with a trailer hitch thrown from a moving car in February.

“My partner and I have had the conversation about whether or not we want to raise our son here,” Damien Bouchard, an Anishinaabe Thunder Bay resident, told the Nation. “It’s tense. Some girls don’t even want to walk by themselves in broad daylight.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by Deputy Grand Chief Achneepineskum. “Yesterday I was invited to give opening comments at City Hall for a walk supporting victims of crime. My office is only two blocks away and I found myself feeling quite nervous,” said Achneepineskum. “A man came walking quickly behind me and I stopped suddenly to let him pass. He said to me, ‘I’m sorry I startled you, but I understand why you’re feeling that way.’”

Achneepineskum added that a young woman told her that she’s thinking of carrying a weapon. “How can I tell that person not to if I don’t feel safe myself. Of course, I discouraged her from doing that but it’s sad that a young person thinks that’s the only way to feel safe.”

A grass roots Indigenous-led movement called the Bear Clan Patrol has taken to walking the pathways of the river since December. An uptake in volunteerism in the patrols has taken place since the two most recent deaths.

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“I don’t know what’s happening but it scares me,” Bear Clan patrol volunteer Jana-Rae Yerxa told the CBC. “It concerns me and I just think about if these weren’t Indigenous youth, how would we be looking at this?”

Achneepineskum believes the community should take responsibility for the crisis.

“We need the city, police, media and non-Indigenous community to stop denying and acknowledge that there is systemic racism here,” she said. “We also need to support our own people and ensure that, if they’re assaulted, they’re being treated properly by police and other people in power. And if they’re not, we have to speak out about it.”

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