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Ontario coroner seeks external help in probe of Thunder Bay teens’ deaths

Ontario chief coroner Dr. Dirk Huyer, shown in 2015, said "There were a number of questions about the death investigations and I felt there would be a benefit to having an additional set of eyes, additional perspective, to help think through the work and get us the best answer to these questions.” (Kevin Van Paassen For The Globe and Mail)

Ontario’s chief coroner has asked an outside police force to assist Thunder Bay police with the investigation into the recent deaths of two Indigenous teenagers in the city’s waterways.

Dirk Huyer requested that investigators from York Regional Police be brought in to support the local force as they probe the deaths of 14-year-old Josiah Begg and 17-year-old Tammy Keeash, who went missing in May and were later found dead.

“There were a number of questions about the death investigations and I felt there would be a benefit to having an additional set of eyes, additional perspective, to help think through the work and get us the best answer to these questions,” said Dr. Huyer, who was in Thunder Bay on Wednesday.

He said he met earlier this week with senior leaders from Thunder Bay police and an investigator from York Region’s major crimes bureau to explain his decision. His aim is to fully understand the circumstances of the deaths and then determine what next steps should be taken, Dr. Huyer said.

The investigation is still in its early stages, he said, but it will be looking to determine how the teens ended up in the water and what factors may have contributed to their deaths. Seven Indigenous teens have been found dead in the city’s waterways since 2000.

“I have asked York Regional Police to go to the communities, meet the families and understand their perspective and give them information so they know why we’re involved and what we’re doing,” Dr. Huyer said.

Thunder Bay police have come under intense pressure in recent weeks from Indigenous leaders who have decried what they see as a “policing crisis” in the city. The force’s police chief, J.P. Levesque, was criminally charged last month with obstruction of justice and breach of trust for allegedly disclosing confidential information about the city’s mayor and is currently on leave. The force is also the subject of an investigation into its treatment of Indigenous people.

Thunder Bay’s acting police chief Sylvie Hauth said in a statement that she supports the decision to bring in outside help.

“The Thunder Bay Police Service supports this joint effort and will continue to work on behalf of Tammy and Josiah’s families and their communities,” the statement said.

Officers with the Nishnawbe-Aski Police Service, which patrols 35 First Nations communities north of Thunder Bay, have also been called in by Dr. Huyer to provide cultural insight and Indigenous expertise.

Alvin Fiddler, the Grand Chief of the Nishnawbe-Aski Nation, pointed out that Indigenous leaders asked at the end of May for the federal government to send the RCMP to Thunder Bay to help with the investigations.

“In the absence of that, and with the timing and the families’ wishes, I think it’s certainly a welcome development that an outside police service will be coming in, I understand soon,” Mr. Fiddler said in a telephone interview.

It is sad that outside investigators are necessary under these circumstances, he said.

“And what makes it more sad,” Mr. Fiddler said, “is the continued rhetoric from the Thunder Bay police, whether it’s at the management level or at the board level – their insistence that they are not at a crisis situation.

“[Saying that] it’s business as usual is something that’s definitely not helpful.”