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Indigenous people in Thunder Bay, Ont., detail violent encounters with police in human rights complaints

WARNING: This story contains an image that may be disturbing to some readers.

Indigenous people living in Thunder Bay, Ont., are speaking out about recent encounters with city police they are characterizing as police brutality, and they’re calling for the violence to stop.

Among those speaking out is John Semerling, 61, a Métis man from Thunder Bay.

On Wednesday, TBPS Const. Ryan Dougherty was charged by Ontario’s Special Investigations Unit (SIU) with one count of assault causing bodily harm to Semerling.

“I’m looking for the Thunder Bay police to fire him. He should not be in any kind of authority position,” Semerling said in an interview with CBC News. “He didn’t do his job properly. He used force when no force was necessary.”

CBC News asked the Thunder Bay Police Service’s (TBPS) media relations department for an interview with Dougherty, but did not receive a response. We also asked for an interview regarding other cases detailed in recently filed human rights complaints but received written answers instead. 

Dougherty is now on “non front-line administrative duties,” according to a statement from TBPS spokesperson Scott Paradis.

The call for accountability comes amidst a number of ongoing SIU charges and investigations, and human rights complaints made by Indigenous people about excessive use of force by city police — as well as outstanding concerns about police treatment of sudden death cases involving Indigenous people.

Semerling hit four times in the head, says he still has concussion

One evening in early November 2022, TBPS officers showed up to Semerling’s house to conduct a mental wellness check, Semerling said, after he had lost his job earlier that day.

Semerling and his wife both told the officers he was not at any risk to himself, but police said he had to go to the hospital, Semerling said, so he was handcuffed and taken to the Thunder Bay regional hospital.

The 61-year-old said he waited more than an hour at the hospital without receiving any attention, so he decided to leave and start walking home. He was walking down Oliver Road, when a police car suddenly pulled up and Dougherty got out, Semerling said.

“The police pulled up onto the sidewalk. His camera was turned off. His radio wasn’t working, so he beat me, and then said that I was combative and that he could have charged me with assault,” said Semerling.

He broke my nose and gave me a concussion. It also left me with high anxiety. I don’t even leave my house unless somebody’s with me.– John Semerling, a Métis resident of Thunder Bay, Ont.

A police report obtained by CBC News says Dougherty’s portable radio was not working, and that the officer “did not activate his body worn camera at the start of his interactions.”

The report, which was authored by Dougherty, said the officer asked Semerling multiple times to put his hands on the police vehicle. When Semerling refused, the report adds, “for Semerling’s safety, Constable Dougherty grabbed a hold of Semerling’s jacket and after a brief struggle, Semerling was grounded, landing on his back.”

The struggle continued, the report said, until Dougherty hit Semerling four times with a closed fist in the head.

Semerling disputed the contents of the police report, saying he was following the officer’s request to put his hands on the police car before Dougherty “jumped me and punched me in the head four times.”

A man leans into the camera to show a bruised eye and scrapes on his chin.
Semerling took a photo a few days after a Thunder Bay police officer punched him in the face with a closed fist four times, resulting in a broken nose and a concussion. (Submitted by John Semerling)

Semerling was then handcuffed for a second time that night, and brought back to the hospital, where he said he was kept in restraints for a period of time. His son came to pick him up and brought him home later that morning.

“He broke my nose and gave me a concussion. It also left me with high anxiety. I don’t even leave my house unless somebody’s with me,” Semerling told CBC News.

“It was an unnecessary assault, that unnecessary use of force. It’s affected me grossly, I haven’t worked since November.”

Six months later, Semerling said he’s still experiencing concussion symptoms. He’s filed a complaint with the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario (HRTO) against the police for their treatment, and has called for an end to police violence against Indigenous people in the city.

Dougherty is expected to appear in court on May 23 as a result of the charges laid by the SIU.

Police must activate body cameras in public, TBPS says

In response to questions from CBC News, TBPS spokesperson Scott Paradis said they could not comment on this specific case because the SIU had invoked its mandate.

Generally, Paradis said officers are required by policy and ongoing training to activate their body cameras when interacting with the public.

He said decisions about disciplinary actions against officers being investigated or charged by the SIU are made on a case-by-case basis, adding “most SIU investigations against TBPS officers do not result in charges.”

Woman says mistaken identity leads to arrest

Tanya Robinson filed her own complaint to the HRTO in February 2023, alleging officers discriminated against her because she is First Nations and living in subsidized housing. 

On Sep. 25, 2022, Robinson was at home in her apartment with her roommate and dog, when six TBPS officers started banging and kicking on the door, screaming at them to open up, the complaint alleges.

Robinson told CBC News police often come to their apartment building in response to incidents, but she and her roommate were afraid to open the door in this instance because of how aggressively the officers were trying to get inside.

Ultimately, security at the building opened up Robinson’s door, the officers entered the apartment and immediately put Robinson in handcuffs saying she was under arrest for assault with a deadly weapon, she said. While being arrested, Robinson said the officer kept calling her by the wrong name.

“They didn’t even know my name. They didn’t ask my name in the apartment. They didn’t ask me my name until I was read my rights down in the [police car] outside the apartment building,” she said.

I was traumatized. I was really just beside myself.– Tanya Robinson, who filed a human rights complaint against TBPS

Police took Robinson to the police station where she said she spent upwards of five hours before she was released without any charges — because Robinson said police had arrested the wrong person.

“I was traumatized. I was really just beside myself,” Robinson said.

Paradis said police were responding to reports that two women were involved in a physical altercation that included a stabbing. When they arrived, police located a woman with serious injuries as well as a trail of blood leading them to “a nearby home.”

The trail of blood, along with other information at the scene, led the officers to believe someone was in Robinson’s apartment suffering from serious injuries, Paradis said. Once security unlocked the door, Paradis said officers engaged in a brief physical altercation with a male — Robinson’s roommate — who was later placed under arrest for obstructing a police officer.

A “female suspect” was also detained, Paradis said, but was released unconditionally following further investigation.

Robinson is seeking $250,000 in damages and a public apology from police and its oversight board in her human rights complaint, which has been filed but not yet processed or tested with the HRTO.

Several other recent charges, investigations against TBPS officers 

The two human rights complaints come amidst a number of other recent charges and investigations into city police interactions with Indigenous people in Thunder Bay.

In March 2023, Constable Peter Haase pleaded guilty to Police Service Act charges of discreditable conduct, insubordination and unlawful/unnecessary exercise of conduct following an incident involving an unidentified Indigenous man.

According to documents from the disciplinary hearing, Haase was “aggressive, controlling, abusive and totally unprofessional,” during his interaction with the man in a bus shelter, and ultimately received a temporary demotion and required training as discipline.

CBC News has also learned the SIU initiated another investigation into TBPS officers in April 2023 after an interaction with Glen Kwandibens, 33, left him with a broken arm. Kwandibens is a First Nations resident of Thunder Bay.

Kwandibens’s lawyer, Chantelle Bryson, confirmed to CBC that his case is being investigated and he is planning to file a human rights complaint. A spokesperson for the SIU said they do not release or confirm the names of the affected individuals without their consent.

“The incidents as described by the victims we represent, whether covered by SIU investigations or not, continue to demonstrate a level of unjustified racial profiling and violence that just is not experienced by a non-Indigenous community member,” Bryson said in an interview with CBC News.

Bryson is representing Semerling, Robinson and Kwandibens, along with a number of current and former police officers and civilian employees that have filed their own human rights complaints against the TBPS leadership and oversight board.

A photo of a young man carrying a child on his back.
Arron Loon, a father of one, was found dead in a park in Thunder Bay, Ont., in March 2015. He is one of nine Indigenous people whose deaths in the city are being reinvestigated. (EverestofThunderBay.com)

Meanwhile, the SIU is still investigating possible criminal charges against TBPS officers in connection to the 2015 death of Arron Loon, who was found dead in a Thunder Bay park. The SIU announced that investigation in February 2022.

Loon was one of nine Indigenous people whose deaths were reinvestigated as part of the Broken Trust project, stemming from a report that found systemic racism in the TBPS and identified serious deficiencies in police investigations of Indigenous sudden deaths in the city.

Included in that report was the death of Stacey DeBungee of Rainy River First Nation. His 2015 death was so poorly investigated by TBPS officers, that the lead investigator at the time, Staff Sgt. Shawn Harrison was recently found guilty of the disciplinary charges of discreditable conduct and neglect of duty under Ontario’s Police Services Act. In February 2023, Harrison was demoted for 18 months and was ordered to attend cultural competency training.

There are another 14 sudden death cases of Indigenous people in Thunder Bay that have been recommended for reinvestigation because of serious deficiencies in the original investigations. 

A decision on what to do in those cases rests with Ontario’s attorney general, although new TBPS Chief Darcy Fleury recently told CBC’s Superior Morning he would be open to their reinvestigation.

Bryson said, “these cases to date demonstrate the continuing failure of Thunder Bay police and Board leadership to educate and direct the force in terms of their obligations of professional conduct.”

In response to a question about training for TBPS officers, Paradis said in a statement, “All officers have annual use of force training that is mandated in provincial adequacy standards.”

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