Sometime during the first week of March, 28-year-old Indigenous man Dakota Sagutch went missing. He was last seen on March 3 or 4 in the Pearl Street area of Thunder Bay, Ontario. After nearly a week, Thunder Bay police finally began to look into the disappearance, possibly far too late to make a difference. Tragically, Dakota is only the latest in a long list of missing Indigenous people and comes in the wake of a damning report revealing negligence on the part of the Thunder Bay police to properly investigate these cases. Released by the Office of the Chief Coroner, the report found 16 sudden death cases from 2006 to 2019 that needed to be reinvestigated due to lack of action, 14 of which were Indigenous people, and uncovered a further 25 cases of missing or murdered Indigenous women or girls (MMIWG) that have been left to gather dust for up to two decades. Now the Deputy Grand Chief of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, Anna Betty Achneepineskum, is calling for the entire Thunder Bay Police Service (TBPS) and its board to be dismantled, citing clear proof of systemic racism.
“There’s evidence sitting at different levels of government, municipal, provincial and those particular organizations that are to oversee the delivery of police services, the evidence is there that change needs to happen,” she said.
The Chief Coroner’s report is the end result of the Broken Trust committee that was convened in 2018 after the Office of the Independent Police Review Director (OIPRD) found systemic racism in the TBPS. At that time, the OIPRD identified nine sudden deaths that needed to be reinvestigated and recommended a full audit of the TBPS’s backlog. Those nine cases have since been resolved and the results shared with their families. In the intervening time, there has been no attempt to address the report’s findings of racism.
The Thunder Bay Police Services Board now has more confirmation of the same and has responded with assurances it will discuss ways to “ensure investigative integrity among cases involving our Indigenous community.” The board will hear a motion next week to form an expert panel to review TBPS policies on human rights and mental health issues and to advise them on how to implement suggestions from the Broken Trust committee, which as of now are confidential. Members of that panel, should it be created, would include former members of the Toronto police board. Unfortunately, Ontario has a poor history of having the police oversee themselves and unsurprisingly finding themselves innocent most of the time.
Police reform has been a point of debate ever since the George Floyd protests erupted around the globe in 2020. Calls to defund or even abolish the police have been growing louder and louder, spurred on by repeated instances of police violence and corruption. Even so, police budgets have only gone up since then. The Thunder Bay police have increased their budget by $1.6 million since 2020, while the Toronto Police Service unanimously voted to increase their 2022 budget by $24 million to a total of $1.1 billion. Meanwhile, President Joe Biden, the man who callously traded on George Floyd’s name to win an election, declared the urgent need to fund police departments across the country during his recent State of the Union address, eliciting cheers and a standing ovation from both sides of the aisle. Other reforms, such as the Ontario Human Rights Commission’s anti-racism framework, can only suggest the smallest advances that are embarrassingly overdue.
Of course, even if put into practice, reducing police budgets and tinkering with legal language does nothing to address the systemic racism at the heart of the issue. Canadian police are already a highly armed paramilitary organization created and maintained for the express purpose of enforcing capitalism. That has not changed and cannot be changed while the present system persists.
We support Deputy Grand Chief Achneepineskum’s call to dismantle the Thunder Bay police. The Chief Coronor’s report proves that it is not simply a few immoral officers that are at fault, but that the entire institution is racist to the core. This is a necessary step forward for the entire movement. But in the final analysis we have to understand that there can be no “good” police service under capitalism. The police are the front line force of armed violence by the capitalist state. You cannot reform the oppression of Indigenous people, workers, and other marginalized groups out of the state, because such oppression is the very purpose of the state. The capitalist state exists to enforce the interests of the rich minority against the majority of society. If they did not enforce the interests of the rich, and use violence and the threat of violence against the oppressed, they would cease to be the state. Therefore, to truly end the racism of the state, we must fight for the end of capitalism. Then we could build a society that doesn’t have a racist police force, and instead builds security for the majority of workers and oppressed in the interest of workers and oppressed.