By Ian Pattison
“Oh what a tangled web we weave,” wrote the 19-century author, Sir Walter Scott, in an epic poem about scheming in the court of Henry VIII. Trouble among those in authority is a tale as old as mankind and as new as yesterday.
Thunder Bay has known its share of intrigue, especially in its police force whose adventures could serve as a binge-worthy Netflix series.
The story begins 40 years ago with the trial of four cops accused of tipping off a bawdy house madam about pending raids.
From there it moves to the sensational case of a lawyer facing sexual charges involving a minor. His story is intertwined with an extortion case against Thunder Bay’s mayor, and an obstruction of justice and breach of trust trial for its city police chief.
All charges in those latter two cases are dismissed and the lawyer gets probation, but the story isn’t finished.
It concludes, for now, with a season-ending cliffhanger featuring a police board member’s virtual press conference alleging negligence on the force. The Zoom call abruptly ends with what her lawyer calls “a porn hack.” But not before unseen participants with the user name ‘Tbay Police’ apparently discuss using an alias to hide their identity on the call, unaware that their microphone is on. Tangled indeed.
But let’s start at the beginning. Our story opens in 1982 with an informer’s story about some Thunder Bay police officers being bribed by the owners of two bawdy houses.
An OPP investigation finds no evidence of bribery, but both the investigation and testimony at a related arbitration hearing reveal a “...degree of fraternization amounting to collusion and in some cases, a degree of corruption.”
“Operation Teacup,” as the investigation is known, culminates in massive raids and the charging of four morality squad officers with conspiring to obstruct justice by interfering with the execution of search warrants.
All four officers are acquitted because the jury is not convinced of the existence of a conspiracy among police officers, keepers of the houses, inmates and clients. Despite the acquittals, it is not disputed that the officers had tipped off the brothels prior to police raids.
“It seems that brothels had existed in Thunder Bay for many decades,” reads a transcript from the arbitration hearing. “The prevailing approach on the part of many in the community, including police officers, public officials and members of the judiciary, was described as one of tolerance or at least recognition of their longevity in the community.
“Evidence (established) the degree of ‘closeness’ between certain morality squad members … and bawdy houses. In particular, a pattern emerged of squad members tipping off house keepers prior to police raids. This practice was atypical, however, in the sense that the general ranks of the force were unaware of it.”
OUR NEXT EPISODE begins in 2016 with a bizarre video of a wealthy city lawyer, clearly inebriated, professing his love for a woman. He later rants about people out to get him, and his fortune, before the camera pans the room to reveal Thunder Bay’s mayor looking a bit sheepish. The video finds its way to social media and becomes the talk of the town.
The plot sees the mayor and his wife assist a woman as she tries to get the lawyer to buy her a house. During their efforts to help the woman, the mayor gives a friend of the lawyer a USB stick containing video unfavourable to the lawyer.
The friend tells the RCMP about this and they go to the city police chief who warns the mayor -- a former cop -- that he’s under investigation for extortion.
In the end, the lawyer spends time in jail and the mayor, who opts not to run again, and the police chief, who retires, are acquitted. The whole thing is national news.
DURING THIS TIME an inspector on the police force is promoted to deputy chief and, ultimately, to chief. It is not long before she herself is under duress.
Independent oversight bodies release two separate reports alleging systemic racism in the Thunder Bay Police Service following a high-profile inquest into the deaths of seven Indigenous youths from the surrounding area who were attending school in the city. There are longstanding tensions between the police and the city’s growing Indigenous community.
A survey of city residents has already determined that a majority want fresh blood at the helm of the force. Yet the police services board hires the deputy to be the new chief.
“We came up with candidates … and we did our due diligence,” says Celina Reitberger, board chair and a member of the Fort William First Nation. “It was not a coronation.”
We move ahead now to the fall of 2021 and a city police union survey of its members showing low morale and displeasure with the leadership. Aside from complaints about opinions undervalued, officers cite inadequate staffing resulting in dangerous working situations.
Statistics from 2019 show Thunder Bay has 205 police officers per 100,000 population, fifth highest among Canadian cities. Repeated complaints by the police force and the city about soaring gang activity and lack of services for raging social issues that divert police from their work draw little attention from senior government.
It is not as if no one is listening to front-line officers on this score. Still, a number of them make complaints to the Ontario Human Rights Commission about how the force is managed.
IN THE LAST SCENE of our story, a former Fort William First Nation chief is appointed to the police services board which is being reconstituted following accusations it, too, has failed to address concerns of the Indigenous community.
It does not take long for her to decide that the board and the force are not trying hard enough to implement the letter and the spirit of recommendations to rid the force of racism. She goes so far as to claim the police force is on “the brink of collapse.”
Ultimately, she claims to be the victim of harassment by senior personnel in an attempt to cover up a leak of confidential police information to a social-media page, and of discrimination over her aboriginal heritage. A human rights complaint is filed by her lawyer who also acts for a number of police in their complaints.
The police union issues a statement of support for her and a call for independent review of police leadership. The chief responds that the union president is in league with the woman on issues which are before tribunals, preventing her from responding publicly.
The woman announces plans to address the public on Zoom alleging lack of police leadership but the feed is hacked – “coincidentally,” she says – before she can conclude. “Does not surprise us.”
One participant in the Zoom meeting says she transcribed a conversation heard by the ‘Tbay Police’ user name’s microphone among three individuals discussing how to be identified before the conference begins:
“Thunder Bay Police. That’s what we are.”
“Well, let’s change our name. How do you do that?”
“... To what?”
“... Put a fake name on there.”
“... Holly Walbourne” (police department lawyer)
“What do you want to be?”
Netflix could have a field day with this story. Tangled, and true.
THE LOGICAL next season explores the future of Thunder Bay policing. Given the force’s travails, is it time for the OPP to take over? The idea has merit and Thunder Bay would not be the first Ontario community to dispense with municipal policing.
With both provincial and municipal elections this year, this is a topic worthy of vigorous debate and consideration. Potential representatives at both levels of government need to clearly articulate their concerns and ambitions for policing in the city.
As the credits roll, the narrator concludes: “Police Chief Sylvia Hauth has done a good job in an impossible situation. There is an old-boys element of the TBPS that seems to want to fight her on all fronts. They're probably a minority, but the provincial force is well equipped to weed out the good from the bad.”
Which is what two inquiries and most in the community want.
Ian Pattison is retired as editorial page editor of The Chronicle-Journal, but still shares his thoughts on current affairs.