Inquiry into in custody deaths, beatings needed: Edzerza

A wave of in-custody deaths and reports of abuse of First Nation people by the RCMP since 1999 have prompted Yukon MLA John Edzerza to call for a…

A wave of in-custody deaths and reports of abuse of First Nation people by the RCMP since 1999 have prompted Yukon MLA John Edzerza to call for a public inquiry into RCMP conduct and policy.

On Tuesday, Edzerza told the legislature they were witnessing “systemic prejudice” on the part of RCMP in regards to intoxicated people of First Nation ancestry.

Four aboriginal people have died in Yukon RCMP cells since 1999, the most recent being Raymond Silverfox, who died on the night of December 2nd after spending more than 13 hours in police detention.

Each of the three previous deaths has generated a coroner’s inquest, but no public inquiry.

Coroner’s inquests generate recommendations to prevent future deaths, but, as Justice Minister Marion Horne noted Thursday in the legislature, the coroner “does not have the power to enforce agencies to implement these recommendations.”

All recommendations from the three previous coroner’s inquests have been fulfilled by police, including a provision that “guards document, in log notes, whether they have completed a physical or monitor check on a prisoner,” said RCMP spokesperson Sgt. Mark Groves.

Groves could not provide further details of the RCMP’s physical checks on prisoners before press time.

On Wednesday night, the Aboriginal People’s Television Network broadcast a 2003 video of an aboriginal man being beaten by RCMP officers inside the Whitehorse detachment.

The video shows Whitehorse resident Arthur Joe being brought into the station by Const. Kevin Mayes and Const. Brian White on a breach-of-parole charge.

The two officers force Joe to remove his belt and shoes, and then have him raise his arms as he is patted down. Throughout, Joe is fully compliant.

With no apparent provocation, the two officers suddenly tackle Joe to the ground.

“He surely didn’t pose any danger to anybody, standing with his back to the cops,” said Andre Roothman, Joe’s lawyer.

“There was no necessity for this,” he added.

“This shouldn’t be happening; we’re not Los Angeles,” said Edzerza.

The video has no audio track, but Joe later told Roothman that the two officers said, “‘We’re going to show you tonight, we’re going to fuck you up,’ something along those lines,” said Roothman.

The beating is closely related to the 2000 in-custody death of Joe’s common-law wife Madeleine Henry, said Roothman.

After Henry died of complications from pneumonia following a 12-hour police detention, Joe filed a series of complaints against the RCMP.

“By (2003) he had already stepped on some toes,” said Roothman.

Joe’s case against the police was thrown out of court because he did not file them before a statutory two-year deadline for assault charges.

“Arthur told me recently that a police cruiser pulled up to him and one of the (officers) said to him, ‘Mr. Joe, don’t step on our toes’ — read from that whatever you want,” said Roothman.

An RCMP investigation into Silverfox’s death is ongoing, and preliminary coroner’s findings are showing that Silverfox died of “something in the lungs.”

“It puts somewhat of a black cloud over the RCMP if people keep dying in their custody,” said Edzerza, who stated that he does not wish a public inquiry for the purpose of discrediting the RCMP.

Aboriginal people and the RCMP each stand to benefit if they can develop an increased mutual respect as a result of increased vigilance regarding the health of detainees, said Edzerza.

“There’s a lot of good guys — very professional guys — who don’t deserve to be tarnished with this blanket ‘bad RCMP’ image,” said Roothman.

Roothman referred to one case in which a First Nation individual had been advised by an RCMP officer to pursue assault charges against a fellow officer.

Roothman has three other clients who are pursuing assault charges against the RCMP, and through the last 18 months of assorted legal battles, he says he has been disappointed at the lack of official participation by First Nation governments.

“From First Nation governments there is nothing going on in terms of offering any concerns about the treatment of First Nation people by some RCMP members,” said Roothman.

Premier Dennis Fentie attacked Edzerza for suggesting that there was systemic prejudice in the RCMP.

“This is uncalled for; it’s an outrage, and it has no place in this assembly,” said Premier Dennis Fentie regarding Edzerza’s use of the phrase “systemic prejudice” in the legislature.

Edzerza’s remarks led to censure by Speaker Ted Staffen.

Now, the Toronto-based Canadian Race Relations Foundation has waded into the issue.

On Thursday night it expressed “concern” surrounding Raymond Silverfox’s death and “the attempt by the premier of the Yukon territory to avert any discussion on the issue.”

“This is an issue that needs to be discussed freely by the assembly and by the public as a whole,” said Ayman Al-Yassini, the foundation’s executive director.

 Contact Tristin Hopper at