A public inquiry into charges of systemic prejudice relating to four in-custody deaths of First Nations people over the past nine years is needed to bridge the gap between Yukon police and First Nations communities, said Estella Muyinda, executive director of the National Anti-racism Council of Canada.
Raymond Silverfox died on December 2 after spending more than 13 hours in police detention. The RCMP is investigating the death internally, based on a order filed by the chair of the Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP.
“It’s not a perfect system, obviously, and there are a lot of concerns about the police investigating themselves,” said Nelson Kalil, spokesperson for the commission.
Yukon Justice Minister Marian Horne has resisted all calls for a public inquiry, calling the RCMP investigation sufficient.
“In my dealings with the RCMP, I have found them to be very respectful and professional,” said Horne.
Initial coroner findings showed that Silverfox had no visible marks on his body and that he had most likely died from “an abnormality in the lungs.”
Further lab tests are needed before the coroner will know precisely what caused Silverfox’s death.
A public inquiry would allow First Nations communities to play a more co-operative role in the investigation, rather than none at all, said Muyinda.
“There’s a tendency to listen to one sector of the community, and leave out the other sectors, but the youth have to be involved, the women have to be involved, the elders have to be involved,” said Muyinda.
“If nothing is done, then aboriginal people are left vulnerable, because there’s no clarity,” said Muyinda.
Calls for an inquiry into the in-custody deaths as well as charges of in-custody abuse were first prompted by NDP MLA John Edzerza.
Edzerza referred to a 2003 video broadcast on APTN that showed Whitehorse resident Arthur Joe being assaulted by police in the Whitehorse RCMP station.
At one point in the video, Joe turns and points to the police station security camera.
“That was my signal, I said, ‘You guys are on camera,’ but they said they didn’t give a fuck,” said Joe.
“They said, ‘We’ll just beat the shit out of you anyway,” he said.
After forcing him to remove his shoes, belt, empty his pockets and stand facing the wall with his arms outstretched, the two officers violently forced Joe to the ground.
In 2000, Madeleine Henry, Joe’s partner, died after having a seizure while in RCMP cells. In a coma, she was taken to Whitehorse General Hospital, where she died two weeks later from complications relating to pneumonia.
“They said the cause of death was natural — that it was caused by pneumonia — but she was already brain dead from the seizure,” said Joe.
Henry was carrying seizure medications at the time, but police refused to supply them to her, he said.
Joe agreed with Edzerza.
“We need to get down to the nitty gritty of everything,” said Joe.
Contact Tristin Hopper at firstname.lastname@example.org