Olson Wolftail had always survived.
The 87-year-old resident of Watson Lake was a strong Kaska man who endured through his eight children being taken away to residential school and later becoming the sole caregiver for them, through working long hours at sawmills, through the racism he faced as a First Nations man who didn’t speak English.
That he lived through so much, yet remained a respectful and respected elder makes his violent death all the more painful, Wolftail’s family told a Whitehorse courtroom June 28 during his killer’s sentencing hearing.
Alfred Chief Jr., originally charged with second-degree murder, pleaded guilty to manslaughter earlier this year, admitting that he beat Wolftail to death in December 2016 during a night of drinking at the fragile senior’s Watson Lake home.
Chief re-entered his guilty plea before Yukon Territorial Court Judge Michael Cozens Thursday to address a procedural issue before his sentencing hearing commenced. He sat at the defence table next to his lawyer, Jennie Cunningham, and with his head bowed for the majority of the proceedings.
Crown attorney Amy Porteous read an agreed statement of facts to the court following Chief’s guilty plea. It outlined how Chief, who viewed Wolftail as his grandfather, had been drinking at Wolftail’s home the night of Dec. 22, 2016. Shortly before 12:20 a.m. on Dec. 23, 2016, Chief’s mother ran across the street to her brother’s house for help, saying that Chief was “beating on” Wolftail. She called 911 and police arrived 10 minutes later to find Wolftail in the storage room, dead, and Chief lying on the couch covered in blood.
Chief, who was out on bail at the time and was supposed to be in Whitehorse, does not remember what happened.
Seven of Wolftail’s family members submitted victim impact statements to the court. One of them was written and read out loud by his daughter, Kathy Magun.
Magun described her father as a humble man with quiet strength, and a community leader who loved being on the land.
“(His death feels) like someone took a hammer and shattered my heart to tiny little pieces. It is beyond repair,” she said. “With this single act, Alfred Chief Jr. has sentenced me to a pain that is so devastating that cannot be described.… My family is no longer the same. We all carry the pain of this loss. We will feel the pain of this loss forever.”
A worker from Victim Services read the six other statements. They described a father, grandfather and great-grandfather who was loving and loved, a kind and giving man who had worked hard to provide for his family. His loss was devastating and had upended everyone’s lives, they said.
In her submissions, Porteous emphasized that the matter was “a very serious offence.” Chief delivered a “brutal, sustained beating” to a vulnerable man who posed no threat, she said, and argued that a sentence of six to eight years would be appropriate. She pointed to Chief’s “lengthy” criminal record, and that although the majority of convictions were related to “the administration of justice,” there were also a number of assaults.
As well, Porteous argued that Chief appears to have “anger issues,” something which he admitted to during an assessment for fetal alcohol syndrome disorder, poses a public safety risk and has an alcohol addiction that he needs to address.
Cunningham, however, argued he should receive a sentence of four years and three months. Credit for the time he has already served in the Whitehorse Correctional Centre would knock that down to two-years-less-a-day, meaning Chief would remain in the territorial jail as opposed to being sent to federal prison.
Cunningham argued that Chief should also be given three-years probation once he is released, something she said would not be possible with a federal sentence.
She said he wants to stay in the territory so that he can be close to his children. He has been seeing a psychologist who would not be available elsewhere, she said.
Adding a three-year probationary term at the end of the sentence means that Chief would continue to be monitored even after he was released from jail. He could participate in treatment programs available in the Yukon and get help from the Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Society Yukon, she said.
Cunningham said Chief is feeling genuine remorse and never wants to drink again. Wolftail was “not someone he had any ill will towards whatsoever,” she said.
Cunningham disagreed with the Crown’s characterization of Chief’s criminal record as “significant and violent.” Though he has previous assault convictions, they were “not significant assaults,” she said and had sentences ranging from one day to 90 days.
They were not the kind of assaults that would make someone thinks they were capable of this level of violence, she said.
Porteous pointed out that along with the assault changes Chief has 31 convictions for breaching court orders, suggesting he has shown “great difficulty” following the law in the past.
Chief spoke to the judge at the end of the day.
“I feel so ashamed of what happened and I’m going to have to live with that for the rest of my life.… I am truly sorry.”
Cozens reserved his decision. The case will be back in court next Thursday to set a date for when he will rule.
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