Inside Solomon Uyarasuk’s cell

The Igloolik RCMP detachment, which houses the cell in which Solomon Uyarasuk was found dead in Sept. 2012.
The Igloolik RCMP detachment, which houses the cell in which Solomon Uyarasuk was found dead in Sept. 2012.

The blood-smeared door of the prison cell in which Solomon Uyarasuk died is covered with messages scratched into the paint by other prisoners.

 

Yesterday I looked through over 100 photos of the scene of death, entered into evidence at the coroner’s inquest in Igloolik, being held more than two years after Solomon died at the age of 26.

 

“Help me God for Free,” one message reads in cell number one of the Igloolik RCMP detachment.

 

“Going to BCC (Baffin Correctional Facility),” another reads, with a chart of columns and numbers I couldn’t make sense of.

 

“Praying is good for you,” somebody else scratched into the door, with “everybody” etched under “you” by a different prisoner, it seems.

 

And “I love you” appears in three different messages, with indecipherable writing following each time.

 

The words are scrawled around the meal slot of the prison cell door, a slot some two feet off the ground. Most of the words are covered with a dry film of blood.

 

Noontime sun reflects ina window while dogs underneath sit still.  Nov. 26, 2012
Noontime sun reflects ina window while dogs underneath sit still.
Nov. 26, 2014

Both an external investigation done by the Ottawa Police and the autopsy report by a forensic pathologist found that Solomon—drunk, stoned, aggressive and violent—was found hanging from a nylon belt, jammed into the meal slot door.

 

They both testified that the injuries found on Solomon, besides the “encircling ligature mark” around his neck—a black eye, cuts and bruises and abrasions scattered around his face, chin, neck, shoulders and wrists—are consistent with the RCMP’s account of Solomon’s behavior that night: Solomon injured himself by thrashing around in the back seat of the RCMP truck, banging his head against the plexiglass partition, gouging his forehead on the metal cage portion.

 

A nurse who performed CPR on Solomon after he was found hanging in his cell, testified that the RCMP officer who called him said Solomon had been stripped before being put in the cell, except for his belt and his ring. Solomon was too aggressive for officers to remove his belt or his ring, the nurse testified.

 

Some of the pictures show Solomon’s bloodied face, relaxed after death, with a chipped tooth, bruises and marks on his jawline.

 

“The psychological state of people…cannot be determined by my examination,” the forensic pathologist testified. Indeed.

 

“An act like this,” Albert Camus wrote of suicide in The Myth of Sisyphus, “is prepared within the silence of the heart, as in a great work of art. The man himself is ignorant of it.”

 

Kids walk home on their lunch break in Igloolik Nov. 26, 2014
Kids walk home on their lunch break in Igloolik Nov. 26, 2014

In no way does this make suicide into an artistic pursuit—Camus dispels that notion by concluding that Sisyphus’ great affirmation is the renewal of ambition as he descends the mountain, before he begins, anew, his perpetual labour of rolling the boulder up the mountainside, against gravity and the gods.

 

But it speaks to the passion of life, to the ideals and energy of man.

 

“In a man’s attachment to life there is something stronger than all the ills in the world,” Camus wrote.

 

When I see footage of Solomon in the documentary, SOL, I believe that.

 

As I was looking through the book of photographs in the makeshift courtroom, Solomon’s family, about a dozen of them, came up to the adjacent table to look at another set of the same photographs.

 

A woman from his family came over to me and asked if the family could see the book of photos I was looking at too, since there were so many of them.

 

There was reproach in her voice. A raw, underlying emotion, that made me feel like I was invading her privacy, or being indecent.

 

Of course I was invading her privacy. What a grotesque invasion of privacy it is to have photographs of a loved one, dead, naked, bloodied, lying on a concrete prison floor, shown to the media, or to anybody else. How traumatizing to see that for yourself, let alone to share with the public, without your direct consent.

 

Has that always been the way forward for man? Must humanity on the individual level be sacrificed, at times, for the humanity of society to be upheld?

 

 

 

 

 

 

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From Iqaluit to Igloolik

I find myself in Igloolik this week, an Inuit community of almost 1,500 people which sits on its own small island about 800 km northwest of Iqaluit, just off the northeast corner of Melville Peninsula.

 

Arriving Sunday night around 4:30pm it was already pitch dark and about -30C with the wind: an instant reminder that I’m further north than Iqaluit. I’m above the Arctic Circle now, where, eventually, the sun will disappear for weeks each winter.  The average temperature in Igloolik this week is around -27C, before the wind chill. And there are only about 3 hours of sunlight, including twilight.

 

My official capacity here—covering a five-day coroner’s inquest into the death of a young, popular artist and circus performer while in police custody for Nunatsiaq News

A plane waits on the tarmac of Iqaluit's airport Nov. 22. After flying all the way to Igloolik, my plane turned around headed back for Iqaluit because groundstaff woudln't have been able to de-ice the plane for its next trip, the pilot said.
A plane waits on the tarmac of Iqaluit’s airport Nov. 22. After flying all the way to Igloolik, my plane turned around headed back for Iqaluit because groundstaff woudln’t have been able to de-ice the plane for its next trip, the pilot said.

—leaves me with aheavy feeling.

 

Solomon Uyarasuk was only 26 years old when he died in the local RCMP detachment’s cell in Sept. 2012, severely intoxicated and by suicide, according to sparse comments by an Ottawa police investigation conducted to examine the RCMP’s conduct. The report will be made public for the first time during the inquest, and so will all other testimony and evidence, such as the pathologist’s autopsy report, so far withheld from family, friends and the community at large.

 

I know I should feel lucky, privileged to be in this position, but there’s too much privilege—colonial, classist, call it whatever you want—wrapped up with the luck for it to sit well.

 

I feel motivated, humbled, slightly embarrassed by this opportunity.

 

There was a documentary made on the performer’s death, called SOL, which premiered at the imagiNATIVE film festival in Toronto recently, and, even more recently, won an important award at the international Montreal documentary festival.

 

One of the two directors of the film, who I will be collaborating with to produce short daily video segments on the inquest—to be used in an epilogue of the film—told me that one of the most tragic elements of this story is how the family and friends, predominantly Inuktitut speakers, have been communicated with by the RCMP and other state institutions. Or, more accurately, not communicated with.

Igloolik's old community hall, the site of the first day of the inquest into Solomon Uyarasuk's death while in the local RCMP detachment's holding cell in Sept. 2012.  photo: thomas rohner
Igloolik’s old community hall, the site of the first day of the inquest into Solomon Uyarasuk’s death while in the local RCMP detachment’s holding cell in Sept. 2012. photo: Thomas Rohner

 

And then here I come, a white man from the south–a Qallunaat, as the Inuit say—to report on how other Qallunaat and Qallunaat institutions failed the community on some of the most basic levels:  for starters, preserving the life of a young man while in police custody.

 

The community has unresolved grief, the documentary says, in part because the official cause of death has not been made public.

 

But when a citizen dies in police custody an inquest is automatically triggered, and then it is up to the jury at the inquest to categorize the death as a suicide, homicide, one by natural cause or an accident. This is the reason, the territory’s chief coroner told me, there has not been an official cause of death made public.

 

Presiding coroner Garth Eggenberger of the NWT prepares the community hall for the first day of inquest Nov. 24.  photo: Thomas Rohner
Presiding coroner Garth Eggenberger of the NWT prepares the community hall for the first day of inquest Nov. 24. photo: Thomas Rohner

Still, there are other questions that have fueled speculation, frustration and anger: what did Solomon Uyarasuk kill himself with, if he committed suicide? Some reports say he hung himself by his shoelace from a flap in the door a mere two feet off the ground. Isn’t it regular RCMP procedure to remove any items a detainee could use to hang themselves? Could a severely intoxicated man have the coordination required to hang himself from that height? How long did it take him and why didn’t an RCMP officer check on him before he was dead? Why did the two police officers  on duty leave town immediately, the next day? Why were his family asked for fresh clothes, but never given his old clothes? Why were his family and friends denied the right to see his body?

 

Suicide is a widespread problem in Nunavut—that’s no secret.

 

“We want to understand how he died,” Susan Avingaq, the documentary’s other director, and a local elder in Igloolik, said in the film.  “This tragedy is not just about Solomon. This is about everyone struggling with suicide.”

 

The documentary shows footage of Solomon, an agile, stringy, young man, eager to smile and laugh and express himself.

 

“Don’t forget how to play,” the first clip, some 20 minutes in, shows him saying, sitting in a sparse room on an old office chair. “Inuit on the ice play. Elders playing with the kids, or kids playing amongst themselves. That’s home—feels like home to me.”

 

The founder of the circus troupe—Artcirq, established to help combat youth suicide and depression, and which travels around the world now with its mesmerizing performances—said that his relationship with Solomon was a deep and moving but difficult one.

 

“He never wanted to be controlled,” Guillaume Saladin said in the documentary.

The new community hall with mural, expected to be opened soon.  photo: Thomas Rohner
The new community hall with mural, expected to be opened soon. photo: Thomas Rohner

 

“Everything about authority he had a hard time with.”

 

I can relate to that.

 

“I don’t know who I am,” Solomon said in the film. “Maybe I’m just another Inuk. If the people around me are happy, then I’m happy. If I’m with sad people, then I’m sad.”

 

Towards the end of the film, Solomon’s childhood friend plays a beautiful, sad song on the guitar, written by Solomon:

 

“Today is not fun. I am back to the darkness. I love you very much. Don’t forget that. The wind has been at my back. I follow my feet far. I follow the lonely darkness. It’s always welcoming.”

 

There’s a suicide helpline in Nunavut: 867-979-3333 or 1-800-265-3333

 

To learn more about Igloolik, you can read a community profile on the region’s Truth Commission, or this interesting community profile from the 2011 Census on StatsCan.