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
—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.
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.
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.
“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.