All posts by Thomas Rohner

A Eulogy for Rocco

It’s taken me a while to be able to write anything about Rocco. On top of a profound sense of loss, something else rendered me inarticulate: some form of what I can only call trauma. Rocco’s last 24 hours were awful. I watched helplessly as seizure after seizure wracked his failing body. He fought so hard to keep living. For a day or two after we put him down, I had flashbacks to the sights, smells and feelings of those 24 hours. As more time passed, those flashbacks and memories began to recede. Suddenly, grief welled up from every corner of my empty home. The realization that hourly, daily, weekly, monthly routines would forever change sunk in, along with the realization that gone from my life, in what felt like an instant, was an immense source of love, friendship, joy and responsibility. As the traumatic memories receded, I stood face to face with grief.

At least now I can confront that grief. Until the trauma of those 24 hours receded, I couldn’t. As part of dealing with that grief, I offer this eulogy to my friend Rocco.

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The first picture I took of Rocco in Oct. 2014, shortly after giving him a bath. 

Rocco came into my life one October night in 2014. I went to the Iqaluit Humane Society society shelter to see what dogs needed homes. I didn’t expect to take a dog home with me that night. When I introduced myself to Rocco, he wagged his tail and sniffed politely, and then gave my hand a little lick. The staff told me he was likely part husky and part lab. His body was a funny shape: his head and butt too small for his barrel chest. And his fur, spotted and coloured almost like a beagle, was dirty and matted. When the staff told me how hard it was to find homes for older dogs, I decided to take Rocco home.

That night I gave him a bath. I remember he sat still, patient in the bathtub while I, a complete stranger, violated his personal space by scrubbing him all over. I remember thinking: what an easy-going dog.

That impression changed over the next few days and weeks of living with Rocco. I soon discovered he wasn’t always easy-going. He had a special sort of anxiety: he’d follow me around everywhere and just stare at me. I couldn’t sit on the toilet, cook dinner or read without Rocco staring at me.

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Rocco would eat anything I’d give him, including celery. 

At first it irked me. I’d even get frustrated and yell at him to stop watching me, tell him to go lie down or do something else dogs are supposed to do.

But somewhere along the way, I just accepted Rocco’s anxiety. It was a form of love, really. He attached himself to me, in part, through his anxiety. It melted my heart when I discovered that Rocco’s anxiety would disappear instantly when I sat down to play piano. He’d curl up beside me on the floor and sleep deeply.

In many other respects Rocco was an easy-going dog. He never ate out of the garbage can, he rarely made a mess in the house or barked. I could leave him at home during work hours and expect to find him sleeping peacefully in one of his favourite spots when I returned. When I was less-than-sober, he gave me weird but non-judgemental looks and rarely denied me affection.

He loved to lick my hands. Man, did he ever love to lick my hands, or my feet, or my pants. I don’t know if it was a neurotic thing, a tasty thing or an affectionate thing. But it was one of his quirks I came to love, even if I pretended that it annoyed or disgusted me at times.

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Rocco would usually only sleep on the couch if someone sat on the couch. Otherwise he preferred the hard floor. 

There were a lot of quirks and moments to love with Rocco. Some may be peculiar to him, others are maybe just what dog-lovers love about dogs. But I was often overcome with a surge of pure and simple happiness just watching Rocco do everyday things.

Like eat snow. He’d wag his tail, sink his teeth into fresh snow and chomp away happily, surveying the horizon.

Or his groaning. Rocco had a whole system of communication around groaning. Especially when circling and settling down into a particularly satisfying puddle to sleep. He rarely barked or whined. Instead, Rocco communicated through groans, and I understood them perfectly.

On walks out on the Apex Trail, Rocco would find all sorts of disgusting things to eat, which sometimes caused him to be violently ill. But it was hard to begrudge him the obvious joy he found in digging up half-rotten animal parts and quickly swallowing them whole before I could wrestle them away from him. Especially when he would then come bounding up to me, tail wagging, looking utterly self-satisfied and contented. His happiness was thoroughly infectious.

 

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Rocco looking back at me on the Apex Trail. 

At home, the mornings and evenings were my favourite times with Rocco. In the mornings, he’d eventually get up from where he was sleeping, pad on over to me, his head lowered, adorably groggy, wagging his tail, and nuzzle his sleep-dried nose into my leg. I’d sit down on the piano bench and he’d let me rub his head and his velvet-soft, stunted ears. I’d sit on the couch then to read, and Rocco would curl up beside me and fall instantly back to sleep.

In the evenings, he was always excited to go to bed with me. He’d jump up on the bed before I had finished making it, or wait with obvious impatience until I finished. Then, with a hrumph and a groan, he’d settle down by my feet and fall asleep.

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Rocco could derp with the best of them. 

It’s the mornings and nights I miss Rocco most now. Of course there are times I still look for him when I return home and open the front door. Sometimes I sit on the couch and wonder where Rocco is until I remember: he’s gone now. But it’s the mornings and evenings that I most miss my friend’s affectionate presence and his gentle, loving and quirky personality.

People have told me it was a good thing I did by taking an old dog into my home. But that’s not how I see it. Rocco gave me so much that I know, at best, I could only try to give back to him as much he gave me. When I first got Rocco, I couldn’t imagine walking him every day, least of all in the winter. I came to love those walks with Rocco – being around such simple happiness did my heart and soul a world of good. I can’t imagine what my transition to life in Iqaluit would have been like without Rocco—he was so instrumental and integral.

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Rocco’s ear-flapping run. 

I’ll love and miss you forever, sweet, gentle Rocco. I hope where you are now you can eat all the half-rotten sealskins you want without barfing.

 

 

No Inuit, no women, no problem: Harper’s Iqaluit campaign pit-stop

Harper continued the tradition of powerful white men saying and doing stupid things in Nunavut during a quick-minute campaign stopover in Iqaluit Aug. 14.

Among the embarrassing moments he crammed into a 10-minute speech is this gem, when Harper talked up his local candidate, Leona Aglukkaq: “Here is someone who was raised on the land as a young girl, speaking only Inuktituk, who went away to be educated… .”

If you’re going to pander to the vote of a distinct ethnic group, Stevie, make sure you know what language they speak (it’s “Inuktitut.”)

And emphasizing that your local cabinet minister had to go away to be educated might not be the smartest move in a region with the country’s worst education system and lowest high school graduation rates.

It might also have been smart to include a visible Inuk or a woman in the living backdrop of human beings your campaign team set up for you.

No visible Inuit or women appeared behind Harper during his quick-minute stopover in Iqaluit Aug. 14.
The art of emotionless applause: no visible Inuit or women appeared behind Harper during his quick-minute stopover in Iqaluit Aug. 14.

The predominantly white men you assembled looked as bored and stiff as kids in an elementary school class picture.

Your evocation of Canadian history, limited to the “great Conservatives” John A. MacDonald and John Diefenbaker, was painfully selective.

You forgot to mention anything about the decades of neo-colonialism that paved the way for the more modern and heavy-handed paternalism.

“It is no exaggeration to say that in the 21st century, what’s good for the North is going to be good for all of Canada,” you spewed, Mr. Harper, as well as, “never before in the history of this country has any government of Canada made the North such a high priority as it is today.”

Never before in the history of this country has a government of Canada been so preoccupied with militarizing the Arctic or extracting its resources with or without the consent of its citizens.

But if you really want to know how inane Harper’s pit-stop campaign visit was, look no further than this incoherent sentence from his speech:

“On Oct. 19, Northerners will choose between sticking with our Conservative party plan of low taxes, balanced budgets, prudent investments and against dangerous plans like a carbon tax that will kill jobs, make everything cost more and hurt our families, especially our northern families, and I know that’s a big issue here.”

Men assembled for Harper's human backdrop appear dead in the eyes.
Men assembled for Harper’s human backdrop appear dead in the eyes.

What is it that’s a big issue here? Families being hurt? You’re right, I can’t imagine that mattering anywhere else in the world.

And then there was this tribute to his government’s successes in the territory: “The record investments we’ve been making in housing, in healthy food, broadband for the territory and mining, developing mining resources across the territory.”

Have you read the news lately, Mr. Harper? Have you really been talking to those mythical “ordinary folks” politicians love to talk about?

Are you aware of the longstanding housing crisis in Nunavut? How many Nunavummiut would applaud the access to healthy, affordable food in the territory? How many feel connected to the world via affordable, reliable broadband in Nunavut?

But to be fair, you did say, “record investments” and not “record progress.”

Harper’s pit-stop speech in Iqaluit

Stephen Harper’s speech at Arctic Towers Ltd., Iqaluit, Aug. 14, 2015

Full English Transcript

I always enjoy visiting our true north strong and free and there is no truer north than right here in Nunavut. Laureen and Ben and Rachel and I are delighted to be here. Actually, Ben’s first time, but Rachel was here back in 2008, a bit smaller. But look we’re delighted to be here, surrounded by a great crowd of friends.

But if you don’t mind my saying it’s particularly great to be here because I’m here with a parliamentary and cabinet colleague that we all admire a great deal,  and that is your member of parliament Lenoa Aglukkaq. I have a couple of things to say. Leona is quite modest, but I hope you really do appreciate what an outstanding member you have. Here is someone who was raised on the land as  a young girl, speaking only Inuktituk (editing note: misspoke, likely meant Inuktitut) who went away to become educated, succeeded in one opportunity after another, and now has handled at the national level key portfolios like health, and the environment and who , at international forums like the Arctic Council speaks with authority and conviction for all of our country so we should all be proud of the job that (applause)

Her achievements for this beautiful part of our great country are without comparison in Canadian history.  I’ll talk more about those in a moment, but first let me just get your assurance that you’re going to work very hard to make sure the honourable Leona Aglukkaq goes back to the house of commons.

Leona understands, and partly because of Leona our entire Conservative government understands how important the strength and prosperity of the north are for the rest of the country. Because it is no exaggeration to say that in the 21st century what’s good for the North is going to be good for all of Canada. And that’s something I say everywhere.

Sadly, Canadian governments have not always thought this way. Indeed for many of the decades after sir John A. MacDonald secured these lands for confederation, Canada’s presence in this region was negligible. Indeed it wasn’tuntil the 1960s, within the lifetime of some of us here, that another great Conservative, John Diefenbaker, became the first prime minister to actually set foot north of the arctic circle. I think of our Conservative government as making up for lost time. And that’s why, ladies and gentlemen, I am proud to say what Leona said: never before in the history of this country has any government of Canada made the North such a high priority as it is today.  (applause)

At this point I’d like to remind you how we’re making the North such a high priority. And that is through our northern strategy. Our northern strategy, as most of you will know here, consists of four pillars: promoting economic and social development; protecting our environmental heritage; improving and evolving governance; and projecting our sovereignty over the arctic. But it’s about more than those four big things. It is a statement about who we are as a country, what we aspire to be, about completing Sir John A.’s vision of a great dominion from coast to coast to coast, a big vision as big as the north and south. But big visions don’t mean much if they’re not reflected in real actions that make a real difference in people’s lives. And those actions don’t happen unless you have people like Leona getting things done. Let’s look at some of the things Leona has done for this territory.

The development of a fishing and fish processing industry through the small craft harbour in Pangnirtung. And as Leona announced this summer another one going in Pond Inlet. And in fact another one here in Iqaluit. There’s the High Arctic Research Station in Cambridge Bay, the deep water port for the Canadian navy that’s going in at Nanasivik near Arctic Bay. The army training centre that is already at Resolute Bay. The Franklin Centre at Gjoa Haven. Now on this one, Leona said to me when I was goin over this, ‘oh I haven’t announced that one yet.’ Well, you have now. (laughter, applause)

Qausuituuq, a national park on Bathurst Island, new investments in promoting the Arctic as a premiere destination for tourism. Improving the safety of arctic marine transportation. The record investments we’ve been making in housing, in healthy food, broadband for the territory and mining, developing mining resources across the territory. Airport expansion at Rankin Inlet and of course big upgrades here to the airport, the headquarters of the Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency and the deep water port that we will be financing right here in the capital. (applause)

So Leona has worked hard and in a few short years has already achieved great things toward the goal of making Nunavut reach its full potential. Ensuring that the vision of Sir John A and Diefenbaker and of the thousands of Canadians that call the North home becomes a reality. And that’s why Nunavut needs Leona Aglukkaq in a strong stable national majority Conservative govt. (applause)

Now Before I go I do have a couple of additional announcements to make. One important part of our northern strategy has been our support for the Canadian Rangers. This is a force that not only acts as our eyes and ears on the ground in defence of our northern sovereignty, but also provides good work, solid training and role models throughout our northern communities. As you know, we greatly expanded the Ranger program and we’ve begun replacing their Lee-Enfield rifles. I know the Rangers like the Lee-Enfields. They are practical, reliable, accurate and durable. They have served the Rangers and our country well, but the time for that has come. (French)

I’m very pleased to announce that when these guns are replaced, in gratitude for the important work these men and women have been doing for our country, the Canadian Rangers will be able to keep their Lee-Enfield rifles for their personal use. (applause)

I spoke earlier today in the Northwest Territories about how I get a lot of my best suggestions for what to do here from talking to people here and that came from the Ranger patrols I’ve been out doing on the land the last couple of years. Now as the Rangers are also leaders in their communities, passing on knowledge and skills to the young men and women of the Junior Canadian Rangers is also creating a new generation with the skills and confidence to in turn lead the northern communities of the future. Which brings me to my second announcement. (French)

A reelected Conservative government will expand the ranks of the Junior Canadian Rangers to a full 5,000 members. (applause)

That, friends, is a 15 per cent increase to be finished in time for the programs’ twentieth anniversary in 2018. Now friends it’s good to know that when our sovereignty and security are on the line, we have people like the Rangers standing on guard for the rest of us.

In conclusion let me just say,that together we are building something great here. A strong an prosperous north that plays a vital and priority role in a secure and prosperous and sovereign Canada. And on Oct. 19, northerners will choose, between sticking with our Conservative party plan of low taxes, balanced budgets, prudent investments and against dangerous plans like a carbon tax that will kill jobs, make everything cost more and hurt our families, especially our northern families, and I know that’s a big issue here.

On oct. 19 you’ll be able to choose the one party that has a proven track record of keeping Canadians safe, and Canada’s economy strong, and of making Nunavut, the true north strong and free, the high priority that it should be in our great country. So work hard, re-elect Leona for Nunavut and for Canada. Thank you. (applause, music plays)

Consistent Institutional Racism in Nunavut: 1962 – 2014

The Qikiqtani Truth Commission’s final report, published in 2010, paints clear, stark and uncomfortable images of what life in Nunavut was like in the 1950s, 60s and 70s.

 

Uncomfortable because, as a conscious human being and a Canadian, I don’t want to believe the stories hundreds of Inuit who lived those years told the commission. Stories of forced relocation, forced quarantines thousands of kilomteres away from home, families left in the dark, families thrown geographically asunder—stories of pain and grief and regret, all archived and relived.

 

Uncomfortable because of the clear glimpses of stark racism that persist from those days.

 

In 1950 most Inuit in the Qikiqtani region (Baffin) lived in tightly-knit kinship groups, five to thirty people big, on ilagiit nunagivaktangit—seasonal land camps traditionally used for hunting, harvesting and gathering.

 

By 1975, almost all Inuit lived in permanent settlements, lured by promises of material security that failed to materialize, bullied by coercion and threatened with brute force.

 

Sled dogs on Frobisher Bay, with Iqaluit in the background, in January, 2015.  photo: Thomas Rohner
Sled dogs on Frobisher Bay, with Iqaluit in the background, in January, 2015.
photo: Thomas Rohner

The RCMP killed hundreds, if not thousands, of sled dogs—or qimmiit in Inuktitut—between 1950 and 1975. They did so under the authority of an insensitive, ineffective and unrealistic—yet official—ordinance. Many other dogs died from disease or starvation. But those killed by the RCMP became a flashpoint, the QTC report said, in the memory of many of those who testified. Many Inuit, especially men, lost not just their means of mobility to leave the settlements, but something of great cultural value and identity. Hunters and their dogs were legendary, the report said, forging intuitively profound, and profoundly practical, relationships.

 

The Canadian history I learned as a child and youth in suburban Toronto failed to mention anything about Inuit beyond igloos.

 

In the section titled, “Settlement Life and Substance Abuse”, the report’s commissioner, James Igloliorte, points out a number of common-sense observations about Inuit’s relationship with alcohol in those decades.

 

The social and cultural context of drinking was new to Inuit, Igloliorte writes. The family and social controls developed over centuries in the ilagiit nunagivaktangitv weakened, diffused in the settlement context. Feelings of boredom, dependency and displacement contributed to increasing incidents of excessive drinking. And, observing the military personnel who drank heavily in restricted military bars, Inuit saw that drinking was a legitimate defence for bad behaviour.

 

The sun sets over break-ice on Frobisher Bay, January 2015.  photo: Thomas Rohner
The sun sets over break-ice on Frobisher Bay, January 2015.
photo: Thomas Rohner

Officials often responded to Inuit’s substance abuse with self-righteous morality and outright racism, Igloliorte reports.

 

For example, in 1962 an official reported back to the federal government, opining: “the trouble is not with recognizing or even acknowledging drinking as a problem but rather with finding within themselves the power to control their drinking”.

 

I read: Caucasians, and others of superior breeding, can find this power to control their drinking within themselves, generally speaking. But these savages, and others of inferior breeding, cannot. They lack something fundamental that likely portends the demise of their ethnic group.  Social Darwinism and whatnot.

 

Surely, that sort of thinking, surprising as it might seem even for 1960s, is a thing of the past. Isn’t that what WWII was about?

 

Fast-forward to November, 2014. In the Qikiqtani community of Igloolik, an RCMP sergeant testifies at a coroner’s inquest I attend as a reporter. The inquest is held to determine the circumstances around the death of a young local Inuk man, who died, drunk, while in police custody, during the sergeant’s shift.

 

The sergeant appears stiff, uncomfortable throughout his testimony.

 

Presiding coroner Garth Eggenberger of the NWT prepares the community hall for the first day of the coroner's inquest held Nov. 24-29, 2014 in Igloolik.  photo: Thomas Rohner
Presiding coroner Garth Eggenberger of the NWT prepares the community hall for the first day of the coroner’s inquest held Nov. 24-29, 2014 in Igloolik.
photo: Thomas Rohner

The sergeant is asked to read from a transcript of a statement he made to external investigating officers. The quote he reads contains advice from his career officer and represents the extent of the Nunavut-specific training the sergeant received before leaving his white-collar office police job of 15 years for an adventurous stint in Canada’s great white north.

 

“Prior to departing, [career officer] Sgt. Ma advised me that residents, when intoxicated, become hot-headed and combative without provocation,” the sergeant reads.

 

I read: there’s something about this ethnic group that, compared to others, makes them unable to hold their liquor. Most of us can become a little hot headed when drunk, but you should see these guys.

 

“Is that statement racist?” a lawyer asks the sergeant.

“No, it goes to officer safety and remaining vigilant,” the sergeant replies.

“Well I’m a Nunavut resident, but Sgt. Ma wasn’t warning you about meeting me at the bar, right?” the tall, white lawyer asks.

“That’s a fair statement.”

 

I read: this is the harsh reality. Maybe you don’t want to hear it or see it, but as a policeman who risks his life daily on the job (at least when stepping out from behind my desk for the first time in 15 years), charged with protecting the public peace, I have no choice. My eyes are open to the uncomfortable truth.

 

But the truth is that institutional racism perpetrated by Qallunaat (southern) institutions against Inuit existed in 1962 much as it exists today: simply unapproachable and categorically denied.

 

Hope comes in the form of wisdom at odds with those institutions though.

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Iqaluit cemetery, January 2015. photo: Thomas Rohner

 

At the coroner’s inquest, the family’s lawyer made a number of recommendations to the jury, on behalf of the family, that are distinctly un-Qallunaat:

 

  • Phase out general duty RCMP policing in remote Nunavut communities, bring in self-policing; and

 

  • Establish detox centres outside incarceration centres for those apprehended while intoxicated.

The value of these ideas may be debatable and not self-evident. But ideas outside regular Qallunaat thinking offers hope.

Solomon Uyarasuk doc set for Nunavut premiere

Iqalungmiut will get a chance this week to see the Nunavut premiere of the documentary Sol—an Arnait Video Production feature film about the death of Igloolik artist Solomon Uyarasuk.

 

The premiere provides an opportunity to not only prevent an important story from fading from the headlines, but also to remember the lessons gleaned through the coroner’s inquest held to examine Uyarasuk’s death.

 

The mandatory inquest into the death of Uyarasuk—found lifeless, hanging from his own belt two feet above the floor in an Igloolik RCMP detachment cell in 2012—wrapped up last November.

 

Such inquests, automatically called when anybody dies in police custody, have two purposes: to determine the circumstances surrounding the death and to make recommendations aimed at avoiding a similar tragedy in the future.

 

But questions remain about the circumstances surrounding Uyarasuk’s death, and about what the RCMP and other government agencies learned, if anything.

 

The RCMP, the only governmental agency to publicly respond to the inquest, said in December that a “comprehensive review” is underway of the nine recommendations made by the jury of the coroner’s inquest.

 

The inquest’s jury recommended the investigation into Uyarasuk’s death be reopened to “fill in the missing information”.

 

Jury’s recommendations are not legally binding, though—it’s possible that the investigation will not be reopened, and that the jury’s eight other recommendations will, essentially, be ignored.

 

Whether or not the jury’s recommendations fall on deaf ears will determine whether the inquest was a meaningful participation of citizens in our justice system—or if it was merely an exercise in the appearance of justice.

Sol will premiere at the Astro Theater in Iqaluit on Jan. 28 at 6:30 p.m.. Organizers plan a moderated discussion after the screening.

The nine recommendations made by the inquest’s jury are:

1) Never leave a prisoner unattended – after failing to remove Uyarasuk’s belt in the prison cell, Sgt. Greg Murphy and Cnst. Martin Noel left their prisoner unattended in the cell for about 10 minutes.

 

2) RCMP should take immediate steps to install video surveillance cameras in all RCMP vehicles, detachments, cells and on-duty officers, maintaining a database – Uyarasuk sustained head injuries and other markings on his body. Police said Uyarasuk inflicted these wounds on himself as he thrashed in the back of the RCMP truck on route to the detachment, after being arrested. Video surveillance cameras would’ve convinced the jury beyond a doubt that this was the case.

 

3) GN staff adhere to policy of seeing injured patients in custody of the RCMP only in designated health cetres or hospitals in Nunavut – the Igloolik nurse contravened GN policy when he went to the Igloolik detachment, without supervisor consent, to treat Uyarasuk at the request of Sgt. Murphy.

 

4) All RCMP staff in Nunavut should receive training in IQ principlesneither Murphy nor Noel received any Nunavut-specific training prior to their stint in Igloolik and neither had ever heard of IQ principles. In fact the only advice Murphy got, after being off general duty for over a decade, was to watch out for locals who could become “hostile and combative” without provocation.

 

5) RCMP staff in Nunavut be issued with a service knife as part of their uniforms – After Uyarasuk was found hanging from the meal-slot of the prison door, panic and chaos ensued as a knife was frantically searched for in the detachment to cut the belt around Uyarasuk’s neck.

 

6) RCMP officers be provided with detachment orientation – testimony from the two officers on duty the night Uyarasuk died show they lacked knowledge of basic detachment information such as the location of keys and first aid kits.

 

7) that RCMP detachments be inspected regularly for deficiencies and fixed in a timely manner – the meal slot on the prison door from which Uyarasuk hung himself was a known suicide risk and had been broken for more than a year prior to Uyarasuk’s arrest

 

8) That RCMp acquire hook knives in all cell block areas

 

9) Reopen the investigation to fill in the missing information.

The ‘What ifs?’ of Solomon Uyarasuk’s death

What if Solomon hadn’t worn a belt that night?

What if Solomon had quieted down in the 30 minutes his neighbor waited before calling in a noise complaint to the RCMP?

“I’m in a desperate situation because maybe if I didn’t call the RCMP, Solomon would still be alive today,” his neighbour testified, his voice cracking. “A lot of thoughts go through my head.”

 

What if Const. Martin Noel had written down Sol’s correct birth date?

What if Noel, or his partner Sgt. Greg Murphy, weren’t white? Were Inuit or…anything but white?

What if at least one of them was a familiar face to Sol?

 

What if the brand new RCMP truck didn’t have more room in the backseat than the older trucks, allowing Solomon to swing his torso like a pendulum, his head the point of maximum velocity?

What if the officers let Solomon sleep it off in the RCMP truck, like he pleaded with the officers to let him do, outside the detachment?  The officers broke other policies that night.

What if the officers noticed Solomon’s belt before taking off the handcuffs?

What if one of the officers knew exactly where the key for Solomon’s prison door was?

 

What if one of the officers guarded Sol’s cell, knowing the latch was broken and a suicide risk, until the prison guard arrived?

 

What if the officers at least tried or asked for Sol’s belt after he had calmed down?

What if Murphy didn’t get lost on the way to the health centre, to pick up the nurse?

 

DSC_1849Death is always accompanied by arbitrary factors.

But then there are non-arbitrary factors, factors that are systemic, predictable and can and should be addressed.

 

What if Murphy had been given more preparation for his first trip to Nunavut and his first shift as a community police officer in over 15 years other than a single piece of racist advice to watch out for drunken Inuit?

 

What if the officers knew the suicide statistics for Nunavut?

What if the thought of suicide had at least crossed their minds?

What if the officers knew alcoholism stats for Nunavut?

What if the officers knew how many suicide attempts in Nunavut are alcohol related?

In 2011, the national suicide rate, per 100,000 citizens was 10.1. In Nunavut it was 71.5.

 

What if the officers had studied colonialism or the psychology of the colonized?

What if RCMP carried pocket knives on their belts?

What if the RCMP had fixed the broken meal slot in a reasonable time? Even after Solomon’s death, it took almost two years to get it properly fixed.

 

What if video cameras were installed in every cell?

 

What if the officers knew how to treat an angry, intoxicated male in a way other than locking him up in a cell?

Fear and Rage: Solomon Uyarasuk’s last moments  

If you dig deep enough, I think you’ll find that rage is always accompanied by fear.

 

Rage is easy enough to spot—an explosion on the surface of someone’s reality—but the associated fear often requires more context, understanding, thought and, ultimately, imagination to discern.

 

The fear relevant to any situation is impossible to know in its entirety without seeing into the hearts of every person present.

 

But the fear present in the final moments of the life of Solomon Uyarasuk, found hanging from a meal-slot latch in an Igloolik prison cell in Sept. 2012, is worth exploring for two reasons: because his ending left a family and community grieving, and because the coroner’s inquest examining the circumstances surrounding his death stirred up issues of racism, colonialism and responsible policing.

 

First, the rage: that belonged to Solomon alone.

 

Both officers who arrested Solomon, after receiving a noise complaint from Solomon’s neighbor, testified that he flew into a fit of rage—“as though a switch had gone off”—when one of the officers recorded Solomon’s date of birth incorrectly.

 

“You fucking disrespect me! You fucking disrespect me! You think I’m 12 years old?!” Solomon, who up to that point was allegedly cooperative, started screaming.

 

His rage was “irrational” and “unprovoked”, the officers said.

 

Then there was the violence—a form of rage—that Solomon inflicted on himself, according to the testimony of both the officers, corroborated by the Ottawa Police’s external investigation and the autopsy report.

 

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. Photo: Thomas Rohner

While being transported to the Igloolik detachment, Solomon swung his head repeatedly—pivoting at his waist to bring his full strength to bear, like a pendulum—smashing it hard enough into the plexi-glass and metal partition in the back of the RCMP truck to leave a gash in his forehead, his face covered in blood.

 

But here is where Solomon’s fear and rage blur together: both officers testified that Solomon repeatedly screamed throughout the arrest, “Please don’t beat me, please don’t beat me” and “don’t smash my head…like last time”. Solomon’s neighbor testified to hearing the same thing through the walls of his apartment.

 

So real was this fear that Solomon continued to scream the same sentences from his apartment to the RCMP truck to the prison cell.

 

So real was this fear that Solomon cowered in the back of the RCMP truck once they arrived at the detachment, trying, desperately, to evade the officers’ grasp one last time.

 

“Just leave me in here!” Sol screamed in the truck outside the detachment, one officer testified.

 

But then why would Solomon inflict the very injury on himself that he specifically screamed he feared?

 

I think the fear of those around him might offer at least some clues.

 

Fear was especially palpable during the testimony of Sgt. Greg Murphy, an RCMP veteran with nearly 30 years of experience but who never seemed comfortable during his testimony, sitting in a suit and tie in a Toronto office building.  Murphy had spent the last 16 years policing from an office building, chasing white-collar criminals. He had only made one arrest in those 16 years, hadn’t done any community street patrolling, and had never been to Nunavut before.

 

This absolute void of preparation was filled with one piece of racist advice, given to Murphy by a career and development officer with the RCMP: “residents [of Nunavut], when intoxicated, become hostile and combative, without provocation.”

 

What could grow in that void but fear and suspicion?

 

Both Murphy and his partner that night, Cnst. Noel Martin, admitted that Solomon was scared of them throughout the night.

 

“Our presence inflamed the situation,” Murphy testified.

 

In fact, if you remove the police from this situation, you remove Sol’s rage and fear entirely. Their presence, and their presence alone, provoked Sol.

 

Even Phillip, Solomon’s friend who was in the apartment with him when the cops showed up, and who did nothing but try to calm Sol down during the arrest, gave Murphy an uneasy feeling because of how close Phillip stood to Murphy’s weapons.

 

Noel, against his own better judgment, let Phillip hug a handcuffed Solomon before the officers took Sol outside to their truck—a fact that showed how harmless Phillip really was that night, Solomon’s family lawyer, Mark Mossey, suggested at the inquest.

 

“I’ll see you tomorrow,” Phillip told Solomon that night, just before his friend was taken out to the RCMP truck.

 

At the detachment, with Solomon pinned on his stomach to the cell floor, Murphy noticed the handcuffs had ridden up on Sol’s forearms, so he removed them. Then Murphy remembered they hadn’t yet searched Sol’s pockets.

 

Murphy and Noel turned Solomon over onto his back and noticed the belt for the first time.

 

The Government of Nunavut building in Igloolik--one of two venues where the coroner's inquest into Solomon's death was held from Nov. 24 - 28.
The Government of Nunavut building in Igloolik–one of two venues where the coroner’s inquest into Solomon’s death was held from Nov. 24 – 28. Photo: Thomas Rohner

This was a pivotal moment, when I believe fear played a crucial role.

 

The officers testified that they had two choices once noticing the belt: to either re-restrain Solomon, putting him back in handcuffs, or to beat a retreat, leaving Solomon in the cell to calm down.

 

Without speaking, the officers testified independently, they agreed to let Solomon calm down. They backed out of the cell, locking Solomon in the cell with his belt still on.

 

Without speaking, I imagine they must have both breathed a sigh of relief.

 

Sol continued to yell for a few minutes, but when Noel checked on him about 10 minutes later, Solomon was lying down up against the wall close to the door, quiet, in an exhausted daze, Noel said, blood from his head injuries gurgling softly as he breathed through his mouth.

 

“Why didn’t you go into the cell and get Solomon’s belt out of the cell at that point?” Mossey asked Noel. “I was scared if we went into the cell we’d re-escalate the situation,” Noel said.

 

“Why didn’t you ask Solomon to pass his belt out of the food slot at that point?” Mossey asked both officers in turn. Both, in turn, said they were scared of re-escalating the situation. They both wanted to wait for the health centre nurse, who Murphy had called, to arrive and treat Sol for his injuries.

 

How much fear and adrenaline was coursing through the officers’ veins at that time? How much of an impact did their fear at that moment, and the relief they must’ve felt in finally having Solomon locked up, have on their decision to leave Solomon alone in his cell with his belt until the nurse arrived?

 

“Tunnel vision is real in high stress situations,” Murphy said when questioned by Mossey, admitting that he had tunnel vision for officer safety while arresting and locking up Solomon. “We have to focus on threats to us, first and foremost.”

 

Blinded by fear for his own safety, in a foreign environment peopled by a foreign culture, with no training or preparation other than the advice to watch out for drunk locals, Murphy admitted that tunnel vision prevented him from noticing Solomon’s belt until after the handcuffs had been removed.

 

Cemetery Hill in Igloolik, overlooking the town during twilight hours in November, 2014.
Cemetery Hill in Igloolik, overlooking the town during twilight hours in November, 2014. Photo: Thomas Rohner

Our justice system knows how to handle rage: lock it up until it goes away. But does our society know how to identify and deal with the accompanying fear?

 

“Part of me feels like there’s too much paranoia when the word ‘Aborigine’ comes into people’s minds,” Rhoda Kanatsiaq, Solomon’s birth-mother said after the inquest. “Expectations become different from relaxed or from normal.”

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?

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.