Tag Archives: arctic

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.

Harper’s in Iqaluit: so what?

Would it matter if, when Stephen Harper arrives in Iqaluit this week, we just didn’t show up to the photo-ops and PR stints so carefully planned and thoughtfully communicated to the media by his communications team? Would he smile to an empty room, shake hands with phantoms?

Most people know his annual trip to the North is a token gesture, a symbolic visit devoid of real significance. So why do we, especially in the media, still scurry to his events like lap dogs? An event needs an audience, and if the media deprived him of that, what would be left?

Photo by Remy Steinegger, courtesy wikicommons.
Photo by Remy Steinegger, courtesy wikicommons.

The media has grown too dependent on communication officials.

Noam Chomsky and Ed Herman published a propaganda model of media in 1988 predicting that, contrary to popular democratic belief, news media is not independent of power centres in society and actually “mobilize support for the special interests that dominate the state and private activity”. The model is, by now, one of the most well-tested and proven models in all of social science.

The model is set up as a series of filters which potential news has to pass through in order to reach the public. Filters like advertisers and capital investment to create news media. One of the filters is a “sourcing bias”.

The sourcing bias is pretty simple: media rely on communications from governments and companies as an authoritative source of news. The resources of governments and companies are far greater than the resources of the media. Media can save money and time by relying on official communications.

The disparity in resources ensures this is an imbalanced relationship. But the imbalance doesn’t end with a sourcing bias; it only begins to explain how the general public, and the media, are kept at an arm’s length—a long go-go-Gadget arm’s length—from meddling in governmental affairs.

A commentary in the Toronto Star by Gregory Thomas earlier this month revealed that the Conservatives are spending over $260-million on communications personnel this year—for core public services alone—which is $48-million more than when they first came into power. In comparison, that amounts to about 80% of the payroll for the House of Commons. And, as Thomas points out, it’s not like communicating with Parliament Hill has gotten any easier under the Conservatives.

Photo courtesy wikicommons. Graffiti in Toronto on Danforth Ave.
Photo courtesy wikicommons. Graffiti in Toronto on Danforth Ave.

“Canadians are seeing a quarter-billion dollars of their money used against them: not to provide them with information, but rather to delay, conceal and spin the information to enhance the image of the party in power,” Thomas wrote in the Star.

Sourcing bias. Excessive spin doctors. And then there’s that nagging accusation that the Conservatives are muzzling scientists.

An article published last week by Postmedia’s Margaret Munro revealed through an Access to Information request—one of the last tools available to journalists asking meaningful questions—that scientists from the Canadian Ice Service, an arm of Environment Canada, were denied their 2012 wish to hold a “strictly factual” media briefing to reveal how ice had disappeared from the Northwest Passage. Their request to have biannual “Media Tech Briefings” so that Canadian media wouldn’t have to rely on American data which were “missing the Canadian details” didn’t make it through the government’s nine-level approval process that ensures their “communication plan”.

“Communication plan.” How quaint.

A communication plan isn’t about communication at all, at least not in the sense of a dialogue. It means communicating with an agenda. There are no direct answers given, so why bother asking direct questions?

Harper doesn’t think an inquiry into the tragic number of missing and murdered Aboriginal women is necessary, for example, because it’s not a “sociological phenomenon”, he said last week while in Whitehorse. “It is crime against innocent people, and it needs to be viewed as such,” Yukon News quoted him as saying.

“No need to fret over the toxic brew that contributes to the many troubles faced by Canada’s aboriginal communities,” Yukon News editor John Thompson wrote in a scathing, impassioned editorial lambasting Harper’s “stupidity”. Thompson listed a few sociological

Photo courtesy wikicommons.
Photo courtesy wikicommons.

aspects that Harper glossed over: high unemployment, substance abuse, overcrowded housing, low education levels and “not to mention the terrible traumas inflicted during residential schools that continue to be passed from one generation to the next.”

More to the point, though, Harper’s not really answering the question: should we have an official inquiry? Instead he’s selling his tough-on-crime shtick. He’s shticking to a communication plan.

Sourcing bias. Excessive spin doctors. Muzzling scientists. Communication shtick.

Just for the exercise, what could Harper be addressing, instead of being wooshed from one venue to the next, handled by handlers whose soft hands see Jergens five times a day and cotton swabs for their cuticles? Just for the exercise…

John Bennett, executive director of the Sierra Club had some good suggestions in an editorial last week for Troy Media.

He wants to know why the National Energy Board is considering relaxing safety measures it adopted after the Verizon catastrophe in applications it’s currently reviewing from Chevron and Imperial Oil. “Will the PM be talking about drilling safety on this trip through the North?” Bennett asked.

He also wants to know why the scientists from Canadian Ice Service aren’t allowed, as scientists, to inform the public of scientific facts, as scientists.

I’m new to the North and have much to learn about reality and complexity of life up here. There’s a million real questions I imagine people would love to put to Mr. Harper that I don’t know about yet. But Harper’s shtick—shucks, that I’ve seen since I was knee-high to a grasshopper.

If only, Kids in the Hall.

 

 

Prominent architecture in Iqaluit

scroll down for picture gallery

The architecture in Iqaluit leaves two distinct impressions on my mind: the town’s military history and the harsh arctic environment.

Many of the bigger buildings are box-shaped with minimal geometric variations and sparse porthole windows. There’s a simplistic aesthetic which immediately speaks to function and weathering the blistering winds.

But it doesn’t seem there are many admirers of Iqaluit architecture.

A letter to the editor of the local newspaper in 2002 described the town’s architecture as one of fear: fear of the elements, fear of costs, fear of a unique identity and fear of imagination.

“Buildings still do not engage the landscape as they should, striding over it with complete abandon,” the letter said. “There is little attention to the streetscape…to lighting, to the human experience of the building.”

And a former reporter at the local paper described the architecture, simply, as goofy.

But there are signs that architectural designs are becoming more ambitious, if even goofier.

One architect from Toronto designed skyscrapers, made of local rocks, to sit atop glaciers and move with ocean currents. Nothing came of those designs.

And some design students, also from Ontario, pitched giant floating balls of light to Nunavut communities as a way to see them through the long, dark winters.

Much of the push for more colourful, unique buildings comes, sadly, in the form of government, especially federal, buildings, as you’ll see below. The Territorial legislative assembly, built in 1999, was seen by many as the first building to attempt creativity. And an aquatic centre slated to begin construction next summer would certainly add some colour and flare.

A project headed by a Toronto firm, called Arctic Adaptations, tried to address what many see as the abysmal state of architecture in the North earlier this year by designing buildings with five themes in mind: health, housing, education, arts and recreation.

The project was one of the top exhibits at this year’s Venice Biennale—an internationally renowned architectural fair.

“Maybe we haven’t been as intelligent as the Inuit have been in adapting to place [in the North],” the lead architect said.

This post only deals with prominent architecture of public buildings in the town; a post on housing and infrastructure will follow at a later date.


Iqaluit Airport

DSC_1278

Inuksuk High School

DSC_1225 DSC_1224 DSC_1228

 

Nakasuk Elementary School

DSC_1226 DSC_1285 DSC_1292

 

Baffin Correctional Centre and the territorial court house

DSC_1270 DSC_1271 DSC_1272 DSC_1233 DSC_1234

 

Legislative assembly and  RCMP office

DSC_1263 DSC_1266 DSC_1269 DSC_1255

 

 

St. Jude Anglican Church

 

DSC_1281 DSC_1283

 

 

The Arctic Hotel, The Frobisher Inn and the Legion

 

DSC_1243 DSC_1242 DSC_1218

 

 

Misc

DSC_1290 DSC_1241 DSC_1240 DSC_1239a

Building houses municipal council chambers.
This building houses the municipal council chambers.
Qikiqtani General Hospital
Qikiqtani General Hospital
CBC building.
CBC building.

Iqaluit groceries, sculptures

 

Grocery Bill, North Mart

*salt and pepper shakers (mini): $6.99

*sugar, bulk (0.465kg): $2.28

*canola oil (475mL): $3.99

*coffee, ground (925g): $19.99

water enhancer, squirt (48mL): $4.35

*pasta, rotini, 1 bag (900g): $5.49

*sandwich bags, 100: $1.99

*soap, bars (2): $4.19

*toothpaste (100mL): $4.29

*crackers, 1 box (225g): $3.99

*candy, 1 box (450g): $6.19

milk (4L): $10.45

frozen veg, corn (750g): $4.79

frozen juice concentrate: $1.35 x 4

ground beef (0.5kg): $5.95

pork loin (0.42kg): $6.76

chicken breast, boneless/skinless (1.1kg/5 pieces): $32.03

bag charge: $0.72

subtotal: $136.83

gst: $1.15

total: $137.98

*= discount brands

 

Things I can’t afford until I get paid

laundry detergent, Tide 5L: $48.89

toilet paper, Charmin 12 rolls: $19.99

garbage bags, Glad 20 large: $14.39