Tag Archives: nunavut

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.

DSC_2415
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.

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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.

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

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Inuksuk High School

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Nakasuk Elementary School

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Baffin Correctional Centre and the territorial court house

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Legislative assembly and  RCMP office

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St. Jude Anglican Church

 

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The Arctic Hotel, The Frobisher Inn and the Legion

 

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Misc

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