Tag Archives: RCMP

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.

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.”