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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.

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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.”

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.