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Deadly force, neglect kills dozens of Indigenous people in Ontario’s justice system

The number of Indigenous people killed by police or dying in custody in Ontario points to the need to remake, not reform the justice system, says an assistant professor in the social justice department at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ont. 

Nearly a dozen Indigenous people were killed by police in Ontario since 2000 and more than 30 Indigenous people have died in the province by suicide in the presence of police or by other means while in custody or in jail in that time, according to CBC’s own research.

In Canada, policing was founded on the premise that Indigenous peoples needed to be removed from the land and false beliefs that Indigenous peoples are both less human and more-threatening than white people, says Jessica Jurgutis, whose academic research looks at the relationship between settler colonialism and imprisonment in Canada.

“We need to see these institutions transformed so much that maybe we don’t want to be putting more money into them,” she says. “Maybe we want to actually meet people’s basic needs since that’s what leads to [people committing] crime.”

Assistant professor Jessica Jurgutis’ academic research looks at the relationship between settler colonialism and imprisonment in Canada and improving health care in jails. (Jody Porter/CBC)

All of the Indigenous people who were killed by police since 2000 were suffering from poor mental health or addictions, according to police reports or testimony at their inquests.

“The through-line in so many [of these] deaths is that people were unable to receive mental or physical health care. They had inadequate access to supports,” says Emily Hill, a lawyer with Aboriginal Legal Services, which represents families of people killed by police.

The lack of services is also part of the systemic racism faced by Indigenous people in Canada that leads to crises at home, or pushes First Nations people out of their communities seeking support in larger urban centres, Hill says.

Police intervention ‘goes nuclear’

“[Many] reserves don’t have running water, they also don’t have a family doctor,” she says. “People find themselves in crisis, often in an urban setting and there is a heavy-handed [police] response. It goes nuclear really fast.”

The deadly force used by police against Indigenous people is most often a gun. Nine of the 11 Indigenous people who died since 2000, were shot by police. The OPP were responsible for four of those deaths, including that of the youngest Indigenous person shot since 2000 — 17-year-old Geronimo Fobister was shot near his home in Grassy Narrows in 2003.

CBC News asked the OPP what changes it has made in response to recommendations made at Fobister’s inquest for improved culturally sensitivity and emergency response times.

The OPP is “committed to continuing to build trust and to develop and improve its relationships with Indigenous communities,” a spokesperson said in an email, citing several initiatives the provincial police have taken including:

  • mandatory Indigenous awareness training for all of its emergency response team members
  • partnerships with First Nations police services 
  • enhanced recruiting of Indigenous officers

Between October 2018 and May 2020, 5.8 per cent of new hires with the OPP are people who self-identify as Indigenous, the OPP says.

Romeo Wesley, 34, died after being restrained and beaten by Nishnawbe Aski police officers in 2010 in Cat Lake First Nation. (Cat Lake First Nation)

In the two other cases of people who were subject to deadly force by police:

  • Romeo Wesley, a 34-year-old hunter, who knew how to live off the land near his home at Cat Lake, Ont., died after he was pepper sprayed, beaten, handcuffed and stepped on by two Nishnawbe Aski police officers. He’d been seeking help at the nursing station in Cat Lake.  A coroner’s inquest ruled his death an accident. 
  • Debralee Chrisjohn, 39, a mother and grandmother, died after a London, Ont. police officer took her into custody and failed to attend to her medical needs. London police Const. Nicholas Doering was found guilty of criminal negligence causing death and failing to provide the necessaries of life.

Chrisjohn’s death was one of the few cases where police were held criminally responsible after an Indigenous person died.

Lawyer Caitlyn Kasper, who represented Chrisjohn’s family at her inquest, believes that’s because the case involved neglect. 

It’s more difficult to hold police accountable for shootings, because Canadian law permits officers to use deadly force if they fear for their own safety or that of others, Kasper says.

Assistant professor Jurgutis says there’s also something else at work.

Myth of the ‘vanishing race’

Inquests and inquiries into Indigenous deaths focus so much on the individual conditions of Indigenous people, stigmatising their substance use or homelessness, that it starts to appear the individual is responsible for his own death, Jurgutis says.

“It’s easy for police and other institutions to escape responsibility for what are positioned as unintended or accidental deaths,” she says. “It’s a Canadian trope and a myth that Indigenous people were a vanishing race, so the thinking is that they were always going to die anyway, and no one needs to be held to account.”

Indigenous oversight of Indigenous deaths

One way to increase accountability would be to have Indigenous-led oversight bodies with jurisdiction over Indigenous deaths, says Christa Big Canoe, who was legal counsel to the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.

It’s one of the recommendations of the MMIWG final report, which concluded the failures of the justice system and violence by police are part of the genocide enacted on Indigenous women, girls, two-spirit, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

Funding needs to be allocated to agencies “that are actually going to help de-escalate” crisis,” says lawyer Christa Big Canoe. (CBC)

“We just don’t trust police,” Big Canoe says. “It’s like the rest of society is finally catching up to what we’ve been saying for years.

“The conversation about defunding the police – as Indigenous people, we’ve been talking about it for decades,” she says. “For us it means giving money to the people who are actually going to de-escalate a crisis.”

She says instead of responding to police service’s demands for more money to train officers in de-escalation tactics, funding could be redirected to community safety projects such as the one in Kwanlin Dün, near Whitehorse, Yukon. The project sees officers from the First Nation address community safety concerns and act as role models.

Too often when police respond to crisis in First Nations, “the switch flips and it’s us or them,” Big Canoe says. “Police are always able to say there was a threat” and Indigenous people end up dead.

There is no government database of Indigenous deaths in Ontario’s justice system. The Deadly Force database, updated and maintained by the CBC, keeps track of deaths as a result of a direct and causal interaction with a law enforcement officer where some form of force was used.

Additional research by CBC Thunder Bay, using publicly available data from the Ontario coroner’s officer and the Special Investigations Unit, shows there have been 31 deaths in custody since 2000. 

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