IQALIUT—There have been 14 police-related deaths in Nunavut since the territory’s creation in 1999, all of them Inuit and all of whom died in RCMP custody or after an interaction with the Mounties.
The RCMP is the only police force here and runs jails in all 25 Nunavut communities. After a police-related death, RCMP usually hires an outside police force to investigate the incident.
Between 1999 and 2016, the last year for which there was complete coroner data, the rate of police-related deaths in Nunavut was more than nine times higher than Ontario’s rate.
While there is no evidence the RCMP committed any wrongdoing in the 14 deaths, the alarming trend – with four of the deaths occurring since 2016 — is fuelling calls for greater and more independent police oversight and the creation of an agency such as Ontario’s Special Investigations Unit.
Four members of Nunavut’s Legislative Assembly (MLAs) are demanding the territory’s justice department take action.
“A civilian oversight body is definitely needed for policing in Nunavut,” Iqaluit MLA Adam Lightstone told the Star. “The ideal situation would be to have Nunavummiut sitting on that civilian oversight body.”
In Nunavut’s consensus-style government, MLAs are not considered part of an opposition party, though, if they are not in cabinet, they are free to criticize government.
Nunavut’s lack of such an oversight agency to review serious incidents is an “outlier,” says Paul McKenna, former deputy director of the Ontario Provincial Police Academy.
MLAs Cathy Towtongie, Joelie Kaernerk and Pat Angnakak are echoing Lightstone’s call.
“Who are the police accountable to? There’s no oversight,” said Towtongie. “I support the idea of an independent oversight body.”
In most Canadian jurisdictions, an independent civilian-led body investigates serious incidents or allegations of police misconduct. In Ontario, the SIU investigates interactions with police that result in serious injury, death or allegations of sexual assault.
In Nunavut, where the government contracts the RCMP to provide policing services, serious incidents are investigated by the RCMP themselves or by another police force hired by the RCMP. Deaths automatically trigger an outside police force to probe the incident. After the outside police agency investigates, it can lay a charge — though this has never happened in Nunavut — and then it reports back to the Mounties.
“The RCMP and the (Government of Nunavut) do not make those reports public. To this day, we still don’t know what the outcome of those reports are, just what the RCMP or department tell us,” Lightstone said. “This status quo is unacceptable. Something has to be done about it.”
Those unsatisfied with an investigation can make complaints to the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission for the RCMP, an independent body created by federal Parliament. The commission will review that investigation and issue a report outlining whether they agree or disagree with the Mounties. The commission says its chair may also conduct its own “public interest” investigation but none have been completed in Nunavut.
One option for Nunavut would be to hire another jurisdiction’s civilian-led agency, Lightstone said. The Alberta Serious Incident Response Team, an agency similar to the SIU, is under contract to the Yukon government to investigate serious police incidents.
“I don’t think the (RCMP’s complaint) commission is adequate for Nunavut’s needs. I think we need our own independent oversight body so that every single occurrence can be reviewed.”
The Nunavut RCMP did not respond to two requests for comment.
In August, a Star investigation revealed the story of Bernard Naulalik, an Inuk man from Iqaluit who was beaten by RCMP officers in his holding cell on three separate occasions between 2014 and 2016 — all of which were captured on video. Naulalik’s was one of about 30 cases in legal aid’s files alleging injuries to clients sustained during police arrest or detention across the territory, the Star found.
“I shared the cellblock video footage published with (the Star’s) article with all of the members during one of our committee meetings…All of the MLAs were alarmed and shocked,” Lightstone said.
In this story, “police-related deaths” refer to deaths occurring in police custody, detention, or while or after interacting with police. The Star obtained data on police-related deaths from both the Ontario and Nunavut offices of the chief coroner.
Of the 14 Inuit who died since 1999, five were shot by police, two died during standoffs with police and at least three died in custody, including one hanging death. Thirteen of the deaths have occurred in the last 10 years.
When adjusted for population, Nunavut’s rate is 17 times higher than Toronto’s between 1999-2016. Nunavut’s rate is six times higher than Thunder Bay.
In response to the MLAs’ demands, the Nunavut justice department said, “Like several jurisdictions in Canada, Nunavut utilizes policing agencies from outside the territory to investigate major incidents.”
Even civilian-led agencies rely on officers trained in policing, the department said, adding it is “confident of the impartiality and professionalism outside police forces bring to their investigations. … That said, the department is also reviewing the viability of other potential options … including civilian oversight.”
Concerns about investigations into Nunavut RCMP conduct have been raised in the past.
During a 2014 coroner’s inquest into the death of Solomon Uyarasuk, found dead in RCMP cells in Igloolik in 2012, the jury heard testimony from Ottawa Police investigators. Sgt. Dan Brennan testified that the investigation scene had not been sealed until six hours after the death, that the RCMP officers involved had been left alone at the investigation scene, and that the involved Mounties were not considered suspects.
Brennan testified that his investigation would have benefited from knowing expectations for his own role and responsibilities. He had never seen a Memorandum of Understanding between the RCMP and the Ottawa Police. The Ottawa Police report then went to the Mounties, Brennan said.
In Ontario, the SIU issues a public report after its investigations. While critics argue the SIU should make more information public, its reports offer far more information than the Nunavut RCMP or justice department.
The jury heard testimony that Uyarasuk was terrified he would die or get beaten up in police cells, screaming on the way to the detachment that it had happened before. The jury recommended the Mounties reopen the investigation to “fill in the missing information” but that has never been done.
The Ottawa Police investigation was not good enough, Joelie Kaernerk, MLA for the communities of Hall Beach and Igloolik, told the Star.
“Family members really wanted answers, but the Ottawa Police Service (investigation) didn’t provide a whole lot of answers to the family. To this day, I believe there’s still questions from the family,” Kaernerk said. The Ottawa Police report was not made public at the inquest.
“Something’s gotta be done, something needs to be done. We need more answers from the police,” said Eva Qirngnirq, 61, whose grandson Charles died after being shot by police in 2016 in the community of Gjoa Haven, about 2,000 kilometres due north of Winnipeg.
Eva said Charles had difficulty managing his anger, and she tried but couldn’t stop him from taking the rifle from the attic and heading to the airport, where he wanted to stop his girlfriend from leaving town.
“I don’t know if it surprises me — 14 —but it’s very shocking. When you went through it before, and having to hear it again, another person was shot by RCMP, all of your body and heart is shaking,” said Louisa Atadjuat, 40, whose brother Naytanie Atadjuat was shot by police in the north Baffin community of Pond Inlet in 2002.
Naytanie had cut his girlfriend’s neck and threatened an elementary school child before being shot, police reports said.
Police reports said that both Charles and Naytanie were going through episodes of mental distress at the time of their shootings.
The move towards civilian-led oversight of police hinges on the notion that police investigating police is inconsistent with public confidence and accountability, according to McKenna, the former deputy director of the OPP academy.
“Under certain circumstances, virtually every police service has, or could, avail themselves of the investigative services of another police department for certain issues. This, however, does not extend to serious incidents … It would seem that the approach in Nunavut is an anomaly.”
A 2007 study conducted by McKenna and a colleague found blending civilian with police expertise to be a best investigative practice, instilling confidence and trust in policing services.
Trust and confidence is low within the territory’s government-funded legal aid agency, according to correspondence obtained by the Star under freedom of information legislation.
“Nunavummiut … are being abused by members of the RCMP, and…absolutely nothing is being done about it by the RCMP, the (Public Prosecution Service of Canada) or the (Government of Nunavut),” Jonathan Ellsworth, Chief Operating Officer of Nunavut’s legal aid wrote in an April email.
In the last three years, legal aid has filed 25 civil cases against the RCMP for clients alleging police brutality, the email said. Seventeen of those cases are ongoing.
“The real question that everyone should be asking is: on whose behalf do the (Government of Nunavut,) the Crowns (office,) and the RCMP act, and why are they allowing this violence against Inuit to continue?” Ellsworth wrote.
One of the biggest issues facing Inuit during police interactions is a language barrier, Kaernerk said. About 90 per cent of Nunavut Inuit speak Inuktitut.
“When English is their second language, it’s difficult for Inuit to make themselves understood to RCMP,” he said, adding he supports Lightstone’s call for civilian oversight.
MLA Pat Angnakak said she also supports Lightstone’s call for civilian oversight, to ensure “all cases are heard in a fair and transparent way.”
Such oversight and transparency is crucial, MLA Towtongie said, as “we’re dealing with marginalization within the system, where a minority is sent to control the majority, and a lot of Inuit are tense and stressed.”
Neither Louisa Atadjuat nor her mother remember details of any investigation into Naytanie’s death in 2002, Louisa said.
This is the first time Louisa said she is speaking about Naytanie’s death since it happened. She remembers it was a beautiful sunny day in September, plenty of boats and narwhals in the bay. She remembers crying in a health centre room with her parents, her brother’s body lying on a bed.
“I always think about those two RCMPs…Both the victims and the RCMP need to have counselling, in the same room, and try to have closure to it. For me, it would be helpful.”
Eva Qirngnirq said she wonders why so many institutions and services failed Charles.
“Charles had such a difficult life. I talked to the mental health workers and social workers and they just turned to the RCMP instead of sitting down with us and asking what kind of life he had … The (RCMP) didn’t even talk to me,” after Charles died, she said.
Tobi Qirngnirq, Charles’ aunt, said she knew he had an anger problem and it scared her. That’s why she would check in with the local RCMP every week or two, to keep tabs on Charles. “That year (Charles died,) they switched over to new RCMP,” so it was new RCMP officers in town whom the family didn’t know and who didn’t know the family, she said.
After losing his father at a young age, Charles struggled with alcoholism and starting a young family. “I could see that he was frustrated, and he just wanted a place to call home.”
Neither Tobi nor Eva have heard anything about an investigation into the RCMP’s shooting of Charles. They remember how Charles loved to go out on the land, camping with family and helping others. “He did so much for me. That was so hard when he was gone,” Charles’ grandmother, Eva said.
Louisa Atadjuat recalls fond memories of her brother Naytanie, two years older, who taught her to ride a bike and went rabbit hunting with her. “He taught me a lot of stuff, like any brother would do, to teach his little sister.”
Data analysis by Andrew BaileyThomas Rohner is a freelance journalist based in Iqaluit, Nunavut. He can be reached at Thomas.firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @thomas_rohner