NEWS: Nunavut December 01, 2014 - 5:58 am

Nunavut coroner’s jury: investigation into Igloolik death must be re-opened

“I still feel like there’s no real closure yet"

THOMAS ROHNER

IGLOOLIK — After more than five hours of deliberation, a coroner’s inquest jury examining the 2012 death of Solomon Uyarasuk has concluded his manner of death is “undetermined” and has recommended the RCMP re-open the investigation “to fill in the missing information.”

A death categorized as “undetermined” means there is insufficient evidence to categorize the death as anything else — suicide, for instance, or natural causes.

The mandatory week-long inquest, automatically triggered when a person dies in police custody, wrapped up in Igloolik around 6 p.m., Nov. 28.

During final arguments on Nov. 28, Uyarasuk’s family lawyer, Mark Mossey, recommended the death be categorized as “unclassified” — meaning the circumstances surrounding the death are unclear and inconclusive.

The RCMP’s lawyer recommended the death be deemed a suicide.

The jury also ruled that Uyarasuk, found hanging from a belt in an Igloolik prison cell Sept. 23, 2012, died of “asphyxiated hanging” around 6:30 a.m.

Once it was over, Rhoda Kanatsiaq, Uyarasuk’s birth-mother, told Nunatsiaq News that a lot of her questions were answered.

But it was too early to know, she said, if information revealed during the inquest would ease the pain in her heart.

“I still feel like there’s no real closure yet, even though some of my questions have been answered. But I don’t know yet,” Kanatsiaq said.

“I wanted to find out what happened, and even though the testimonies… were different from one person to another, I got the general idea as to what might have happened to Solomon.”

The jury, as well as Uyarasuk’s family, did agree that the cause of the young man’s death was not clear-cut.

During final arguments before the inquest Nov. 28, Uyarasuk’s family lawyer recommended the death be categorized as “unclassified” — meaning the circumstances surrounding the death are unclear and inconclusive. The RCMP’s representative recommended the death be deemed a suicide.

As the jury’s foreman read the verdict, around 20 of Uyarasuk’s family members and friends huddled in a tight group at the front of the Igloolik community hall to hear better.

After the verdict was delivered, many of them hugged, and some shed tears, after what was likely an exhausting week of renewed grief.

Ten witnesses testified during the course of the week including: two on-call relief-duty RCMP officers who arrested Uyarasuk and transported him to the Igloolik police station; an external Ottawa Police investigator who examined the RCMP’s conduct surrounding Uyarasuk’s death; a forensic pathologist who testified that injuries found on Uyarasuk were consistent with a “self-suspended hanging”; and, from the community health centre, a nurse who unsuccessfully attempted to resuscitate Uyarasuk in the prison cell.

The jury heard conflicting testimony on a number of key issues throughout the week and some questions remain unanswered.

Three separate witnesses, for example, said the pants Uyarasuk was wearing when he was found dead were not the pants he was wearing when he was arrested.

And the scene of Uyarasuk’s death was not sealed until six hours after Uyarasuk’s death, the jury heard Nov. 24.

The two officers on duty when Uyarasuk died in his cell were left alone in the detachment during that crucial period, raising concerns about preserving evidence at the scene.

What those officers did, or didn’t do, came up in another matter as well.

After injuring himself repeatedly while handcuffed in the back of the RCMP truck, Uyarasuk was left alone in his cell with his belt on, contrary to a national RCMP policy of removing any potential means of suicide when leaving a prisoner alone in custody.

Despite this troubling evidence, Atuat Akittirq, Uyarasuk’s aunt and an elder of the family, told Nunatsiaq News that the inquest answered a lot of questions she had about her nephew’s death and gave her some peace of mind.

“To those that heard and to those who listened, I think it’s going to be helpful and useful,” she said, “but for those who might have some internal issues and resistance, I’m not sure if it will help them.”

Despite the long wait for answers, Akittirq said the proceedings have actually lightened her load.

“We hadn’t heard for a long time about what happened to Solomon, how it happened, everything like that. Now that’s going to be freed from our chests,” she said, speaking on behalf of the family.

But the jury did not address a major concern Akittirq raised just before lawyers submitted their final comments and recommendations to the jury around noon on Nov. 28.

After local police, Anglican officials and a psychiatric nurse visited her home Sept. 23, 2012, to tell her that her nephew had died while in police custody, police then told her she would not be able to see his body until after an autopsy because the death was under investigation. 

Akittirq said she was told that the family would get a chance to see Uyarasuk — important to Akittirq for grieving purposes — when his body was returned to Igloolik following the autopsy in Ottawa.

“I wanted for this to happen, but it didn’t happen,” she said at the inquest.

“I truly wanted to see his body.”

The family’s first glimpse of Uyarasuk’s body came only last week, in the form of police photographs that had been entered into evidence at the inquest — pictures of the young man, dead in his cell, and of the autopsy.

Paul Quassa, an Igloolik native and Nunavut MLA for Aggu, one of Igloolik’s two legislative assembly constituencies, attended four full days of the inquest.

He told Nunatsiaq News that a number of policies and processes were not followed by the RCMP.

“Even if our people are in custody, they have to be in a safe place, in a safe environment,” said Quassa, who also serves as Nunavut’s education minister.

Kanatsiaq wonders how the cultural gap between Inuit and non-Inuit in Nunavut communities affected the events surrounding her son’s death.

“There’s still a big gap between Inuit and non-Inuit cultures,” she said, “mostly because I think we’re not really understood yet. And in a way I think we’re very private people, so it’s very hard to understand us.”

“Solomon is not going to be returning,” Akittirq said of her nephew, “and for those who don’t believe what was said this week, that disbelief might be something we should let go of.”

The jury made several other recommendations. They include:

• the RCMP take immediate steps to install video surveillance cameras in all RCMP vehicles, detachments, cells and on on-duty officers in Nunavut;

• all RCMP working in Nunavut be educated on Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit principles;

• all RCMP detachments in Nunavut be inspected regularly for deficiencies, to be fixed in a timely manner; and,

• RCMP officers in Nunavut be issued service knives as part of their uniform.

The jury passed on a number of recommendations which the Uyarasuk family’s lawyer had suggested including:

• RCMP run through a suicide-checklist with each prisoner to determine the risk prisoners pose to themselves;

• in future cases of in-custody deaths, a local leader or elder be retained as soon as possible to assist in securing the scene of death; and,

• RCMP investigate the possibility of establishing detox centres outside of the detachment, instead of automatically placing intoxicated individuals in prison cells.

The jury’s recommendations will be sent to a number of territorial and federal agencies, the inquest’s presiding coroner Garth Eggenberger explained, but those agencies are not bound by law to implement them.