Nunavut inquest highlights gaps in police training

RCMP officers: “residents [of Nunavut], when intoxicated, become hostile and combative, without provocation”


A shot of Igloolik in the waning, late-November light, as seen from

A shot of Igloolik in the waning, late-November light, as seen from “cemetery hill.” (PHOTO BY THOMAS ROHNER)

IGLOOLIK — Neither of the two relief-duty RCMP officers who arrested Solomon Uyarasuk — and who were on duty at the time of Uyarasuk’s death in an Igloolik police cell two years ago — had ever received Nunavut-specific cultural training nor heard of the principles of Inuit traditional knowledge, Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit.

In fact one of them — Sgt. Greg Murphy — had never been to Nunavut, and had been dealing exclusively with white-collar crime in urban centres for the past 16 years.

Both Murphy and Const. Martin Noel, the other on-duty officer the night Uyarasuk was found hanging by a nylon belt from the meal-slot of his cell door, testified to this on Nov. 26 at a coroner’s inquest into Uyarasuk’s death, unfolding this week in Igloolik.

Multiple witnesses have testified that Uyarasuk was found dead just after 6 a.m. on Sept. 23, 2012.

Because the officers now live and work in Ontario, the inquest was moved from the old Igloolik community hall to a boardroom in the Government of Nunavut building, so the two men could testify via video-conference.

A coroner’s inquest, automatically triggered when someone dies in police custody, is a public hearing held to determine the circumstances surrounding a death and to make recommendations on how to avoid similar deaths in the future.

A jury comprised of six members from the community — three men and three women — is charged with these two tasks.

Murphy, who said he had more than eight years of experience with general duty policing in Alberta, including in some smaller and Aboriginal communities, was not provided with refresher training on community policing either to prepare him for the Nunavut posting.

But he did, Murphy testified, receive a warning from his career and development officer, Sgt. Lamond Ma, in Toronto: “residents [of Nunavut], when intoxicated, become hostile and combative, without provocation.”

“Is it fair to say that ‘residents’ means ‘Inuit’?” Mark Mossey, Uyarasuk’s family lawyer, asked Murphy.

“That’s fair to say,” Murphy replied, after hesitating.

“Do you think that statement’s maybe a little racist?” Mossey asked.

“No,” Murphy replied, “it goes to officer safety and remaining vigilant.”

“Well I’m a Nunavut resident,” said Mossey, who is Caucasian. “But Sgt. Ma wasn’t warning you about meeting me at the bar, right?”

“That’s a fair statement,” Murphy replied.

Murphy and Noel both testified to attending a noise complaint at Uyarasuk’s apartment in the early morning hours of Sept. 23, 2012.

Uyarasuk, intoxicated, answered the door and let the officers in but became “enraged” and “irrational” shortly thereafter, the officers testified.

Mossey wondered if Murphy had preconceived notions of what to expect in the situation, because of the advice Murphy received from Sgt. Ma.

“All the bases had been covered: an Inuk male, intoxicated, and without provocation,” Mossey said.

“Sgt. Ma’s advice did not lead to our actions,” said Murphy.

Mossey also wondered if the RCMP offered financial incentives for relief-duty officers.

Under questioning from Mossey, Murphy, who had applied for a 30-day relief-duty rotation eight days prior to landing in Igloolik on Sept. 14, 2012, said the only financial incentive offered by the RCMP was in overtime and on-call opportunities.

Still, in his first nine days in Nunavut — leading up to the day Uyarasuk died — Murphy said he racked up an extra $4,000 on top of his base pay because of these opportunities.

Noel, on the other hand, had at least spent some time in Nunavut: three years on relief-duty in 11 different Nunavut communities.

But the layout of detachments, and the location of important things such as cell keys and first aid kits, vary from community to community, Noel testified when questioned by Mossey.

When Noel and Murphy brought Uyarasuk into the cell, Noel left Murphy alone with the prisoner in order to find the key to the cell door lock.

“That was the first time I’d locked any prisoners in a cell, and I didn’t know where they key was. It took a few minutes,” Noel said.

“Did anybody give you a tour of the facility when you arrived?” Mossey asked.

“No,” Noel said, “there was only one permanent member posted in Igloolik at the time, and they were leaving when I landed.”

“Would it be helpful to have a tour? To know where things like keys and first aid kits are?” Mossey asked.

“Yes,” Noel replied, “and also to know what tools I have and what tools I don’t have.”

The final day of the inquest goes ahead Nov. 28, with the jury expected to make recommendations on how to avoid similar tragedies in the future, in addition to determining Uyarasuk’s cause of death.

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