Tyler Hikoalok a product of group homes and foster care, friends say
“Maybe this could have been prevented”
Tyler Hikoalok, the 18-year-old man who faces a first-degree murder charge in the highly publicized death of a 59-year-old volunteer librarian in Ottawa, struggled with the damaging effects of early childhood abuse and severe neglect, those who knew him told Nunatsiaq News.
“I want to make it clear that I am not trying to justify his actions. Violence is never acceptable,” Justin Holness said in a phone interview on Wednesday.
Holness runs a hip-hop music collective for Indigenous musicians and worked from 2013 to 2016 as an aboriginal youth coordinator at Ottawa’s Wabano Centre.
He knew Hikoalok, who is originally from Cambridge Bay, for several years, and he said Hikoalok was an aspiring hip-hop musician who dropped in at Wabano from time to time.
“I am trying to help young people to not fall between the cracks. Maybe this could have been prevented,” he said.
“Mental health and intergenerational trauma need to be considered in this case. My compassion is first with the husband, family and community that lost Elisabeth Salm. I just hope he [Hikoalok] gets the help he needs,” Holness said.
Salm was found critically injured at the Christian Science reading room in downtown Ottawa just before 1 p.m. May 24. She died in hospital the next day.
The news of Salm’s death shocked the city.
Police arrested Hikoalok on Sunday, May 27. His first appearance in court, through a video link, occurred on May 28, on a charge of first-degree murder. The allegation has yet to be proven in court.
Holness said his own grandmother was a survivor of residential school.
That’s why he can understand the complex effects of intergenerational trauma on people like Hikoalok, who were removed from their homes and communities at a young age to be put into foster care.
Holness also told Nunatsiaq News that Hikoalok would not say much, and would not talk about his struggles, even when prompted in a supportive manner.
“I saw the most activity from him when he was performing in the music studio program,” Holness said.
“I always knew him as a very quiet person. It never crossed my mind that he might need anger management or anything like that.”
One of Hikoalok’s brothers told Nunatsiaq News that all the children in their family had been taken into foster care at a very young age.
The brother, who asked not to be named in this story, said they were so young at the time, they don’t remember exactly when they were taken from the family and from Cambridge Bay.
“My brothers and I were all raised in foster care and group homes,” Hikoalok’s brother said.
The brother said that whenever he saw Tyler, he had always seemed very quiet and withdrawn, and had difficulty expressing emotions.
Still, Hikoalok’s brother said the news of the allegations has been hard for him to digest and accept.
“I’m totally appalled and disgusted. I will be keeping Ms. Salm’s family in my prayers,” he said.
A community source from Cambridge Bay, who knew Hikoalok from infancy onward, said Hikoalok’s childhood was very rough and that he was suspected of suffering from fetal alcohol syndrome.
“He would struggle to understand any higher order functions,” the Cambridge Bay source said.
“He would have been around two when he was taken into care, but we never do anything to help foster kids deal with trauma or train the foster families on how to help.”
For the last few years in Ottawa, Hikoalok had been in and out of Phoenix House, a group home which houses three teen boys, run by an organization called Mary Homes.
Then he bounced between homelessness and couch-surfing.
Hikoalok’s next court appearance is scheduled for June 5 at the Ottawa courthouse.
With files from Jane George