GN should treat inquest recommendations with caution

By NUNATSIAQ NEWS

There is only person who can be held morally responsible for the suicide of Hal Richards — and that person is Hal Richards.

Regardless of what is known or not known about why the former principal of Iqaluit’s Nakasuk School decided to fire a .308 rifle bullet through his head on June 8 or June 9 last year, that much is obvious.

And yet, during the inquest held in Iqaluit last week to probe the circumstances surrounding his death, there were many times when it appeared as if everyone but Richards was being held culpable.

Indeed, the entire process appeared to rest upon the assumption that Richards was the powerless victim of a school child who complained to police that Richards had abused her, and malignant bureaucrats who weren’t there for him in the time of his greatest need.

At least, that’s the narrative that many people constructed out of the rat’s nest of rumours that his shocking death inspired.

There are two major problems with that interpretation, however.

One, it’s not supported by the facts, including those facts that emerged as evidence during the inquest.

Two, it assumes that Richards, a middle-aged man of 52 who held an administrative position of great responsibility, was incapable of thinking and acting for himself.

Last week’s inquest may have been an honest, well-intentioned attempt to seek the truth. But in the end, a mature, affluent, educated man ended up being portrayed as an infant. And if the government accepts all of the inquest’s recommendations, legitimate complaints of abuse, especially sexual abuse, may become more difficult for young students and their parents to make.

On the first point, the facts show that after May 28, 2001, when Richards was suspended with pay from his job, he was not as isolated as his supporters would have you believe.

The evidence shows that he had access to a lawyer, even though police had yet to charge him with a criminal offence. The evidence shows that representatives of the Nunavut Federation of Teachers were in regular contact with him. The evidence shows that his wife was in contact with him, via telephone from Yellowknife. The evidence shows that officials with Qikiqtani School Operations, confused though they may have been, were motivated by a desire to protect Richards’ integrity. There is no evidence that any education department employee intended to do him harm.

There isn’t even any evidence that Richards was noticeably distraught about the abuse allegations that a mother and her child had brought to the education department, and then to the police. The evidence shows that Richards had access to more support than many others in the same circumstance could reasonably expect to receive.

As for the second point, the inquest failed to demonstrate any cause-and-effect relationship between Richards’ suicide and the way he was treated by education department officials. It may be true, as the government of Nunavut’s lawyer suggested, that the abuse allegations made him so anxious that he decided to kill himself. But that’s just speculation. We don’t know what emotions Hal Richards felt in his final hours, and we never will.

But in order to conclude that department officials contributed to Hal Richards’ suicide, you have to accept the absurd premise that Hal Richards was not a mature adult capable of independent thought and action.

As a 52-year-old teacher with decades of experience in the profession, Richards ought to have known what to expect in the case of an abuse allegation. Abuse, especially sexual abuse, is not a new issue for those who work within elementary schools. Richards was not an inexperienced rookie. He ought to have known that any investigation and possible criminal trial would take many, many months to complete. He ought to have known that his supervisors, even if they were willing to talk to him, would not be able to state how long his suspension would last.

As for his supervisors at Qikiqtani School Operations, it’s not true, as they claimed in their testimony, that the RCMP ordered them not to talk to Richards. In a free society, neither the RCMP nor anyone else has the authority to order anyone to do that.

In his evidence, RCMP Constable Cory Bushell said that it’s a standard police practice when investigating criminal allegations in a workplace to ask that police get a chance to do their investigation first. He said the employer is free to investigate the allegations after that and to discuss them with the affected employee. Bushell said education department officials and employees were free to talk to Richards any time they wanted, as long as they didn’t talk about the allegations against him before the RCMP had finished talking to him.

For some reason, Steve Prest and Charles Banfield, the two supervisors who handled the situation, weren’t able to understand that, and for whatever reason, Richards’ co-workers came to believe that they were forbidden to talk to him. It’s significant though, that none appeared brave enough to do what they believed was the right thing and go over to visit him. The herd mentality can be a powerful force, it seems.

But even if his employer acted in a confused, incompetent and possibly dishonest manner, there’s still no evidence that they caused his death. Hal Richards caused his own death.

The government of Nunavut, therefore, should proceed with caution when considering the 16 recommendations made by the coroner’s jury. Most of those recommendations, by the way, were suggested to them by various lawyers and by coroner Percy Kinney.

Some of those recommendations may be useful, while others may be unnecessary. There is no evidence, however, that implementing any of them would prevent another teacher faced with a similar personal crisis from committing suicide.

Though the inquest may have served the comparatively narrow interests of the teaching profession by exposing their employer’s blundering inexperience, it did little to serve the wider public interest.

The question that the public wants an answer to is whether a child was abused while in the care of the school system. When Hal Richards took his own life, bringing an untimely close to the criminal investigation, he made sure that this question will never be answered.

JB

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