Nunavik family still has questions and frustrations, three years after man’s death
A Puvirnituq family says it feels left in the dark about how a young man died in a jail cell in 2017.
Jimmy Eliyassialuk, commonly known by his middle name, Sivuak, died on April 28, 2017, while in custody at the Kativik Regional Police Force detachment in his hometown of Puvirnituq.
An investigation has since cleared the police officers who apprehended Eliyassialuk that day of any criminal negligence or wrongdoing in relation to his death.
A coroner’s report was only made public earlier this year, as first reported by APTN. The coroner’s office concluded that the 22-year-old man died of alcohol poisoning.
But the Eliyassialuk family said they’ve received very little information from authorities about how the young man ended up dead.
Reports from Quebec’s coroner’s office take an average of 10 months to be completed and released, but the family didn’t receive the report with the details of Eliyassialuk’s death until August 2020—more than three years after his death and following repeated requests from an APTN reporter.
“They took a really long time,” said Freddie Eliyassialuk, Jimmy’s older sister. “The documents were all in French and no one in our family speaks French. We had to use Google to translate it.”
The report, prepared by Quebec coroner Steeve Poisson and dated June 2020, provided details about the hours leading up to Eliyassialuk’s death.
On April 28, 2017, at about 9:30 a.m., a resident called the KRPF complaining about intoxicated house guests.
KRPF officers arrived at the home and took two people with them—Eliyassialuk and one other person. Police drove the other individual home, but when Eliyassialuk fell asleep in the cruiser, officers opted to take him to the detachment to sober up. He was not under arrest.
The report said that officers placed Eliyassialuk on the cell floor on his stomach, so he wouldn’t choke if he vomited.
Later, at about 5:15 p.m., a civilian cell guard contacted the police when Eliyassialuk wouldn’t respond.
The police returned to find him in the same position but unconscious. He was declared dead shortly afterwards at the local health centre.
The coroner noted there was foam in Eliyassialuk’s trachea, and his lungs were swollen with accumulated fluid. The coroner could not rule out the possibility that Eliyassialuk had died from positional asphyxia, but he concluded that Eliyassialuk died of alcohol poisoning.
The BEI, which investigates incidents when people are seriously injured or killed during police interventions, found the officers did not use any force or recklessness that would have contributed to Eliyassialuk’s death.
In March 2019, Quebec’s Crown prosecutor’s office concluded that the officers who took Eliyassialuk into custody that day were not criminally negligent or responsible for his death.
“I don’t really know what happened to my brother that day,” said Freddie Eliyassialuk. “It feels like [neglect] from the police, but the [Bureau des enquêtes indépendantes] and police say it wasn’t.”
Eliyassialuk recalled the day of her brother’s death; she said the police never contacted the family to let them know he was in detention, even after the man’s girlfriend called the detachment to inquire.
“We were searching for him all day,” she said. “Someone came from the church that evening to tell us he had passed.”
Eliyassialuk said she later learned that there was no guard working at the KRPF detachment until 4 p.m. that day, meaning her brother could have been left alone for several hours that day. She said the police need to take better care of detainees, especially intoxicated ones.
The Eliyassialuk family remembers Sivuak as an avid hunter who took care of those around him. He worked in housing maintenance for the local hospital’s staff housing.
“He was really friendly and he always respected others,” said Eliyassialuk.
“We don’t know what to do now.”
A spokesperson from Quebec’s coroner’s office said she couldn’t comment on the delay in completing and releasing Eliyassialuk’s report, calling it “a complex case.”
But the office’s chief coroner told APTN that the delay was the office’s own error.
One of the recommendations that flowed from Quebec’s Viens Commission—an inquiry that looked at how Indigenous people are served by the province’s public service—called for liaison officers and, in Nunavik’s case, more Inuktitut-language communication from southern institutions that serve the region.
A spokesperson for the coroner’s office said it has created a new committee called Mortality in Indigenous and Inuit Communities to look at how the organization works with those communities, though the spokesperson said the committee has yet to start work due to COVID-19-related delays.