Tyler Hikoalok testifies at his murder trial

Crown lawyer challenges Cambridge Bay man over his memory from day victim was attacked

Tyler Hikoalok, on trial for first-degree murder, took the stand in his own defence Tuesday at the Ottawa courthouse. Hikoalok, 22, is accused of killing Elisabeth Salm, 59, in 2018. (Courtroom sketch by Lauren Foster-MacLeod)

By Madalyn Howitt

The jury in the murder trial of Tyler Hikoalok finally heard from the accused himself on Tuesday as the Cambridge Bay man took the stand in his own defence.

In his testimony, Hikoalok, 22, who faces a first-degree murder charge in the 2018 killing of Elisabeth Salm in Ottawa, spoke about his troubled upbringing and his issues with alcohol consumption.

Hikoalok, who has pleaded not guilty, was arrested May 27, 2018, in the death of 59-year-old Salm, three days after she was attacked while volunteering at the Christian Science Reading Room downtown.

A co-worker found Salm, badly beaten and lying on the floor of the study room. She died the following day at the Ottawa Civic Hospital.

On the witness stand, Hikoalok sat with his shoulders slumped forward, wearing the same red sweatshirt he’s worn every day of the trial.

He spoke quietly, barely above a whisper at many points throughout his testimony.

Hikoalok was born in Cambridge Bay and lived with his biological mother until age three. At that point, he began living with a foster family in the community along with his two biological brothers and multiple foster siblings.

While testifying, Hikoalok suddenly became emotional when asked what his life in Nunavut was like, wiping tears away with some tissues.

“It was hard growing up,” he said. “I got bullied a lot.”

Elisabeth Salm, a librarian at the Christian Science Reading Room at 141 Laurier Ave. in Ottawa, was found severely injured inside the centre’s study room on May 24, 2018. Tyler Hikoalok, 22, faces a first-degree murder charge in her death. (Photo by Madalyn Howitt)

His time in Nunavut ended at the age of nine, when he was sent to live in a group home in Lindsay, Ont., more than 3,000 kilometres from his hometown.

He was later moved to another group home outside Huntsville, Ont. and made brief visits back to Cambridge Bay every two years.

It was around age 11 that Hikoalok said he began drinking alcohol, having been introduced to it by one of his foster brothers in the group home.

He drank “just enough to feel good, to be happy,” and preferred drinking alone, he said.

He also began smoking marijuana around this time, smoking three or four grams a day to help him “feel calm.”

At age 13, he moved to Ottawa to live in yet another group home, where he learned how to make beats and create music.

He stayed there while attending Debbie Campbell Learning Academy, an alternative school, until around the time he turned 18.

Hikoalok said he began staying on friends’ couches and living in shelters, such as the Shepherds of Good Hope in downtown Ottawa.

He testified he was at a friend’s house on the morning of May 24, 2018, the day Salm was attacked. After he woke up, he took a sip of the vodka that was next to the bed before meeting up with friends downtown to drink some more.

That’s when he “blacked out,” he said, testifying he doesn’t remember anything that happened that day after he drank with his friends.

Stills from a video timeline the Crown submitted as an exhibit show a man they allege is Tyler Hikoalok walking in front of the Christian Science Reading Room in Ottawa around the time Elisabeth Salm was attacked inside the centre. The top two images show Hikoalok walking in front of the centre around 9:14 a.m., the bottom image shows him leaving a side entrance more than an hour later. (Images courtesy of Superior Court of Justice)

The last thing he recalls is waking up behind a bus stop in Vanier, a neighbourhood several kilometres east of downtown, he said.

Under cross-examination, the Crown grilled Hikoalok over his memory of that day.

At 10:21 a.m., images that appear to show Hikoalok were captured on security footage leaving a side entrance to the building that houses the Christian Science Reading Room. He was wearing a baseball cap, black sweatshirt with the word “TR1BE” written across the front, and grey pants.

A half-hour later at 10:52 a.m., he was seen on video entering the Debbie Campbell school at 440 Albert St. wearing grey shorts and a black T-shirt.

Crown lawyer Brian Holowka suggested Hikoalok had changed his clothes to avoid detection.

Hikoalok denied this, saying he couldn’t remember anything from that part of the day. Earlier in the trial, several teachers testified they interacted with Hikoalok that day and that he did not appear to be intoxicated.

The jury also learned of Hikoalok’s youth criminal record that includes multiple charges of sexual assault, assault causing bodily harm, theft and mischief.

Hikoalok’s testimony is expected to continue Wednesday.

A forensic psychiatrist who examined him is expected to testify later this week about Hikoalok’s history of alcohol consumption and what effect that may have had on him in May 2018.

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