Iqaluit – On the heels of three recent RCMP-related deaths, a townhall meeting was held in Iqaluit May 23 to discuss option related to police oversight.
All three incidents — the deaths of a 39-year-old man in Hall Beach May 1, a 20-year-old in Pond Inlet in March, and a 21-year old man in Gjoa Haven in December – are being investigated by Ottawa police Service.
Organizer Thomas Rohner explained to a full house at the Qayuqtuvik Food Centre that’s a closed model – when police investigate police and don’t release details of the investigation, only the conclusion.
Rohner, a former reporter at Nunatsiaq News, wrote extensively about such police matters, often speaking to inmates themselves, or with those who allege misconduct.
“While covering those stories, the main issue that jumped out at me was how allegations of misconduct against Nunavut police are investigated. Or, when there’s been a serious incident, like a death in a police interaction – how that’s investigated,” Rohner told Nunavut News/North.
It was while conducting research for these stories that Rohner found himself consulting Senator Kim Pate, a 35-year advocate for over-represented vulnerable populations in the criminal justice system.
Pate offered to come to Nunavut as a guest speaker at the townhall meeting.
“I think she has had a very profound effect on raising awareness of the very troubled interface between marginalized groups – abused women, aboriginal women, people with mental health problems in the jail system – and the Canadian justice system,” said Rohner.
Rohner started off the meeting by listing five possible models currently used in various Canadian jurisdictions: police investigating police, internal; police investigating police, external; police investigating police, with civilian review and observation; police/civilian investigation, with civilian review; and civilians investigating police, with civilian review.
But Pate later said Nunavut was in a position to create a new way of doing police oversight more suited to the Inuit culture, rather than follow in the footsteps of southern jurisdictions. She said the overlay of a southern criminal justice system atop Inuit society has already proven less than successful.
“How about a council of elders,” she suggested, though through-out the evening Pate said the ideas and solutions should come from Inuit.
Rohner later asked elder Geetaloo Kakee what he thought of the idea. Through translator Elisapi Aningmiuq, he said elders had no knowledge of the system. He also likened it to the taxation system, which is beyond comprehension.
“When we talk about this, we cannot leave out mental health and the RCMP. Do we get information when someone is given the wrong medication or someone is wrong? As elders we don’t have much voice, but our younger generation is correcting a lot of stuff that has been wrong,” said Kakee though Aningmiuq.
“In Nunavut, in Baffin, we (elders) have no knowledge of laws. As an example, we acknowledge it. It’s like income tax. It’s looked at twice, locally. We get all these documents. We don’t know if they say we’ve done anything wrong or that it’s good.”
After saying Inuit had been told in the ’60s things would get better, then again in 1993 when Nunavut was created, Kakee asked, “What now?”
Qallunaat and Inuit must learn to understand each other
Pate said she’d spoken to a number of people from Nunavut before coming up, and asked for ideas.
“People talked about traditional means of dealing with issues, like banishment. There are times when people doing the work, shouldn’t be doing the work anymore. And for me that’s like the concept of banishment,” she said.
She also suggested police whose behaviour has been found inadequate could be sent for mentoring.
Rohner also notes another model.
“I didn’t get into it much at the meeting, but police are starting to realize the inevitability of external oversight. The literature supports as a best way forward a system where police do a much better job at internal risk management so that they can avoid these situations much better,” he said.
“Then, if these situations do happen, have an external oversight mechanism for that, but to actually focus on making themselves much more accountable. The public has to know they’re accountable. So it’s an internal mechanism, but with public accountability.”
Former Iqaluit mayor Mary Wilman, who also spent the evening as a volunteer interpreter, spoke up.
“I live here. I’m born and raised here. For almost 20 years now we’ve talked about these things. It’s like a broken record to me. Twenty years ago, I was one of those facilitators when Iqaluit was changing to two levels of justice system. There were wonderful suggestions made at that time,” she said, adding the police oversight is an very important topic.
“It’s evident today that something is not working.”
Throughout the evening, Pate made the point for compassionate funding – putting resources into mental health and wellness, and restorative justice, rather than the prison system.
Aningmiuq stepped out of her volunteer interpreter role and said a few words herself, making the point that existing criminal justice institutions are intimidating to Inuit.
“There is a lot of anger, a lot of revenge, there’s a lot of misunderstanding in both – qallunaat and Inuit – so sometimes it’s too late. They are drowning in their addictions and problems. If there is no dialogue for understanding, unfortunately, we’re both going to stay stuck. For us, it’s very intimidating to go to the correctional facility. It’s very intimidating just to go to an office, sometimes, even a phone call.”
Meanwhile, spurred by Ottawa Police Service member Sgt. Chris Hrnchiar who made racist online comments about the death of Inuk artist Annie Pootoogook and was later demoted, Iqaluit-Sinaa MLA Paul Okalik questioned how the Ottawa police could be trusted to carry out such sensitive investigations.
“Given this situation, it is obvious that the Ottawa Police Service can no longer be trusted to undertake independent and objective investigations into incidents that occur here in Nunavut,” Okalik said to Justice Minister Keith Peterson in the Legislative assembly in the fall of 2016.
Peterson said, “I understand there are some concerns about police investigating police. I have asked the department to look at other options.”
But Peterson also said he would not make that research public.
“I don’t understand why that wouldn’t be public,” Rohner told News/North, adding he has since acquired that information and plans on posting it online.