Headlines, Human Rights, Indigenous Rights, North America

CANADA: Native Group Questions Custodial Deaths

Am Johal

VANCOUVER, Nov 8 2007 (IPS) - Canadian policing authorities are drawing criticism on the issue of in-custody deaths, especially among aboriginal people, including some cases that are now decades old.

In British Columbia alone, there have been 267 in-custody deaths since 1992, according to the BC Coroners Service. “In-custody” refers to deaths of civilians whether they are being pursued or are incarcerated by policing authorities.

David Eby is a lawyer with the Pivot Legal Society, who in 2006 represented the family of Gerald Chenery, a 29-year-old aboriginal man who was shot to death by two junior officers in an alleyway near Main and Hastings Street in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver. Eby is now representing the family in a public inquiry into the death of Frank Paul, a First Nations man who was taken out of jail and left to freeze to death in an alley by police in 1998.

“My view of the review process is that it is flawed,” Eby told IPS. “When someone dies, there is not an automatic, independent investigation. Police are still investigating police.”

“Concerns I had coming out of the Chenery inquest is that there were leading questions around their authority, failing to separate the officers involved, having witness officers escort them from the scene, having police officers offer statements months after the incident,” he said.

“When you put them together, if a civilian were to kill somebody in self-defence, would they get driven home to take a shower and have weeks to sort out a statement? The coroner’s inquests can’t assign fault or blame. They can only look at the facts and make recommendations. Even the coroner said that we couldn’t raise the issue of police investigating police. The system is set up so that there are no real investigations and is set up to protect police.”

Christine Smith-Parnell of the Vancouver Aboriginal Working Group on Deaths in Custody told a local newspaper this week that, “We went back as far as probably the early 1970s to start to look at the deaths in custody, and so far we’re looking not just at Frank Paul but all the deaths in B.C. We had initially 52 cases, and we’ve narrowed that down to suspicious cases of deaths in custody…to about 24 to 25 cases that we need to have a second look at.”

“The numbers are quite high. I am not surprised to hear that aboriginal people are over-represented,” Cameron Ward, a lawyer who has represented relatives of people who died in custody, told IPS.

“My experience as counsel for deceased family members in British Columbia is that anytime someone dies in custody of a peace officer, a coroner’s inquest must be held. The Coroner’s Service is said to be an independent body, but it falls under the Ministry of Public Safety and the Solicitor General – it is the same ministry responsible for the conduct of policing. My main concern is with the issue of independence of the coroner’s service and the police investigations.”

Ward added that in the aboriginal community, there are longstanding and real concerns about whether deaths in custody have been adequately investigated.

“In British Columbia, the police have legal counsel, the coroner has legal counsel, but families have no ability to get legal aid and are generally not represented by a lawyer. If it is a process being run by government lawyers, exposure of the facts can be limited due to self-interest. There is a risk that circumstances behind a death won’t be fully probed,” he said.

There are also jurisdictional issues on how death-in-custody cases and complaints are handled. At a recent forum held in Vancouver, Andre Marin, the former head of the Special Investigations Unit of Ontario, criticised the system in BC for not undertaking independent investigations.

In September, BC Solicitor-General John Les told the Vancouver Sun, “When it comes to major investigations, I think they are being handled as well as they can be.”

However, Ward points out that a coroner’s inquest is a fact-finding mission and not a fault-finding mission. People with standing can provide evidence and the jury is charged with fixing the time, place and cause of death.

Though they have the option to make recommendations, the investigation is still done by police.

“It doesn’t work well with police-in-custody deaths. Police investigate it themselves to the coroner and in due course, this investigation is presented as part of the findings. The investigations do not have the same rigour if police had not been involved with the death,” he said.

“Police and coroners were closely together on files, about 500 a year. A close working relationship develops, there is a perception that the coroner can’t act independently. Former senior police officials have been chief coroners. There may be, on the part of the office, a bias in favour of the police,” Ward said.

A report written in February for the federal government by the Correctional Investigator of Canada on 82 prisoner deaths nationwide between 2001 and 2005 period noted that concerns have been raised repeatedly by investigative boards and coroners in a significant number of death-in-custody cases.

It found no evidence that Correctional Services Canada has improved its overall capacity to prevent or respond to deaths in custody, and “it is likely that some of the deaths in custody could have been averted through improved risk assessments, more vigorous preventive measures, and more competent and timely responses by institutional staff.”

While the report said that Correctional Services Canada tended to act on the recommendations of Boards of Investigation, it often disagreed with, or took no action on coroner’s recommendations

Sixty percent of the 82 deaths in federal custody were by suicide. Homicides and accidents, including drug overdoses, accounted for 20 percent of the total deaths in federal institutions. Over one-fifth of these deaths were aboriginal. Concerns related to mental health programming and suicide prevention were also raised in 40 percent of the cases.

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