Deadly Force: Family left wondering how young son died after fatal 2017 encounter with Nunavut RCMP

Kunuk Qamaniq, 20, from Pond Inlet, Nunavut, was most comfortable when he was outdoors. He was a hunter, who camped on the land to harvest seal, caribou and narwhal.

Mother in Pond Inlet says she still doesn’t know how her son died

Kunuk Qamaniq from Pond Inlet, Nunavut, was a 20-year-old hunter who camped on the land to harvest seal, caribou and narwhal. He died in March 2017 after suffering from a gunshot wound. (Submitted by Leah Qamaniq)

This story is part of Deadly Force, a CBC News investigation into police-involved fatalities in Canada.

Kunuk Qamaniq from Pond Inlet, Nunavut, was most comfortable when he was outdoors. The 20-year-old was a hunter who camped on the land to harvest seal, caribou and narwhal.

His mother, Leah Qamaniq, describes him as easy going and loved by family. As the second eldest son in his family, he was also a big help around the house.

Kunuk had never been in trouble with anyone, his mother said, especially police.

"The people here know Kunuk was trouble-free to anyone or any cop, they know that he was a good person," she said.

On March 18, 2017, RCMP were called to the hamlet's cemetery, where officers were responding to a report of a man with a firearm.

No answers for family

Kunuk's death last year was one of 461 deadly encounters with police in Canada between 2000 and 2017, according to a CBC News analysis. (Submitted by Leah Qamaniq)

The man, who police said was suicidal, suffered a gunshot wound. RCMP statements at the time did not say whether the man was shot by police — and to this day, it is still unconfirmed by officials.

That Saturday afternoon in March, Leah received a call at home from a relative working at the health centre. Kunuk was in critical condition. He died shortly after she arrived at the health centre.

Kunuk's death last year was one of 461 deadly encounters with police in Canada between 2000 and 2017, according to a CBC News analysis.

The five men who died in Nunavut — Kunuk; Naytanie Atadjuat, 26; Felix Taqqaugaq, 30; Charles Qirngnirq, 21; and Jeremy Nuvviaq, 39 — were all fatally shot during RCMP interventions.

The CBC database shows the number of people dying in police encounters has steadily increased since 2000.

'From now on I will never ever call the cops for help,' said David Qamaniq, father of Kunuk Qamaniq. (David Gunn/CBC)

Kunuk was one of three victims of RCMP-involved shootings that took place in the six-month period between December 2016 and May 2017.

Ottawa police, which acted as third-party investigators in all three cases, are expected to testify at mandatory coroner's inquests. The coroner's office did not release the date for the inquest into Kunuk's death.

"My husband and I, we've been trying to find the justice for my son, we've been trying to ask the supervisor for RCMP here," said Leah, who says she believes the officer responding to the call fatally shot her son.

"I don't know what else to do anymore."

The events at the cemetery were investigated by Ottawa police, according to standard practice in Nunavut RCMP-related fatalities. Ottawa police told CBC their investigation is concluded and with the RCMP.

RCMP's V Division in Nunavut did not respond to CBC's requests for an interview.

David Qamaniq, Kunuk's father, says he has lost faith in police.

"We thought the RCMP was going to help us to diffuse the problem," he said. "From now on I will never ever call the cops for help."

David wants Nunavut politicians to push for independent investigators who aren't police to look into RCMP-involved deaths.

All 5 victims were Inuit

The CBC investigation found that 70 per cent of victims suffered from mental illness, substance abuse, or both, and Indigenous victims were over-represented.

All five victims in Nunavut were Inuit, and are believed to have been suicidal or in distress due to mental illness, according to reports by police and family.

Before he died, Kunuk was struggling to cope with the loss of his sister, who died by suicide in 2016, according to Leah.

Former Nunavut RCMP Sgt. Yvonne Niego said in times of crisis, rifts in community relations become apparent.

"When that anxiety and stress level is high, that's when mistakes are made, assumptions are made and wrongful actions can happen," she said.

Jimmy Akavak, another former Nunavut RCMP sergeant, says language barriers increase the chances of miscommunication.

"When we're in a crisis situation we want to talk to somebody who we trust, in the same language, our mother tongue, and a lot of times that helps as an officer," he said.

"Over the years the majority of the negotiations I've done — crisis negotiating — was in Inuktitut."

Police are often responding to households in Nunavut where firearms are commonly used for hunting and aren't properly stored, according to Akavak.

"Especially when narwhal or beluga whales come in, people have guns on their porch," he said.

Of the five police-involved deaths between 2000 and 2017 in Nunavut, three victims were reportedly armed with guns and two victims had a knife.

Niego, who is currently the deputy minister of Family Services in Nunavut's government, says deadly encounters with police are also related to a shortage of mental-health services.

"There are so many needs," she said. "Bit by bit some of those things are being addressed ... but it takes time."

'When that anxiety and stress level is high, that's when mistakes are made, assumptions are made and wrongful actions can happen,' said Former Nunavut RCMP Sgt. Yvonne Niego. (Travis Burke/CBC)

Victoria Madsen, director of mental health and addiction in the territory, says the government is bringing new training to communities.

After five years since the government first introduced the pilot, Nunavut's Department of Health and Quality of Life Secretariat is finally implementing the Interagency Information Sharing Protocol program in some communities that would allow frontline workers to communicate across agencies. That means RCMP can contact mental-health staff in times of crisis.

The first training will take place in Kunuk's home community of Pond Inlet on Monday, and more training will happen over spring and summer.

"If RCMP gets a call and there's an imminent risk of suicide, they can call mental health and we can tell them what we need to know," said Madsen. "This at least increases the chance of getting the help they need."