Q & A

Justice teacher analyzes Fort Good Hope, N.W.T., elder's emergency calls to RCMP

A Justice Studies teacher and former police officer gave The Trailbreaker his reaction to a Fort Good Hope elder's calls for help from RCMP that drew criticism about cultural sensitivity and translation issues in the N.W.T.

'From an emergency point of view, it slows down the system' John Irwin says of seeking out a translator

A Justice Studies teacher and former police officer has taken a listen to a Fort Good Hope elder's calls for help from RCMP that drew reaction about cultural sensitivity and translation issues in the N.W.T.

The phone calls are being used in the murder trial in the death of Charlotte Lafferty. Lafferty, 23, was found beaten to death the morning of March 22, 2014, near the community's seniors' complex.

Barthy Kotchile called the RCMP as he witnessed Lafferty being beaten to death outside his house. Kotchilie speaks very little English. He hangs up twice on the operator out of frustration before getting his neighbour to call.

Some northerners have expressed concern over how the operator handled the situation, as well as what police are doing to make sure people who don't speak English are understood.

'It’s a take charge tone, but you need to do that to get information,' says former police officer John Irwin. (University of Guelph-Humber)

The N.W.T. RCMP say they cannot talk about this issue until after the murder trial.

John Irwin, who was a member of the Toronto Police Service for more than 30 years, currently teaches justice studies at the University of Guelph-Humber. Irwin spoke with CBC Radio's The Trailbreaker this morning about Kotchilie's calls.

The following has been condensed and edited.

You listened to both of Barthy Kotchile's calls. What was your initial reaction to hearing them?

It sounds like the call taker, at least she knows where it is — it's at the seniors' home and somebody is getting hurt. Beyond that she is trying to get further information to give the officers on their way to the scene. I think Kotchile's call shows as coming in at 7:17 a.m., and the officer receives a call at home at 7:18 a.m. I'm going to guess that as she received the information she is typing in where to go and what the call is, and beyond that she is just trying to get more information.

Some people have expressed concern over the operator's tone. Namely, that it sounded condescending and disrespectful. What do you make of that?

She's very directive and she's trying to get information. Unfortunately, and it is an unfortunate part of the work, you've got to get as much detail as you can.

It would be much like if you've had first aid training or CPR, they teach you to look at someone, point at them if you can, and say "Call 911." If you just throw out "Call 911" someone might, someone might not. When you look at someone and are very directive, it's authoritative and it does sound condescending because it's absolutely a direction. You're telling someone what to do. So it's a take-charge tone, but you need to do that to get information. I know when you add a language barrier to it, it's so much more difficult.

There are people in the territory who don't speak any English. How important are translators to the RCMP and to the safety of the public?

We've got the same issue in Toronto because of a large multicultural new immigrant population, so you've got to try and deal with it as best you can. But the first issue is you've got to find out is what the language is. In this situation he was speaking enough English to make out what he was saying and where the officers needed to go. Somebody is getting beat up outside, and I think later it says kicked in the head — that's a pretty serious assault.

So if the officer is going somewhat blindly into a serious call, and the operator wants to drag out as much information as she can. If they had a system in place, and I think they do, where they can connect you to translator, well that works once you figure out what the language is. The issue is when someone comes in and speaks no English, how do you figure that out?

The RCMP says it has an online aboriginal language translation system available for people who do not speak English. From what we've been told, it's an external service operators can access with people who speak a number of languages, and if there is someone at that service that happens to speak the language, they may be able to help translate. What do you make of that solution?

Well it works if you know the language, but there's really two issues. First, there is the safety issue, getting there, getting an address. So the first issue is getting the police there. The second is the translation. In Toronto, we deal with it often on the arrest side. We have signs in the police stations in several different languages that say "You're entitled to a lawyer. Here's a number you can call and speak to someone in your own language" — but this is an emergency issue.

From an emergency point of view, it slows down the system. That could take you another three or four minutes before it gets back to the police officer who needs to know where to go and it's an emergency. You also want to keep them on the line, because that's the person who can give you the most information. Once the police are rolling, the next issue becomes providing that officer with the most information you can so you don't send them into a situation where you've got somebody who is trouble on the ground, and you've got a police officer in trouble on the ground who has come with weapons.