Yukoner's cell 'not habitable,' inquest hears

The Whitehorse RCMP detachment watch commander who was on duty when Raymond Silverfox died in custody cried at a coroner's inquest Friday as she recalled the final hours before his death.

RCMP commander 'shocked' at conditions in drunk tank where man spent 13 hours

A supporter of Raymond Silverfox holds up a poster during a prayer circle Wednesday outside the Whitehorse courthouse, where a coroner's inquest into his death was held this week. ((CBC))
The Whitehorse RCMP detachment watch commander who was on duty when Raymond Silverfox died in custody cried at a coroner's inquest Friday as she recalled the final hours before his death.

Cpl. Calista MacLeod broke down as she told the inquest panel about the Dec. 2, 2008, death of Silverfox, 43, who remained largely unattended in an RCMP cell for 13 hours.

The First Nations man was kept in the detachment's drunk tank from the time officers picked him up, intoxicated, at a local emergency shelter around 5 a.m. to when he was rushed to Whitehorse General Hospital around 7 p.m. after being found unresponsive in his cell.

He died in hospital two hours later of heart failure and acute pneumonia.

The inquest panel, which has been hearing evidence and testimony since April 15, has heard that Silverfox lay in his own vomit and feces all day. He had vomited 26 times in the time that he was in custody without anyone coming to clean the cell or attend to him.

At no point in the day did RCMP officers or guards get medical attention for Silverfox, and some mocked him and laughed at the filthy conditions in his cell, the inquest heard.

One constable even made a remark that he later acknowledged was unprofessional and disrespectful, telling Silverfox, "You can sleep in your own shit."

Cell 'not habitable'

MacLeod testified that she was "shocked" when she first looked in on Silverfox around 6:30 p.m. and saw the state of his cell. She described the cell conditions as "not habitable" and said she had been unaware of them until that point.

The guard on duty, Hector MacLellan, testified on Thursday that he watched Silverfox on a TV monitor and saw him laying on his right side and moving at 6:01 p.m. MacLellan said he did not physically check on him.

Silverfox stopped moving at 6:31 p.m., according to an RCMP videotape of the cell.

Shortly after that, MacLeod looked at the video monitor and asked MacLellan whether Silverfox was moving. MacLellan replied, "Oh yeah, he's OK," the inquest panel heard.

MacLeod looked into Silverfox's cell at 6:36 p.m. and noted no response from Silverfox. Six minutes later, Const. Michael Muller entered the cell and tried unsuccessfully to rouse Silverfox.

Tried to revive him

Muller testified that he began CPR on Silverfox in the cell, then moved him into the hallway because the smell of diarrhea was so overwhelming that he kept gagging and couldn't breathe.

Paramedics arrived within minutes and tried to revive Silverfox. He was taken to Whitehorse General Hospital, where emergency room doctors tried to resuscitate him until he was pronounced dead at 9:13 p.m.

Pathologist Dr. Charles Lee, who conducted the autopsy, said the acute pneumonia that killed Silverfox was very recent, possibly developing only hours before he died.

The condition is common in cases where patients breathe in their stomach contents after vomiting, Lee told the inquest panel.

Death impacted officer

Sobbing during her testimony, MacLeod told the inquest panel, "I feel for Raymond Silverfox and his family," adding that his death has impacted her "a lot."

She said she has since made it a practice to check on people in custody in their cells more often. The traumatic experience, she said, has made her a better police officer.

Since the death of Silverfox, the Whitehorse RCMP detachment has instituted a policy to call an ambulance after someone in custody vomits more than twice, the inquest panel heard.

Paramedics have been called to the RCMP detachment cells 135 times so far this year, according to police.

Aboriginal relations questioned

Yukon deputy justice minister Dennis Cooley, left, Justice Minister Marian Horne and RCMP Supt. Peter Clark announced a review of RCMP policing in the Yukon on Thursday. ((CBC))
The Silverfox inquest has prompted the Yukon government to launch a review of RCMP policing in the Yukon.

Supporters of Silverfox, who was a member of the Little Salmon Carmacks First Nation, say that review must look specifically at relations between the police and First Nations.

"There's absolutely no respect shown to him at all from the RCMP, down to the guards, and something has to be done," said Mayo-Tatchun Liberal Eric Fairclough, who attended the inquest this week.

"There's got to be some major improvements made with this system that we have today."

Fairclough said the inquest has revealed the insensitivity RCMP officers and cell guards exhibit toward people being held in the drunk tank.

"It's a disconnect between the RCMP, the guards, and what really happens in jail with people, particularly with those that are intoxicated," he said.

'Trust me': justice minister

Silverfox was the fourth aboriginal Yukoner to die in RCMP custody in the past decade. The Yukon RCMP also has two unsolved murders, both involving First Nations people, on its books dating from that time.

Supt. Peter Clark, the Yukon RCMP's acting commander, said the police force can do more to improve relations with First Nations.

Yukon Justice Minister Marian Horne, a member of the Teslin Tlingit Council, said the RCMP review will include First Nations representatives and input and will result in changes for the better.

"I think what you have to do is trust me — as the minister of justice, as a First Nations woman — that I will do the best of my ability to see this through," Horne said.