Police watchdog appoints Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation chief to review investigation report on fatal shooting
Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council vice-president wants next step to be complete Indigenous oversight
Mariah Charleson, vice president of the Nuu-chah-Nulth Tribal Council, says it is a huge deal that First Nations will be part of the process as B.C.'s police watchdog investigates a death last year on Meares Island, near Tofino, B.C.
Twenty-eight-year-old Julian Jones, of the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation, was shot and killed by Tofino RCMP on Feb. 27, 2021, while police were responding to reports of a woman being held against her will at a home in the Tla-o-qui-aht village of Opitsaht.
B.C.'s Independent Investigations Office (IIO) was then called in to investigate.
A month later, the IIO — called when people are seriously injured or killed in interactions with police — agreed to appoint a civilian monitor to review the investigation and make recommendations to IIO staff. The monitor was to be Indigenous.
That monitor was named this week: Tla-o-qui-aht Chief Thomas George will get a briefing on the investigation, which is nearly complete, and then will be able to request files, interview investigators, and make suggestions on how work can proceed.
He will be sworn to secrecy about the details of the investigation, but will write a report on the process, which will be shared publicly.
The IIO says it took a year to name the Indigenous civilian monitor because it was their first time doing so and they wanted to get it right.
Mariah Charleson first suggested the idea to IIO Chief Civilian Director Ron MacDonald when they spoke the day after the incident.
What she'd really like to see, she says, is full Indigenous oversight of investigations involving Indigenous peoples, but she also didn't want to wait for new legislation to be written.
"My first question was, what can we do right now?" said Charleson.
"It was scary. It wasn't only scary for the community of Opitsaht, it had ripple effects through all of our Nuu-chah-nulth communities." The Nuu-chah-nulth people live across the mid-section of Vancouver Island.
She and MacDonald agreed that a civilian monitor would be easiest to enact. It already exists under the Police Act, which meant no regulatory changes would have to be made.
"It's not a perfect process," said MacDonald, "but it does allow, in this case, the chief to have complete access to our file, to be able to ask us any questions, interview any of our investigators, make suggestions and comments, things we might want to do differently."
More change to come
Charleson says she hopes this investigation will lead to recommendations to the RCMP about de-escalation techniques, and how police enter First Nations communities.
She says she'd also like the IIO to commit to appointing civilian Indigenous monitors to each case involving Indigenous people until a more formal system on Indigenous oversight can be established.
MacDonald would not commit to specifics, but says the IIO is working with the First Nations Justice Council to develop a province-wide process that would "allow for an independent, objective, investigation to be done that benefits from the knowledge from the community that we're investigating," and that allows communities to give input.
While the IIO is not currently mandated to make recommendations to police, MacDonald says he thinks that should change. He says he suggested it to B.C.'s Special Committee on Reforming the Police Act in a presentation last year.
The IIO has not said when its report on the death in Opitsaht will be released. Chief George will have 30 days to submit his report after the IIO's investigation is completed.