British Columbia

Indigenous leaders call for public inquiry into RCMP's role in death of Williams Lake man

Indigenous leaders are demanding an independent investigation and public inquiry into the RCMP’s response to a distress call that they say resulted in a Williams Lake First Nation man's death. 

Welfare check should have been the response to concerned phone call, says Williams Lake First Nation chief

Williams Lake First Nation was joined by the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs Tuesday, to demand an independent investigation and public inquiry into the RCMP’s role in a man's death. (CBC)

WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

Indigenous leaders are demanding an independent investigation and public inquiry into the RCMP's response to a distress call that they say resulted in a Williams Lake First Nation (WLFN) man's death.

RCMP said in the early morning of July 10, they received a call from concerned family members of a man with a weapon, who was contemplating self-harm.

Police said they responded to the call and surrounded a small apartment block in Williams Lake, in B.C.'s Interior, at around 3:40 a.m. Tactical officers from the North District Emergency Response Team (ERT) followed shortly after. 

Rojan Alphonse, 36, was later found dead in his home with what police said appeared to be a "self-inflicted injury." 

"We are all in shock and mourning," WLFN Chief Willie Sellars said in a news conference Tuesday. 

Sellars said he believes the call should've been answered with a welfare check to de-escalate the situation, but instead the response was "a swarm of ERT personnel with automatic weapons, body armour, armoured vehicles and tear gas."

According to police, officers entered the home around noon, where Alphonse was pronounced dead at the scene.

"In the midst of this aggressive and violent confrontation by the RCMP, Rojan took his life," Sellars said. "When is it common practice that an ERT team is deployed to a situation where a person is threatening suicide?"

A B.C. RCMP police cruiser is seen in a file photograph.
RCMP officers were called to a Williams Lake, B.C., apartment building before dawn on July 10. A man was later found dead in one of the apartments. (CBC)

The Independent Investigations Office (IIO) of B.C. — which reviews all police actions that result in death or serious harm — was later called to investigate.

In a statement, the IIO said RCMP officers had "attempted to engage with the man for several hours" before his death.

Sellars and the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs (UBCIC) are calling for a full public inquiry into the July 10 incident beyond the IIO's investigation.

"Single accountability of one department in one city is recommended, but we are calling for an in-depth report and review on the systemic and legal failings that require immediate change," stated the leaders' legal counsel, Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond.

Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, president of the UBCIC, added that this isn't the first time an incident like this has happened in B.C. and it's likely to happen again if not addressed.

"The response by RCMP escalated the situation and a life was lost. It is completely unacceptable," said Phillip.

Loving husband and father

During the conference, Alphonse's widow June North tearfully described him as a loving husband and father of four.

"No apology will make up for our loss and the tragedy of this loving man. We call for justice on how our RCMP have followed through on this call," she said. 

Ron MacDonald, chief civilian director with the IIO, told CBC their role is to determine whether or not the actions of the police were appropriate.

"We have to look at how they responded, what they did when they responded. What role did that play, if any, in the young person's death," he said.

"If we find that there are reasonable grounds to believe that they constituted criminal acts, then I will refer the matter to the Crown for consideration of charges."

In an email response to CBC, Williams Lake RCMP said it could not provide any further comment due to the ongoing investigation by the IIO.


Where to get help

Crisis Centre B.C.: 1-800-SUICIDE, 1-800-784-2433

Mental Health Support Line: 310-6789

Online Chat Service for Adults: CrisisCentreChat.ca (noon to 1 a.m.)

Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention: Find a 24-hour crisis centre

The Canada Suicide Prevention Service can be accessed online at crisisservicescanada.ca.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Brittany Roffel is a digital journalist with CBC Vancouver. Get in touch with her on Twitter at @BrittanyRoffel or at brittany.roffel@cbc.ca.

With files from Marcella Bernardo and David Ball

now