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Family of Indigenous woman who died in police custody seeks answers and justice

Debra Chrisjohn was arrested early September in 2016 after London police received reports of a woman who was obstructing traffic at a major intersection. She was transferred on an outstanding warrant into the custody of Ontario Provincial Police. She was later sent to hospital where she was pronounced dead.

‘I want to see that the system still works,’ says daughter of woman who died after arrest

Two police officers have been charged in the death of Debra Chrisjohn. (Facebook)

The family of a 39-year-old Indigenous woman who died in police custody in Ontario say they want answers.

Deinaira Doxtator said she wants justice for her mother, who is survived by 11 children and two grandchildren.

"I want to see that the system still works the way they say. I want answers and I want those officers to know what I feel," she said.

Ontario's Special Investigations Unit charged two police officers Thursday in connection with Debra Chrisjohn's death.

OPP Const. Mark McKillop and London police Const. Nicholas Doering are facing charges of criminal negligence causing death and failing to provide the necessaries of life. Both officers are still on active duty.

They will make their first court appearance later this month.

Chrisjohn was arrested on Sept. 7, 2016, after London, Ont., police received reports of a woman who was obstructing traffic at a major intersection.

She was transferred on an outstanding warrant into the custody of Ontario Provincial Police.

Chrisjohn was later sent to hospital where she was pronounced dead.

She had been living on the Oneida Nation of the Thames with her father and two children.

Chrisjohn struggled with substance abuse and her mental health, and was known to police. 

Debra Chrisjohn (middle) died in police custody early September in 2016. She is survived by 11 children, including Deinaira Chrisjohn (right). (Submitted by Deinaira Chrisjohn)

'This was my soulmate'

"I would never wish this upon anybody," said Dean Doxtator, who was Chrisjohn's boyfriend. "This was my soulmate."

"I'm still in shock, I can't believe it," said Doxtator. "It's grief, it's sad and it's depressing."

Samantha Doxtator began stitching together traditional moccasin vamps in January to commemorate Chrisjohn, who was her father's former girlfriend.

She's sending them to a national art installation remembering missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada and the U.S.  

Two moccasin 'vamps' sewn in memory of Debra Chrisjohn. (Submitted by Samantha Doxtator )

"It's a part of healing," she said. "One day [her kids] are going to come looking for her. I just thought maybe one day that it might be healing for them too."

Long legal process ahead

Caitlyn Kasper, Chrisjohn's family lawyer with Aboriginal Legal services, said in a statement to CBC that the family has many unanswered questions.

"This is just the beginning of a long legal process that will be very difficult for Debra's family," read the statement, which cited concerns from Chrisjohn's father that the relationship between Indigenous communities and the police is difficult.

"This happens way too often in our community. This happens all the time. The police just don't seem to care," Robert Chrisjohn said. 

Giselle Dias, a local psychotherapist who has spent 25 years working with prisoners' rights, said Indigenous and marginalized communities are most affected by the criminal justice system.

She said Chrisjohn's death speaks to a systemic issue of over-policing within racialized communities.

"Just because these police officers have been charged, it doesn't mean that they're going to be found guilty," she said. "I will not rest assured."