Inquest begins into police shooting of Winnipeg teen

Witnesses at an inquest into the death of Matthew Dumas began testifying Monday about the events that led to the 18-year-old Winnipegger's death by police gunfire in 2005.

Witnesses at an inquest into the death of Matthew Dumas began testifying Monday about the events that led to the 18-year-old Winnipegger's death by police gunfire in 2005.

Dumas was shot and killed by a Winnipeg officer on Jan. 31, 2005, in the city's North End neighbourhood. Police said Dumas, who they believed was a robbery suspect, confronted an officer with a weapon, later determined to be a screwdriver.

At the start of the inquest, a series of witnesses described what inquest counsel Robert Tapper called the "genesis" of events that led police to their eventual confrontation with Dumas.

The case began when police responded to a call about a home invasion in the East Kildonan-area home of Ken Warren.

Warren, the first witness to testify, said three people robbed him at his home on that Jan. 31.

One assailant grabbed a silver chain from his neck and threatened him with violence, he said.  He heard one of his assailants tell another to shoot him, Warren testified, which led him to believe the men were armed with a gun, though he admitted he never actually saw one.

Warren rushed back into his home and called 911, alerting them that his assailants were leaving in a Spring Taxi. He identified the cab by its number. Police arrived within minutes, he said.

Cab driver Julius Wirffel, the next witness, said he had driven several people from the North End to Warren's area. Three men got out of the cab, spent four or five minutes out of sight, then returned to the cab and asked to be taken back to the North End, he said.

Both Warren and Wirffel admitted at various times on Monday that they couldn't remember details that they had told police in their original statements at the time of Dumas's death.

Concerns about racial bias

As the inquest broke for lunch, Nahanni Fontaine of the Southern Chiefs Organization, which is supporting the Dumas family at the probe, told CBC News she was unhappy with Tapper's opening remarks.

Tapper told the judge that because of the number of Winnipeg police officers and witnesses of aboriginal background involved in the case, he's confident the judge will find, at the end of the day, that there was no racial bias involved in the death of Dumas, who was aboriginal.

Fontaine says that's making assumptions and coming to conclusions. The inquest is supposed to be about finding the truth about what happened and why, she said.

At the time of the shooting, some native leaders suggested police might have targeted the teen because he was aboriginal — even though the officer involved was Métis.

Fontaine was instrumental in selecting Don Worme as the counsel representing the Dumas family at the inquest.  Worme previously represented the family of Neil Stonechild at the public inquiry into his death; that inquiry concluded Stonechild had been in police custody before being found frozen to death on the outskirts of Saskatoon in 1990.

Worme said he also found it odd for a lawyer in Tapper's position to express an opinion as the inquest begins.

"I find it somewhat unusual that there were comments to that effect made by coroner's counsel," he said. "I think that there is often a desire that counsel should be more unbiased and should not be offering opinions, particularly at the outset."

Worme said the inquest isn't about laying blame, and the family is not looking for that. 

"They are looking — clearly simply — to get answers so that they might find out how their loved one died, what the circumstances were around that, and they want at the end of the day to have some closure," he said.

Dumas's parents and grandparents, as well as his girlfriend and other relatives, attended the inquest Monday.

"The loss of a loved one in any circumstance is always difficult. When it's a young person who is killed in such terrific circumstances, it obviously makes it that much more difficult," Worme said. "I would suggest the family is coping though, as well as they can in all the circumstances."

Later this week, Const. Dennis Gburek, the officer who fired the fatal shot, is expected to testify at the inquest, which is expected to last about two weeks.

Inquest start 'taints' Dumas's birthday for family

Dumas would have been 22 years old on Monday — but instead of celebrating his birthday, his family attended the inquest.

Before it got underway on Monday, Jessica Dumas, Matthew's sister, told CBC News she felt "bitter" about the inquest starting on her brother's birthday.

"I'm very bitter about it and kind of disgusted, because this was the one day that my mom could look back and remember her little baby boy and all those joyful memories. But now the date is tainted for her, and for us," she said.

Dumas said she hopes the inquest will help the family get some answers to questions they still have about what happened. The family has been "completely kept in the dark" about the events that led up to the shooting, she said.

"My mom deserves a better explanation than this whole process, and I think that she deserves a real sincere apology," she said.

However, she said she didn't expect to have all of her questions answered.

"I want to know, why is this OK, after everything's said and done? Why is it that Matthew was killed and it's just kind of written off? I don't know. I don't think that I have much hope in it, hope in the process," she said.

"I think that if I have too many expectations of what I would like to know, what I would expect from it, they're just going to be disappointed."

Dumas said she hopes the inquest will lead to better relations between the justice system and families in her situation, and to an improvement in police training when it comes to dealing with confrontations.

"I think that Matthew should be alive. I don't think that he should have been killed. So I think that something needs to be done around that whole confrontation area," she said.