Grand chief demands public inquiry into in-custody deaths following CBC investigation
'If people aren't alarmed about that, they should be,' says Manitoba Grand Chief Arlen Dumas
A Manitoba First Nations leader is demanding a public inquiry into the deaths of Indigenous people in custody, following a CBC investigation into dozens of deaths in Canadian jail cells since 2010.
The investigation chronicled 61 cases of people who had died in custody after being arrested related to intoxication. Nearly half were Indigenous.
"If people aren't alarmed about that, they should be," said Arlen Dumas, grand chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs.
"It seems to be that this is a common occurrence, and it's unacceptable."
A national inquiry is needed to investigate all deaths in custody — not just those that occur in police custody, but also in federal prisons and provincial jails, Dumas says.
Wayne Okemow, whose niece died after being held in a northern Manitoba RCMP detachment, joined Dumas's call for an inquiry.
He says accountability is needed for what happened to his niece, Tracy Okemow.
The 31-year-old woman died in 2012, after being detained in the Gods Lake Narrows RCMP detachment for nine hours.
She was medically cleared to spend the night in a jail cell, despite evidence she had taken too many pills. Guards told investigators she could be heard moaning in pain all night. She was transported by medevac to Winnipeg but died the next day.
No inquest was held into her death.
Inquests no longer mandatory in Manitoba
Prior to 2017, an inquest was mandatory in Manitoba any time someone died in police custody.
Those inquests, called by the chief medical examiner and presided over by a provincial court judge, do not assign blame, but look at how the death could have been prevented.
But 2017 changes to Manitoba's Fatality Inquiries Act gave the chief medical examiner some discretion on when to call an inquest.
A lawyer who has represented multiple Manitoba families in such inquests says there should never be an exception when someone dies in police custody.
- DEATH IN CUSTODYCanadians arrested for public intoxication are dying in jail cells, CBC investigation finds
"Those amendments were disastrous for the act," said Corey Shefman, a lawyer at Toronto's Olthuis Kleer Townshend LLP.
"It's important because the family, the community, the province and yes, the country needs to know what happened, why it happened and what we're doing to stop it from happening again."
More complex and costly than an inquest, a public inquiry would aim to establish the facts around what happened, why it happened and who may be accountable under government-mandated terms of reference.
Public inquiries can also find fault, whereas inquests can't.
The last inquiry held in Manitoba was for the death of Phoenix Sinclair in 2014.
Shefman agrees with Dumas that an inquiry should examine all deaths in state custody deaths.
"A broad public inquiry is required to understand why this is happening and how to stop it," he said.
Dr. Peter Markesteyn, who was Manitoba's chief medical examiner from 1982 to 1999, also agrees a national inquiry is needed.
When the legislative changes to Manitoba's Fatality Inquiries Act were being debated in 2017, he spoke against them during a committee hearing.
"The issue is the person is under arrest or is under control of a police officer, and therefore it is important that the rights of that individual … [are] protected," he told CBC.
"And that's why the act was originally constructed to make it mandatory, and therefore to take the political issue out of it."
When asked about a national inquiry by CBC News, a spokesperson for federal Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino gave a prepared statement that did not address the idea of an inquiry.
A spokesperson for Manitoba Justice Minister Cameron Friesen also sent a written statement that did not address whether his government would call a provincial inquiry.
Opposition promises inquest if elected
Manitoba's justice minister no longer has the ability to call inquests into in-custody deaths because of the changes made to the Fatalities Act in 2017.
However, Tracy Okemow died in 2012, meaning Friesen could still call an inquest into her death. So far, he has refused to do so.
CBC asked the office of Manitoba's chief medical examiner why an inquest wasn't called into Okemow's death. The medical examiner's office said it could not comment.
Okemow's death occurred under the former NDP government.
The Opposition NDP now says if elected to form government in 2023, they will order an inquest.
"We should know what were the mitigating factors that contributed to Tracy's death and do everything possible to ensure that that doesn't happen again," said Nahanni Fontaine, the NDP's justice critic.
She said her party would reverse the amendments to the Fatality Inquiries Act and supports the call for a national inquiry into in-custody deaths of Indigenous people.
The AMC's Dumas also wants to see an inquest called for Okemow.
"I know that it's been quite some time, but I think in the hope that we can correct the systems and the mechanisms today, we will help save lives for the future," he said.
"Tracy's death can't be in vain."