Nfld. & Labrador

MHA says he regrets comment about homeless 'choosing' risky lifestyle in wake of Inuk man's arrest

MHA Perry Trimper has apologized for a comment he made in the wake of a video showing a municipal enforcement officer in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, N.L., throwing a handcuffed homeless Inuk man to the ground. Trimper said Wednesday he regretted saying the town's homeless population is "choosing" a risky lifestyle when talking about the video in an interview.

Video of Happy Valley-Goose Bay, N.L., man thrown to the ground by officer prompts wider debate

MHA Perry Trimper speaks to reporters outside the Newfoundland and Labrador House of Assembly on Wednesday. Trimper was criticized for comments he made after the release of a video showing a municipal enforcement officer throwing a homeless Inuk man to the ground during an arrest. (CBC)

A video showing a municipal enforcement officer in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, N.L., throwing a handcuffed homeless Inuk man to the ground has spurred an independent investigation and deeper conversations about homelessness in the community, with some taking issue with area MHA Perry Trimper's comment that the town's homeless population is "choosing" a risky lifestyle.

Trimper apologized late Wednesday afternoon for the words he used in an interview in which he said people were "choosing" a risky lifestyle that is putting them and the community at risk, acknowledging he's heard from a number of people who took issue with what he said.

"I recognize the phraseology — you want to grab better words," Trimper said.

"I regret using that word, understanding how some people have reacted to it.… So much of this is it's almost when you're interacting with folks with addiction and mental health issues, and with an Indigenous background, the choice is not there."

On Friday, Lela Evans, the member of the House of Assembly for Torngat Mountains, posted the video of the officer's interaction with Joseph Tuglavina of Hopedale, N.L., on her Facebook page, having received it from someone who witnessed the enforcement officer handcuffing the man and documented the interaction on video from afar.

The video shows Tuglavina being tossed to the ground by the officer. He was later arrested by the RCMP, which said in a news release that he was intoxicated at the time and was "lodged in cells until sober" and released without charges.

The town has launched an independent investigation, and the officer has been placed on administrative duty.

Happy Valley-Goose Bay town council had a brief special meeting Wednesday afternoon, where council unanimously approved a motion to hire law firm Stewart McKelvey to contract an independent investigator to look into the arrest.

During the live-streamed audio of the meeting, which lasted about three minutes, councillors agreed they wanted the investigation done as quickly as possible.

The town has declined to comment further until the investigation is completed.

Following the meeting, residents of Happy Valley-Goose Bay and some nearby communities organized a rally to condemn what they saw on the video and to ask for immediate action.

Organizer Kirk Lethbridge said he counted about 80 people in the crowd, including Eugene Hart — chief of the nearby Sheshatshiu Innu First Nation — and a representative from the government of Nunatsiavut, where Tuglavina was born.

"You can be arrested and you can be handcuffed, but you don't have to be thrown on your face on the ground," Lethbridge said. "That's why I'm here. The judge decides punishment for people, not a town cop or enforcement officer."

Madison Semigak Elson, an Inuk woman, wipes away tears after she speaks to the crowd in front of the town hall of Happy Valley-Goose Bay on Wednesday. (Garrett Barry/CBC)

Madison Semigak Elson, a recent graduate of the town's high school, fought back tears as she addressed the crowd.

"I'm just trying to be a voice for all Indigenous youth and others, because we need to be heard. We suffer.

"All I know is that this wasn't right. Being thrown down by someone like that, for nothing. Why?"

When asked about the video, Trimper initially said he was "very concerned" by what he saw but that "there's many things going on in that video besides a very aggressive take-down by the enforcement officer."

Trimper cites 'complicated problems'

Trimper said the video highlights the homelessness situation in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, which is in his district of Lake Melville.

"In that video I see people who are battling addictions, I see people who are choosing to live a lifestyle which absolutely puts them at risk, and at the same time, I'm thinking … so many people have been involved in so many supports for helping people with homelessness," Trimper said.

He pointed to government committees charged with co-ordinating responses to homelessness, as well as a lack of wait time for those looking for counselling and a mobile response team as some of the resources available.

"We have all of these supports out there, and we still have people who are, because of addictions, because of many complicated problems, are choosing, unfortunately, to live a lifestyle which is putting them at risk, and it's leading to issues of putting, I'd say, other citizens in the community at risk."

When people like Perry Trimper use terminology like 'choosing' the life of addiction, it brings up to me emotions of anger.- Jenny Oliver

Trimper said he's been in conversations with the mayor and town councillors, as well as the province's justice minister, about the video to figure out provincial resources that could help, adding that there have been issues around homelessness and addictions in the community for a long time.

"What's challenging here is the town right now is dealing with a lot of this problem because they're on the frontline, and we need to support them, and we all need to come together and see what we can do to contribute to a solution, because this has been going on for years," Trimper told CBC's Labrador Morning.

"I think what the rest of the province is realizing is that we have, at any one time, several dozen people who are choosing to live in the alders of Happy Valley-Goose Bay despite the fact we have all these supports."

'Listen, as opposed to just hear'

Trimper in total used the word "choosing" four times during an interview on Tuesday — a word choice that Nain resident Jenny Oliver said is not only concerning but points to a fundamental misunderstanding of the core issues faced by the population Trimper is talking about.

"When people like Perry Trimper use terminology like 'choosing' the life of addiction, it brings up to me emotions of anger, and it alerts me that people like him make decisions for our people," said Oliver.

Warning: This video may be disturbing to some.

"He chooses to use his white lens when responding to Indigenous-related issues, and if he's learned about intergenerational trauma, he would not have used 'choose' four times."

Trimper has previously come under fire after accidentally leaving comments on a leaked voicemail, when he was recorded as describing Innu as playing the "race card."

The call was placed in September 2019 to Dominic Rich, executive assistant to the Innu Nation, in relation to questions about a translator for motor vehicle registration.

After the Innu Nation released the recording, Trimper apologized, saying, "Regardless if it was recorded or not, I shouldn't have said it."

The symptoms of intergenerational trauma, stemming from historical mistreatment of Indigenous people in Canada in places such as residential schools, include alcoholism and addictions, Oliver said, and without understanding what that trauma entails, those in power can't hope to address it.

"I think people really need to dig deeper and to listen, as opposed to just hear, to what Indigenous-related issues are," she said. "There should be some willingness to understand the challenges that Inuit people face and Innu people face, and people like Trimper should accept responsibility for making the change on a deeper and a broader scale.

"If he's been educated and he's been taught and he's still making these statements, I really don't know what the answer is."

'The choice is not there'

Trimper's interview is also being reviewed by Premier Andrew Furey.

Trimper said Wednesday afternoon he is aware of the "very challenging" issues the region faces and, in the decades he's lived and worked in Labrador, has spoken with a number of homeless and addicted people throughout the years to tell them about resources available to them.

"I walk into the alders and talk to many of these people, and it's really a tragedy that I'm not able to convince them to come with me. Let's start now, let's start this course of dealing with so many of these issues," he said.

"It's complicated. It's incredibly complex, and I made a made a statement today that I did want to apologize for my phrasing of my words, there's no question. But my intent remains strong."

MHA Lela Evans speaks to reporters outside the Newfoundland and Labrador House of Assembly on Wednesday. Trimper's remarks 'took [her] aback,' she said. (CBC)

Evans, who was on the same phone interview when Trimper made the comments, said she was surprised at his word choice.

"I was amazed he would say that. I was kind of taken aback," she said.

"I worked with Perry Trimper a lot in the past. He's been helpful to me. Up until the time of that recording, I didn't see any of that behaviour ... it took me aback, because that's not what I hear from him."

Evans said the answers given were missing the root causes of addictions and homelessness

"A person doesn't really choose; the addiction chooses for them. So the addiction is making the decisions for the people to remain homeless," she said.

The Town of Happy Valley-Goose Bay has been struggling to address these issues for years, Evans said.

"There's many layers to this onion, and at the root of it is underfunding of programs and really getting at the heart of the matter."

'I have a lot of hope for change'

From Oliver's perspective, a possible solution could be expanding trauma-informed training from Indigenous allies to educate people more about intergenerational trauma.

Another option, Oliver said, is having people who work directly with those affected embedded in Indigenous communities on the Labrador coast to allow them first-hand experience of working with those populations and understanding why they move to Happy Valley-Goose Bay.

"Perhaps we can have somebody like the community constable go into communities and have somebody work with them to understand all of the different layers and levels of trauma, to see why and how our people are the way that we are, before they even start working with the people," she said.

"And perhaps we might have people who are not able to understand, and then those people should not work with our people. If they cannot understand the hardships, then we will still have people working within our communities using their abuse of power to Innu and Inuit."

Oliver said that as an Inuk, she was not surprised by what she saw in the video, but she has hope that education and information can help spur change needed.

"I wasn't surprised to see the treatment that this man faced, but I was really happy that it was recorded because it gives proof," she said. "Unfortunately, Indigenous people everywhere — and in particular in Labrador — it seems like you need videos for proof when something happens.

"I have a lot of hope for change. I would hope that the Innu and Inuit are able to collaborate with people that come into our communities and work with our people."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

About the Author

Stephanie Tobin is a journalist in the CBC Newfoundland and Labrador office in St. John's.

With files from Labrador Morning and Garrett Barry