Nunavut's high rate of police-related deaths 'obviously worth looking into,' says data expert

Inuit in Nunavut are dying during interactions with police at a rate significantly higher than in Yukon, Northwest Territories and Ontario, according to data collected and analyzed by CBC.

Rate more than 14 times higher than other regions since 2010, statistics show

The RCMP detachment in Baker Lake, Nunavut. According to recently analyzed data, Inuit in Nunavut are dying during interactions with police at a rate significantly higher than in Canada's two other territories and Ontario. (Jordan Konek/CBC)

Inuit in Nunavut are dying during interactions with police at a rate significantly higher than in Yukon, Northwest Territories and Ontario, according to data collected and analyzed by CBC and a statistical expert in criminology. 

That trend is especially apparent since 2010, with a rate of police-related deaths in Nunavut more than 14 times higher than both Yukon and Ontario and more than three times higher than the Northwest Territories. 

Police-related deaths in this story refer to deaths in police custody, detention or during or after interacting with police. 

CBC collected data on police-related deaths from 1999 to 2020 from the coroner's offices in the three territories and the Special Investigations Unit in Ontario. Data from Canada's most populous province provides a comparison outside the North.

These include all deaths where police were on the scene but may not have been directly responsible for a fatality.

It looks like there's something systematic here.- Anthony Doob, University of Toronto professor

"What the statistics show in this case is that it's pretty unlikely that this is a chance phenomenon," Anthony Doob, a professor emeritus of criminology at the University of Toronto with 40 years' experience analyzing crime statistics, told CBC News. 

"It looks like there's something systematic here." 

The RCMP serve all three territories, while Ontario is policed by roughly 60 agencies ranging from municipal to First Nations police services. 

16 deaths in 21 years in Nunavut

Between 1999, when Nunavut was created, and 2009, there were three police-related deaths in the territory, according to Nunavut's chief coroner's office.

Between 2010 and July 2020, there have been 13 police-related deaths in Nunavut, the office said, including nine deaths since 2013. That's a total of 16 deaths in 21 years. 

Anthony Doob is a professor emeritus of criminology at the University of Toronto with 40 years' experience analyzing statistics. (Submitted)

In Yukon, there have been five police-related deaths, while the Northwest Territories has seen six such deaths since 1999, the territorial coroner's offices said. 

Because the territories' population sizes are relatively small, the distribution of deaths over time can be misleading, Doob said. 

"Any given year, you can say, well, that's an anomalous year. But when you take 20 years [of data], it's kind of hard to make that argument," he said.

With a much larger population than the territories, Ontario has had an average of about 31 such deaths every year since 1999.  

When adjusted for the different population sizes of all four jurisdictions, Nunavut's overall per-capita rate of police-related deaths since 1999 is more than nine times higher than Ontario's and about three times higher than both Yukon and the Northwest Territories.

"The rate [in Nunavut] is clearly higher than the other two territories and clearly higher than Ontario's," Doob said. 

But it is the trends since 2010 that are most significant, he said.

Since 2010, Nunavut's rate of police-related deaths is 14.35 times higher than Ontario's, 14.23 times higher than Yukon's and 3.27 times higher than the rate in the Northwest Territories. 

"It's obviously worth looking into as to why these events seem to be more likely to be happening [in Nunavut] now than they were 10 years ago," Doob said. 

'Very unlikely' trends are a fluke: expert

The professor said he performed a number of statistical tests on the data to determine how likely the apparent trends occurred simply by chance.

Those test results provide the percentage chance that the trend is a fluke rather than significant. 

Doob said the test results show that these trends are "very unlikely" to have occurred simply by chance: The chance that these trends are random ranges from 0.7 to seven per cent. 

The RCMP detachment in Iqaluit
The RCMP's Nunavut headquarters in Iqaluit. There have been 16 police-related deaths in Nunavut since 1999. Yukon and the Northwest Territories report five and six deaths, respectively, over the same time span. (David Gunn/CBC)

Analyzing data allows statisticians to identify trends from what may seem to be unconnected events, he said.

"We have a consistent problem here," Doob said of the trend in Nunavut. 

His analysis, he said, showed there's less than a one per cent chance that Nunavut's high rate since 1999, compared with the other three jurisdictions, is a fluke. 

"Nunavut is the jurisdiction that stands out among the four," Doob said.

Officials cite high rates of violence, lack of funding

The RCMP in Nunavut and the Nunavut Justice Department denied CBC's interview request for this story but provided written statements. 

Both pointed out Nunavut's high rates of violence as a factor in these statistics. 

The RCMP respond to a disturbance in Apex, Nunavut, in April. The territory's Justice Department and the RCMP both cite high violence rates as a factor in police-related death statistics. (Patrick Nagle/CBC )

The RCMP said the combination of increasing calls for service, easy access to weapons and alcohol, and high rates of suicide make violent encounters between Nunavummiut and police a reality. 

"The RCMP in Nunavut are successful in the de-escalation and safe conclusion of thousands of high-risk encounters every year," Cpl. Jamie Savikataaq said in an email. 

Nunavut's Justice Department said such data analysis requires a review of historical experiences, crime rates and social indicators. 

The department has struggled with adequate funding and resources to address the root causes of criminality and social inequality, director of policy Jessica Young wrote in an email. 

Specifically, she referred to the lack of access to the federal government's First Nations Policing Program, which is run by Public Safety Canada to support culturally sensitive policing in Indigenous communities. 

"We are currently the only jurisdiction across the country who was left out of this program," Young wrote.


Thomas Rohner is a reporter based in Iqaluit, where he's lived for nearly six years. His special interests as a journalist include the criminal justice system and investigative reporting.