Yukon chiefs cite RCMP racism in Silverfox death

Racism and stereotyping within the RCMP led to the in-custody death of Raymond Silverfox in 2008, according to the Council of Yukon First Nations.

Racism and stereotyping within the RCMP led to the in-custody death of Raymond Silverfox in 2008, the Council of Yukon First Nations said in an open letter sent to police and justice authorities on Monday .

In the letter sent to the Yukon RCMP and Yukon Justice Minister Marian Horne, interim grand chief Ruth Massie condemned the RCMP for not working with First Nations to address the racism that seems to be prevalent in the force.

"Racist attitudes and cultural stereotyping in relation to First Nation people [are] part of the institutional structure of the RCMP and widespread throughout its ranks," Massie said.

"Without a doubt, these attitudes and stereotypes led to the death of Mr. Silverfox. Racist assumptions were made, and cultural stereotypes were employed as evidenced by the conduct and comments made by the RCMP members and guards involved."

Silverfox, a 43-year-old member of the Little Salmon Carmacks First Nation, died on Dec. 2, 2008, after he had spent 13 hours largely unattended in the Whitehorse RCMP detachment's drunk tank.

A coroner's inquest heard last month that Silverfox had vomited profusely during his time in custody, but none of the officers or guards checked on his health or called for medical help.

Was mocked, insulted

The inquest also heard that officers and guards mocked and insulted Silverfox as he lay in a pool of his own vomit and feces. He was only taken to the hospital after an officer noticed he had stopped moving. Silverfox died of acute pneumonia hours later.

"The coroner's inquest revealed that the final hours of the life of Raymond Silverfox were filled with agonizing pain and suffering," the council's letter stated. "His death was slow and horrific.

"The inquest also revealed the appalling attitudes and shameful conduct of the RCMP members and guards who treated Mr. Silverfox with hostility, ridicule and contempt when he so desperately needed their assistance."

Massie said while it would be unfair to judge all RCMP officers because of what happened to Silverfox, Yukon chiefs believe his death can be attributed to the racist attitudes and stereotypes that exist in the RCMP.

"They're blatantly saying it is racism and, of course, the attitude of the RCMP," Massie told reporters in Whitehorse Monday.

"Something has to be done."

Chiefs demand fundamental changes

The RCMP has said it has made operational changes since Silverfox's death that will ensure people in custody are taken to the hospital sooner if health concerns are raised.

As well, some members of the Whitehorse RCMP detachment might be disciplined for their behaviour toward Silverfox. 

But Massie said more fundamental changes are needed.

"It is a start, but a bigger start is to involve First Nations with their situations," she said.

"They are dealing with our citizens on a daily basis, so we should be notified because maybe we can assist them."

While the coroner's inquest was underway, Horne launched a government review of RCMP policing in the Yukon, which is served solely by the national police force.

Massie said First Nations people do not want to see more inquires and studies. They want to be actively involved in discussions with the Yukon government and the RCMP about policing issues.

An RCMP spokesman told CBC News that commanding officer Supt. Peter Clark is still considering how to respond to the council's letter.

A government spokesperson said Monday that Horne did not have time to think about the letter and could not address it at this time.

Confirms other experiences: chief

Eric Morris, the Yukon regional chief with the Assembly of First Nations, said hearing cell-block audio and video recordings of Silverfox's treatment in custody indicates the situation was similar to others he has heard about over the years.

"It significantly verifies some of the experiences our people have gone through in terms of incarceration, being held for intoxication," Morris said.

The chiefs' concerns and demands are supported by Mayo-Tatchun Liberal MLA Eric Fairclough, who said people want the territorial government to address the issues immediately and not just rely on the upcoming policing review.

"They want to see action taken; they want to see change now," Fairclough said.

"There's the anger that's been expressed in the letter, and it's understandable. People want answers, and they want improvements."

Fairclough said there should also be a full public inquiry into Silverfox's death, so that Yukoners and Canadians can examine the details without having it filtered through the RCMP.

Horne shut down opposition demands for a public inquiry last week, saying a thorough investigation of Silverfox's death and the policing review will address any concerns.