Ottawa

Officer charged after racist comments over death of Inuk artist Annie Pootoogook

Ottawa police Sgt. Chris Hrnchiar has been charged with two counts of discreditable conduct under the Police Services Act after making racist comments online about the death of Inuk artist Annie Pootoogook.

Sgt. Chris Hrnchiar may be demoted, suspended or docked pay for comments made online

Annie Pootoogook, seen here in Ottawa in July 2013, was found dead in the Rideau River on Sept. 19. (Alexei Kintero)

Ottawa Sgt. Chris Hrnchiar has been charged with two counts of discreditable conduct after making racist comments online about the death of a prominent Inuk artist.

The charges fall under the Police Services Act and will be heard Nov. 1. Hrnchiar, an officer in the forensic identification unit, has not been suspended but has been assigned to administrative duties. 

Annie Pootoogook was found dead in the Rideau River on Sept. 19 in what police are investigating as a suspicious death.

A few days after her body was identified, Hrnchiar posted from his Facebook account in the comment section of an Ottawa Citizen story that her death "could be a suicide, accidental, she got drunk and fell in the river and drowned, who knows."

In a second post, Hrnchiar wrote "much of the Aboriginal population in Canada is just satisfied being alcohol or drug abusers." The comments have since been deleted.

Veldon Coburn initiated the complaint against Sgt. Chris Hrnchiar after noticing online comments. He says he's pleased that there has been some action. (CBC)

'Pleased that there is some action'

Veldon Coburn first alerted Ottawa police Chief Charles Bordeleau and Mayor Jim Watson to the racist comments online.

Coburn, who adopted Pootoogook's youngest child, says he was appalled to see the statements and he's upset his four-year-old daughter will likely one day read them.

"It was a little bit heartbreaking to think, can I explain this to my daughter later in life, that somebody would have done this just right after the death of her mother? He probably didn't even know her mother, but also took swipes at the Indigenous population as a whole," Coburn told CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning on Monday.

"... I would just like to protect the integrity and honour of Annie's death, and a little four-year-old girl, who will have a lot of questions about her origins and won't be able to have her mother there to answer them."

He's glad charges have been laid.

"I'm not taking great pleasure in it at all, but I'm pleased that there is some action. There was a great deal of outrage that ensued, not just from the Indigenous community but [from] people that just stand against racism ... and the people who won't take it from a police officer."

'It is very likely he will not be fired'

Caitlyn Kasper, a staff lawyer at Aboriginal Legal Services in Toronto, believes a restorative justice approach will be taken when disciplining Hrnchiar. 

"It is very likely he will not be fired," she said.

"The Police Services Act very clearly indicates that correction and education of the officer is more important than to blame and to punish."

Many members of the Indigenous community, including Kasper, were critical of the Ottawa Police Service's reluctance to call the comments racist. Initially, Bordeleau said officers are human beings with biases and that they can learn to not let those biases affect their work.

However, more recently, the police service admitted the comments were racist and now Hrnchiar could be demoted, suspended or docked pay for making them.

"I sincerely hope that this entire situation has pressed upon the officer, who made these comments, that moving forward this type of attitude is not going to be accepted. Not only by the Indigenous community, but by people in Ottawa who see these types of comments and report them," said Kasper.

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