Thunder Bay

First Nation chief wants police held to account in death of man pinned face down in handcuffs

The chief of Cat Lake First Nation says an inquest into the death of a 34-year-old man who was pepper-sprayed, kicked, hit, handcuffed and stepped on by police is unlikely to provide the accountability that his northern Ontario community wants.

'It's like the community members don't trust the police anymore,' Cat Lake Chief Ernie Wesley says

GRAPHIC WARNING: Coroner releases video of Indigenous man dying while restrained by police

5 years ago
Duration 1:00
Cat Lake First Nation inquiry begins into death of Romeo Wesley

An inquest underway in Cat Lake First Nation is unlikely to provide the accountability the northern Ontario community wants in the death of a 34-year-old man who died in a nursing station after being pepper-sprayed, kicked, hit, handcuffed and stepped on by police, the community's chief says.

Romeo Wesley had sought help from a Health Canada nursing station four times over two days in September 2010 for an escalating series of symptoms. When a nurse became concerned about Wesley's behaviour, police were called.

Wesley's final moments were captured on a security video played last week at the inquest. It shows two Nishnawbe-Aski police officers — one who has removed his shirt — pressing their boots into Wesley's back as he lay face down on the floor of the waiting area, kicking his legs.

An autopsy report states that the compression of his chest while being restrained, combined with severe alcohol withdrawal, led to his death.

Chief Ernie Wesley, also a cousin of the man, said he wants an inquiry to follow the inquest, which is expected to wrap up next week.

"This inquest is just going to find out what happened [and] why it happened, so it doesn't happen again," Ernie Wesley said. "But an inquiry will really find out if the police, in fact, did something that is criminally a wrongful death, or something like that."

An inquest is a public hearing aimed at making recommendations that could prevent other deaths under similar circumstances. Inquests do not find fault or lay blame. Public inquiries are generally broader in scope and can address culpibility and recommend criminal charges, depending on their terms of reference.

Romeo Wesley, 34, died in police custody at the nursing station in Cat Lake First Nation in 2010. (Cat Lake First Nation)

The Nishnawbe-Aski Police Service serves Cat Lake, along with more than 30 other First Nations in northern Ontario. But it is no more trusted than mainstream police services, Ernie Wesley said.

"Ever since that incident, it's like the community members don't trust the police anymore," he said. "It's like there's a resistance toward the police, especially in the younger generation. That's who has been affected by this."

'Both at fault'

But Wesley doesn't only blame the police for his cousin's death.

"The doctor was in the community at the time," he said. "If [she] just took the time when he first went there, all of this would have been avoided. Then the doctor and the nursing staff called in the police — I guess they're both at fault," he said.

Both the doctor and a police officer testified at the inquest Monday.

Dr. Harriet Lennox told the inquest that she was on one of her monthly visits to the Cat Lake nursing station — the only health facility in the community — on the night Romeo Wesley died.

Doctor feared for her own safety

Lennox said Wesley became agitated while she was assessing him for a second time in two days, and she deferred to the judgment of a nurse who was more familiar with the community about the necessity of calling police.

  "I felt in fear of my own safety and I'd never felt like that with a patient," Lennox said.

She watched as the two police officers pinned Wesley with their boots, face down in handcuffs, on a glass- and blood-covered floor. He had cut his arm punching through the nursing station's security door.

"I assumed that they had police protocols and would know when it was safe to do those things," she said.

'Super-human strength'

Const. Troy Sousa said it was necessary to step on Wesley's back and neck because he had demonstrated "super-human strength" when he continued to kick his feet while pinned — even after Sousa had kicked him in the groin, pepper-sprayed him and handcuffed him.

"I wasn't prepared to put my head down anywhere near where he could possibly strike me," Sousa said.

It was the first time he had used his use-of-force training since graduating from Ontario Police College almost exactly a year before, Sousa testified, insisting he'd played everything by the book.

Lennox said she felt the same way.

"If the patient hadn't become violent, we could have assessed things further and hopefully helped him," Lennox said. "It's a tragedy what happened. I try my best in every situation, and I feel in this situation, I did the best that I could."

Cat Lake First Nation is about 400 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, Ont., and home to about 500 people.