Thunder Bay

Video of Thunder Bay officer dragging First Nations man can be included in inquest, coroner rules

An Ontario coroner has ruled video footage of a First Nations man being dragged inside Thunder Bay's police station can be used in a coming inquest on two other First Nations men, who died in custody after their arrest for public intoxication. WARNING: This story contains language, content readers may find disturbing.

Lawyers for police filed a motion in 2020 asking that the footage be excluded from future inquest

The deaths of Don Mamakwa, left, and Roland McKay, who had both been in Thunder Bay Police Service custody, will be the focus of a coroner's inquest. A date for the inquest hasn't yet been set. (Ontario Office of the Chief Coroner)

WARNING: This story contains language and content some readers may find disturbing.

An Ontario coroner has ruled that video footage of a First Nations man being dragged inside the Thunder Bay police station can be included as evidence in an upcoming inquest.

The inquest will look at the circumstances surrounding the Aug. 2, 2014, death of Don Mamakwa, 44, of Kasabonika Lake First Nation, and the death of Roland McKay, 50, of Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug on July 20, 2017.

Mamakwa was arrested for public intoxication and later found dead in his cell at the police station. McKay also died in Thunder Bay Police Service custody, after being arrested for public intoxication.

The video shows how Thunder Bay police officers treated a third man, Dino Kwandibens of Whitesand First Nation. Kwandibens was brought into custody just minutes after Mamakwa. 

Lawyers for the police service and several individual officers filed a motion in November 2020 to exclude the security footage from the inquest, arguing it fell outside the scope of the inquest, and would prejudice the coroner's jury and the proceedings.

A date for the inquest into the deaths of Mamakwa and McKay has not yet been set.

Some of the questions the inquest will try to answer include:

  • How racism, bias and stereotypes played a role in the treatment of Mamakwa and McKay by police and paramedics.
  • How people suspected to be intoxicated are assessed by first responders.
  • Whether it's appropriate to take them into police custody.

The hearing into use of the footage was held in January 2021, but a decision was not made until this week.

In his Wednesday ruling, presiding coroner David Cameron rejected arguments to exclude the video, saying it's entirely relevant to the scope of the inquest, and any potential prejudicial impact to the inquest could be addressed "through proper instruction to the jury."

Cameron noted that Mamakwa and Kwandibens were First Nations men who were booked at the same location within minutes of each other, and in both cases, "the booking officers appeared to dismiss the possibility that the men were in medical distress, despite their presentation."

"The question of whether racism, bias or stereotyping was a factor in Mr. Mamakwa's death should not be examined in a vacuum … the fact that another Indigenous man was almost simultaneously experiencing very similar treatment may suggest systemic issues that need to be addressed to prevent further deaths," Cameron added.

Video within scope of ruling: coroner

A spokesperson with the Thunder Bay Police Service said they would not be commenting on any matters related to a pending inquest.

But Julian Falconer, a lawyer representing both the Mamakwa and McKay families, said the video demonstrated how racism, stereotyping and bias played a role in the deaths of both men — something that is part of the inquest scope.

TO: "What you see here is a culture, an environment of anti-Indigenous racism," Falconer said in an interview with CBC News.

According to the families' submissions on the motion, the video evidence shows Const. Neal Soltys dragging Kwandibens into the booking room at the police station, and can be heard uttering the phrase "sack of shit" about Kwandibens, who is heard moaning loudly.

Shown is Kwandibens, of Whitesand First Nation, Ont., who was arrested and detained the same night as Don Mamakwa at the Thunder Bay police station on Aug 2, 2014. (Sargent & Son Funeral Chapel)

While officers were trying to get Kwandibens on his feet, one of the officers told him to "walk like a man," and Soltys said, "You got drunk like a man, so get up."

The footage shows Soltys grabbing Kwandibens by the leg and dragging him quickly toward the cellblock. An unidentified offscreen officer can be heard saying, "Pain in the ass… Little bitch." Kwandibens is banged into a garbage can and his leg also gets caught on the door.

Despite Kwandibens being intoxicated, at no point did officers provide or seek medical assistance for him while he was in custody, the families' documents say. 

Excluding video would prevent 'further inquiry' into TBPS

The lawyer for Soltys, Daniel Gunn, argued in his original submissions that his client's "behaviour came from frustration when trying to assist Mr. Kwandibens as he became deliberately unhelpful and unco-operative." 

Soltys has been subjected to disciplinary action — amounting to the forfeiture of 12 paid hours and an apology letter — which came six years after the incident took place and nearly four years after Kwandibens's death in April 2016. 

But the coroner said that is no reason to exclude the video from the evidence, adding the Police Services Act gives Thunder Bay police Chief Sylvie Hauth the power to appoint the investigator, prosecutor and hearings officer in the discipline proceedings.

"Excluding the videos from evidence at the inquest would arguably benefit the chief by preventing further inquiry into the TBPS and its officers' conduct," Cameron said in his ruling.

Falconer argued that's why it is essential the videos are shown to the inquest jury.

Julian Falconer, a Thunder Bay lawyer, represents some families in cases against police in the northwestern Ontario city. (Marc Doucette/CBC )

"Here we are, eight years later, a horrendous treatment of individuals is depicted on these videos, and what's the knee-jerk reaction of the Thunder Bay police?

"Let's try to keep it from the public," Falconer said. "The opposite of transparency, the opposite of what's necessary for reconciliation."

 

With files from Martha Troian

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