Thunder Bay

Inquest into death of First Nations man kicked, beaten and stepped on by police wraps up this week

The police officers who held a handcuffed First Nations man face-down on the floor with their boots on his back told an inquest into his death that they followed their training in "pain compliance" and "positional advantage."

Romeo Wesley, 34, died in 2010 after seeking help at the nursing station in Cat Lake First Nation


The police officers who held a handcuffed First Nations man face-down on the floor with their boots on his back told an inquest into his death that they followed their training in "pain compliance" and "positional advantage."

Romeo Wesley died in September 2010 after seeking help for breathing problems at the Health Canada nursing station in his home of Cat Lake First Nation in northern Ontario.

Wesley's friend, who drove him to the nursing station, described the 34-year-old as a "nice guy, fun to be around", who was acting uncharacteristically upset and anxious about his health that night.

An autopsy report shows Wesley died from a combination of severe alcohol withdrawal and the chest compression he experienced while being held in a prone position by police.

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

6 years ago
Duration 1:01
Cat Lake First Nation inquiry begins into death of Romeo Wesley
Wesley was behaving "almost like he was caged" when Const. Troy Sousa arrived at the nursing station around 9:30 p.m. on the night of Sept. 9, according to Sousa's testimony. 

There was a deep gash in Wesley's arm from when he had earlier punched through the glass in a door to the nursing station's waiting room. Sousa said he spoke to Wesley through the hole in the door, telling him to get down, which Wesley did.

But Wesley got up quickly and came through the door, so Sousa said he followed his police training and delivered "a front kick to the groin to push him back", then pepper sprayed Wesley "in the face, in the eye area."

By this time, Const. Chris Carson — the only other police officer in the fly-in First Nation — arrived.

'It's a battle'

"Now it's a battle," Sousa said. "Our goal is to just get him apprehended and proned out for our safety."

The two officers grappled with Wesley in the small room, now engulfed in pepper spray, pinning him face-down on the blood and glass-covered floor.

At this point, Sousa said, his main concern was that Wesley had a shard of glass in his hands that he could use as a weapon.

Romeo Wesley, 34, died at the Cat Lake First Nation nursing station in 2010. An inquest into his death is expected to wrap up this week. (Cat Lake First Nation)
He used his baton to strike Wesley's arm several times in a tactic Sousa referred to as "pain compliance".

"I put 100 per cent effort in," Sousa said, when asked by a lawyer about the beating. "I needed to see his hands."

In his testimony, Carson recalled being "covered in blood — my hands, my face". The sensation of burning from the residual pepper spray in the room was so strong, Carson said, he removed his shirt to see if he had been cut.

Both officers said they interpreted Wesley's "kicking, yelling, screaming and swearing" as a continued lack of compliance.

"I had my right foot placed on Romeo Wesley's back, just trying to keep him down," Carson said. Sousa also had his boot on Wesley's back.

'Positional advantage'

"If you don't have a person in a proned out position they can kick you, bite you, escape or cause risk to others," Carson told the inquest.

Stepping on someone is not a specific technique taught at police college, but gaining a "positional advantage" is, Carson said.

Chris Carson said he never faced any discipline in relation to his actions the night Romeo Wesley died, and he went on to become Nishnawbe Aski Police Service's community policing coordinator. (Jody Porter/CBC)
Carson couldn't explain why Sousa took pictures of his boot on Wesley's back, saying it's not something he would have done. Sousa was not asked about the photos during his testimony.

Both officers said once they had Wesley down, they were waiting for direction from the medical staff at the nursing station and remained unaware of the health concerns that led Wesley to seek help in the first place.

"We just got the call to go there, that he was being combative and assaulting our police life-line, which is the clinicians who attend these communities to help us," Sousa said.

Nurse Barbara Rodger delivered towels to the officers while another nurse mopped and swept the floor at various points during the altercation. The visiting doctor watched part of the struggle, then left the waiting room, saying she was overwhelmed by the smell of pepper spray.

"I assumed that they had police protocols and would know when it was safe to do those things," said Dr. Harriet Lennox in her testimony.

Both Sousa and Carson said they believed the health care providers were in charge of the well-being of Wesley, as he was their patient, and they were in "their house",  the nursing station.

No discipline for officers

When Wesley stopped moving, Sousa said he called Dr. Lennox to check on him. When she did, Wesley had no vital signs. He was roughly placed on a stretcher with his hands still cuffed behind his back and taken to another room in the nursing station where he was declared dead.

Carson testified that he was never disciplined for his actions the night Wesley died, that he received no further police training about using force, and that, to his knowledge, the police service never reviewed the security video of the altercation. 

The inquest is scheduled to conclude this week with testimony from the chief of Mishkeegogamang First Nation, where Wesley had band membership; a representative of Health Canada; and the local security guard who was on duty the night Wesley died.