First Nation questions police presence at inquest into man's death while in custody

About a dozen additional police officers will be on the job at a northern Ontario First Nation for an inquest beginning Tuesday into a man who died while being restrained by police.

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

About a dozen additional police officers are expected to be in Cat Lake First Nation in northern Ontario on Tuesday for the start of the inquest into the death of Romeo Wesley. (Yvon Theriault/Radio-Canada)

There's a heavy police presence at Cat Lake First Nation in northern Ontario for an inquest beginning Tuesday into the case of a man who died while being restrained by police.

The about a dozen extra officers are necessary security protocol, according to Ontario's chief coroner, but their presence doesn't sit well with many people in the remote community.

"The community and people think that's not necessary," said Cat Lake administrator Alec Oombash. "You don't need to bring an army in here."

Cat Lake First Nation, about 400 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, normally has two Nishnawbe Aski Police officers stationed in the community.

Two officers responded to a call from the Health Canada nursing station in 2010 when a nurse became concerned about the behaviour of Romeo Wesley, 34.

Wesley had gone to the nursing station — the only health facility in the community — seeking help. A former chief of Cat Lake told CBC News that Wesley may have been suffering from withdrawal symptoms.

Died in handcuffs

He died while being restrained by police on the floor of the nursing station, in the presence of a visiting doctor, with his hands cuffed behind his back.

The nursing station is "supposed to be a safe, healthy environment, that's what Romeo wanted," Oombash said. "He went there and that's what cost him his life."

After years of lobbying to host the inquest in the fly-in First Nation, the community hopes it brings better health services and higher quality policing, Oombash said.
Romeo Wesley, 34, died while in handcuffs after seeking help at the Cat Lake First Nation nursing station. (Cat Lake First Nation)

The influx of lawyers, inquest jurors, witnesses and coroner's officials will bring about a 10 per cent increase to Cat Lake's usual population of 500 people for the three weeks of proceedings. Meanwhile, the population of police officers will be boosted by 600 per cent.

"I told them that is ridiculous," Oombash said. "One young person, a relative of Romeo's, said if they're going to go that far to bring in extra officers, it shows they've got something to hide."

But that's not it at all, according to chief coroner, Dr. Dirk Huyer, who said the additional officers are part of meeting the logistical requirements of holding an inquest in a fly-in community.

Help is a plane-ride away

Huyer said he's not expecting security problems, but needs to ensure help would be closer than a plane ride away.

"There are more officers than would be typically in Cat Lake to make sure we approach this as we would any other inquest in Ontario," he said.

The remoteness of Cat Lake means it's not a typical inquest though. Proceedings will be held in the school gym and lawyers for the six parties with standing will bunk down in trailers where teachers usually live. The community's healing lodge will also be used for accommodations.

There is no hotel in Cat Lake and only one small store. Extra food was being flown in on Friday.

"We need to plan for all things that may occur during the time we're up there because we can't go around the corner to pick something up from the office," Huyer said.
Dr. Dirk Huyer, Ontario's chief coroner, says additional security is on hand in Cat Lake First Nation, as it would be for any other inquest in Ontario. (CBC)

The additional planning is well worth it to hold the inquest in Cat Lake, where family and community members can easily attend the proceedings, he said.

"There's many factors that may be community-specific to the death," Huyer said. "It's also important that any recommendations that may arise [from the inquest] are known to the community and have a full understanding of how they might impact the community."

Wesley's death, and its violent nature, has had a profound impact on the community, Oombash said.

Wesley had a "bumpy start" in life, but grew to be a good hunter who knew the land well, he added.

"The community was always behind him," Oombash said. "He was loved."