Indigenous·Death in custody

6 years and counting: Alberta family waits for answers as to why their father died in a jail cell

One Alberta family has been waiting more than six years to find out why their father died in an RCMP jail cell after being picked up for intoxication

Freedom of Information documents lead to new information family was never told

Kevin First Charger, 50, died in RCMP custody in Cardston, Alta., in February 2015. (Submitted by Husky First Charger)

One Alberta family has been waiting more than six years to find out why their father died in an RCMP jail cell after being picked up for intoxication.

Kevin First Charger, 50, died in the Cardston, Alta., detachment, about 230 kilometres south of Calgary, in 2015. 

His family said they've been kept in the dark about what happened after he was picked up and eventually detained by police. It took a CBC News request to get the RCMP's version of the incident. 

"I was shocked," said Tracy Crazy Bull, Kevin First Charger's daughter, after looking through the documents obtained by CBC News. 

"I wasn't really ready for what I was reading." 

The Mounties told CBC News that officers received a call about Kevin First Charger falling into a ditch at approximately 2:30 p.m. in February 2015. He was found unresponsive in the jail cell at 7 a.m. the next morning. 

While under police detention, he was medically cleared twice and sent to sleep it off in the detachment, according to RCMP. 

He was found dead the next morning. 

The details of Kevin First Charger's death may never have come to light if it wasn't for a freedom of information request filed by the NDP on cases of the use of force by the RCMP. Within the documents were a couple of lines describing an in-custody death that occurred in Cardston.

An RCMP spokesperson said an internal review by the Alberta RCMP Major Crimes Unit found officers didn't commit any criminal offences during their handling of First Charger.

An autopsy determined he died of combined drug intoxication.

The family said these statements have just led to more questions.

Husky First Charger and Tracy Crazy Bull were shocked when they started to find out details about how their father died. (Rebecca Kelly/CBC)

"Why did they not bring him to the hospital?" Crazy Bull said.

"That's the question that I've been asking myself."

Crazy Bull's brother, Husky First Charger, said the RCMP still hasn't told them what exactly happened to their father. He said he wants the truth.

"What was really going on?" he said.

"If someone's not doing good, why just send them to the holding cell?"

The province's police watchdog, the Alberta Serious Incident Response Team (ASIRT), did not investigate the death – instead it only reviewed it. This was a decision made by the province's director of law enforcement. 

CBC News asked Alberta Justice eight days ago why this decision was made. At time of publishing, the answer was still under review by the department.

Investigation into deaths in custody

A CBC News investigation found that 61 Canadians have died in police custody after being arrested related to intoxication since 2010. At least 27 of those people were Indigenous. 

Most were detained in rural police detachments, often in communities where there are no detox or sobering centres.

Fourteen of the 61 deaths, or 23 per cent, occurred in Alberta. There were 10 similar deaths in Ontario over the same time period, and nine in B.C.

CBC News filed a freedom of information request with Alberta Justice to obtain the ASIRT review of Kevin First Charger's death and was told it will take 135 days to release.

"I don't know why that would take very long," Husky First Charger said.

"It's already been six years." 

In Alberta, a fatality inquiry can be held when a person dies in police custody. The death would be reviewed by the Fatality Review Board first and they can recommend an inquiry into his death.

Currently, there is no inquiry scheduled for First Charger's death. 

Under Alberta's legislation, the chief medical examiner has discretion when deciding whether or not to call an inquiry into a death in custody. An inquiry is not mandatory unlike in provinces such as Ontario and B.C.

'Friends in low places'

First Charger, who was from the Kainai Blood Tribe, was a bull rider in his younger days, according to his children. 

"He loved the rodeo," Crazy Bull said of her father.

He would regale his family and friends with stories of the trophies he won.

First Charger wasn't homeless but a lot of his friends lived on the street, his children say.

"Every time he had one of those days, he would go downtown and join them and he would hang with them," Crazy Bull said.

Kevin First Charger's children said he would drink and use drugs sometimes when he was with his friends and partner.

Crazy Bull said she was worried about her father. She asked him to call her every week.

"I needed to hear from him," she said.

"I did call him that one day I was worried about him …. He just told me, 'Don't worry about me. I have lots of friends. Lots of friends in low places.'"

Then, one week, Crazy Bull didn't hear from her father. She knew something had happened.

"I actually had a feeling a few days before [he died]," Crazy Bull said.

"When I didn't get his phone call that week, I just felt like there's something wrong."

The death of her father was overwhelming, Crazy Bull said. She wasn't sure if she wanted to know what exactly happened to her father.

"I just wanted to move forward," she said.

Now that Crazy Bull and her brother have seen some of the information about what happened to her father, they want answers.

"A lot of things don't make sense."

with files from Caroline Barghout and Kristin Annable