Indigenous

'World stood still' for family of 21-year-old Cree man killed by Timmins police

The family of Joey Knapaysweet, who was shot and killed by police in Timmins on Feb. 3, says the incident is still shrouded by unanswered questions.

Joey Knapaysweet's family believes police fired 3 shots during Feb. 3 incident

Micheline Knapaysweet, left, and Helen Knapaysweet, right, hold a photo of Joey Knapaysweet between them. (Submitted by Helen Knapaysweet)

Helen Knapaysweet says the "world stood still" for days after her 21-year-old nephew was gunned down by police in Timmins, Ont.

The family is gripped by grief following the death of Joey Knapaysweet, who was shot and killed Feb. 3 in an incident still shrouded by unanswered questions, she said.

"I couldn't do anything, I couldn't even think of how we're going to go on," said Helen Knapaysweet, in a telephone interview from Fort Albany First Nation, about 400 km north of Timmins.

"It just won't sink in. Even when we had the funeral, it was like it was all a dream."

Joey Knapaysweet was in Timmins that weekend seeking medical care. Helen Knapaysweet said the family still knows little about the events of Saturday, Feb. 3.  

All she knows is that someone inside the Cochrane District Emergency Medical Services (EMS) building called the police. Joey Knapaysweet was chased by police from that location and ended up dead in an incident the family believes involved three shots fired from a police gun.

'No answers'

The Special Investigations Unit (SIU), the Ontario agency that investigates serious injuries and deaths at the hands of police, said the incident unfolded at about 10:15 a.m. on Feb. 3. The SIU said there was "an interaction" between Joey Knapaysweet and police which led to an officer firing their gun.

The 21-year-old was later pronounced dead in the hospital.

"Why did that person call the cops from the EMS? Why did he call the cops? What was Joey doing?" said Helen Knapaysweet.

"What justification does the cop have to pull the trigger, three times? Did Joey have a machine gun? Did he have an axe? Did he have a knife? What did he have?"

Knapaysweet said SIU investigators had spoken with the family.

Joey Knapaysweet, 21, and his mother Micheline Knapaysweet. (Submitted by the family of Joey Knapaysweet)

"We didn't have no answers, nothing at all," she said.

"They wanted to come over here and ask about Joey when they should be asking over there why they shot him."

Joey's mother, Micheline Knapaysweet, issued a statement on Feb. 15 also calling for answers.

"I am so heartbroken, with so many questions unanswered. I cannot sleep at nights; I need answers. This is my son, my child," said the statement.

Searching for witness

Helen Knapaysweet said the family is hoping to find a woman who witnessed the incident. She said the woman approached the family during a vigil in Timmins and said she saw what happened during the encounter.

"That lady said, 'I don't know why they did that to him. I'm so sorry. I don't know why they did that to him. I saw everything,'" said Knapaysweet.

"So this witness is out there."

People gather at a vigil in Timmins on Feb. 10 for Joey Knapaysweet, near the spot on Gillies Lake where he was shot by police on Feb. 3. (Facebook)

The family is also exploring retaining a lawyer to help them get the answers they so desperately need.

"It is almost like it's pointless to even scream about it," she said.

"When it comes down to having a broken heart, everyone will have their own time and day when they are going to feel that and that time, today, is ours."

She said she still remembers how her nephew often visited his grandmother with a bag of chips and a can of pop. The grandmother, Helen and Micheline Knapaysweet's mother, died last November.

"He was really close to her," said Helen Knapaysweet.

Joey Knapaysweet was buried in his home community of Fort Albany on Feb. 9.

The day after Knapaysweet was killed, Agnes Sutherland, 62, died in hospital after spending the previous evening in the custody of Timmins police.

The SIU is also investigating Sutherland's death.

'It's something you don't want to feel'

"It's something you don't want to feel, what we're going through, and I know there are many people that are going through what we are going through," Helen Knapaysweet said, also acknowledging the families of Tina Fontaine and Colten Boushie.

Boushie was killed by a bullet fired from a gun held by Biggar, Sask., farmer Gerald Stanley, who was found not guilty of second-degree murder by a jury earlier this month.

Fontaine, 15, was found dead in Winnipeg's Red River in 2014. The man charged with second-degree murder in her killing, Raymond Cormier, was found not guilty by a jury last week.

Knapaysweet said she was in the process of moving to Timmins, but that has all changed because she can no longer stand to be in the city.

During the interview, Knapaysweet said she could see it was a beautiful day outside, through the window of her Fort Albany home, but it gave her little comfort.

"We are crying because Joey is not with us, because he was taken away from us," she said.

"It's different when someone is taken away from you. It's different."

About the Author

Jorge Barrera is a Caracas-born, award-winning journalist who has worked across the country and internationally. He works for CBC's Indigenous unit based out of Ottawa. Follow him on Twitter @JorgeBarrera or email him jorge.barrera@cbc.ca.