Indigenous

Unsettling questions surround death of Timothy Atlookan in Thunder Bay

Donna Atlookan thinks her son Timothy's death was made to look like a suicide. He was found dead in a park across from the Thunder Bay courthouse in October and his death is still under investigation by police.

Was Timothy Atlookan's death made to look like a suicide? His mother wants answers

Donna Atlookan, right, mother of Timothy Atlookan, weeps in the arms of her friend Jacob Mekanak, in December by the tree where her son was found dead on Oct. 29. (Jorge Barrera/CBC)

Donna Atlookan weeps in the arms of a friend by the tree in the park across from the Thunder Bay courthouse where she said her son was found dead by hanging in October.

The Thunder Bay police continue to investigate the Oct. 29 death of Timothy Atlookan, 25, that may not be what it appeared to be at first.

Donna Atlookan said the coroner told her during a phone conversation that her son was found with a sweater or a jacket tied to his neck by the tree in Patterson Park.

She doesn't know exactly how he was found, whether he was already on the ground or still hanging. Her memory comes back in fragments from the fog and haze of pain in the days after the death.

She said the coroner suggested it was suicide.

Timothy Atlookan, 25, was found dead in a Thunder Bay park on Oct. 29. (Submitted by Donna Atlookan)

"It sounded like he was found hanging, that he died of asphyxiation," said Donna Atlookan.

Atlookan said there was no mention of a suicide note.

Thunder Bay police said this week in a statement that the file is still open and the death is still under investigation.

"We continue to support and communicate with Donna Atlookan while respecting the time the family needs to grieve," said the emailed statement.

The coroner's office would not comment on the case.

Thunder Bay police investigations under scrutiny 

Atlookan said she has received little communication from Thunder Bay police since her son's death. She said two officers visited her in mid-November. They told her they were there because a reporter had called asking about the case.

"They don't communicate with me," she said.

The investigation into the death of Timothy Atlookan comes at a time of heightened scrutiny of the Thunder Bay police and the regional coroner's handling of death investigations involving Indigenous people.

Ontario's police watchdog, the Office of the Independent Police Review Director (OIPRD), released a report last week that found systemic racism in the Thunder Bay police's handling of death cases involving Indigenous people.

The OIPRD called for nine death cases to be reopened. It also called for a multidisciplinary team to reinvestigate the cases and for certain death investigations be peer-reviewed by a police investigator from a separate police force over the next three years.

Thunder Bay police Chief Sylvie Hauth released a statement on Tuesday saying that she would be "consulting" on the OIPRD's recommendations and provide an initial report on progress in January.

The Thunder Bay police said in the statement that they were not yet prepared to "to speak to specific recommendations."

Questions surfaced on the street about death

Donna Atlookan does not believe suicide took her son, who was buried next to his grandfather in his home community of Eabametoong First Nation, 350 km northeast of Thunder Bay.  

Atlookan said she had a close relationship with her son, but he never mentioned any thoughts of taking his own life.

Shortly after Timothy Atlookan was found, word began to surface on the street that the death was not what it appeared. There was talk that it was a murder and his body was left in a public area as a message over drug debts.

Thunder Bay police would not confirm or deny whether this was one of their investigative avenues.

Donna Atlookan by the tree where roses and a bag of cigarette butts — tobacco —were left in the memory of her son Timothy Atlookan. (Jorge Barrera/CBC)

It's no secret street-level gangsters from Toronto and Ottawa have moved into Thunder Bay's drug trade, bringing with them a wave of violence.

In early October, Thunder Bay police arrested and charged three Ottawa residents — known to be part of a group called the "Ottawa Crew"— in the death of another associate, an Ottawa man named Justin "Milky" Duncan, 23.

Thunder Bay police news releases over the past two years have also mentioned charges against several gang-connected men from the Greater Toronto Area.

'It felt like a wind'

Timothy Atlookan was born Jan. 2, 1993, the first baby of the year to be born in Sioux Lookout, Ont. He started school in Eabametoong First Nation and he moved with his mother to Thunder Bay when he was in elementary school.

When his mother went to see him at the Jenkins Funeral Home in Thunder Bay he had just returned from the postmortem examination.

Donna Atlookan was told not to remove the tuque or the blanket that covered his body and the tattoos used by police to identify him.

"I looked at my son, held my son, and put my head down on his chest," she said.

"I felt something going through me; it felt like a wind. I felt like he was talking to me and I told him, 'Talk to me.'"

Timothy Atlookan had two sons, aged seven and five, and a girl, aged two.

A vigil was held in memory of Timothy Atlookan by the tree where he was found, shortly after his death. The Thunder Bay courthouse is visible in the upper right hand corner. (Alexandria Marie Adams/Facebook)

Donna Atlookan said her son was open about his involvement in the street drug world — selling and using. She said he once told her he had begun using needles, but that he didn't like it and stopped.  

"I had told him, stay out of that, when he told me what he was doing," she said.

"When you hear of of that world ... I know what it does and I know where it goes, but I am thinking he may have been really stuck in it."

Atlookan said she last saw her son about three days before his death. He came to her house at about 6 a.m. and fell asleep on her couch.

At about noon, she bought him a coffee and some breakfast and he spoke about how he was starting to mend the relationship with his children's mother and how he had taken two of his boys to McDonald's.

"One of the things he was telling me was, 'Oh mom, I went to church.' I said, 'Good, keep going.' That is not the first time he told me that," she said.

A knock on the door

On Oct. 29, there was a loud knock on the door she tried to ignore. There was more knocking and finally a loud male voice saying "It's the police."

She looked out the window and saw the police cruiser and wondered whether it was about a parking violation.

They were in her home, standing by her stove when the officer told her the news.

"He says, 'I'm sorry, I am here to inform you that your son was found deceased," she said.

She asked him to repeat it.

The rest was a blur, informing her daughter, aunts, the grandmother and other family members while hoping she could beat the Facebook rumour mill.

"I was in a daze, I felt like a zombie," said Atlookan. "I was feeling, 'What if I am lying to everybody and it's a mistake?' That is all I was waiting for, all evening, all night — for them to come and tell me it was a mistake."

No knock came.

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.