Investigations of police shootings causing Indigenous deaths lack validity

Wednesday, November 23rd, 2022 5:39pm


Image Caption

Judith Sayers


“They hadn’t slept all night. They’re just hanging on. They’re just torn about all of this. How upset and sad.” —Judith Sayers
By Shari Narine
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

CORRECTION and UPDATE NOV. 24: 1:24 p.m. (Alta). With information about the role of the Indigenous civilian monitor.

The report has yet to be released but the findings are in: The Independent Investigations Office (IIO) in British Columbia has cleared RCMP officers in the shooting death of Julian Jones, 28, of Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation.

Judith Sayers, director of the BC First Nations Justice Council and president of the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council (NTC), has little confidence in the findings.

“For me it’s endless. It just always feels that we never ever find a police that’s been guilty of shooting our people,” she said.

According to an IIO statement, Jones was fatally shot during an incident that occurred on Feb. 27, 2021. Tofino RCMP officers responded to a report of a woman being held against her will at a residence in Opitsaht, a Tla-o-qui-aht community on Meares Island. Tla-o-qui-aht is a Nation member of the NTC. The incident resulted in one man being shot and killed by officers, and another man being taken into custody.

Because a matter related to the incident is now before the court, the investigative report won’t be released until the trial is concluded, according to Chief Civilian Director Ronald J. MacDonald, KC.

For the first time ever, an Indigenous civilian monitor handled the review of an incident involving an Indigenous person.

Acting Chief Thomas George of the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation, who took on the role of monitor, was able to review the available evidence in the Jones’ shooting, including information from witnesses and forensic scene analysis, to identify any issues or cultural aspects that had may not have been fully explored.

Windspeaker previously reported that George’s role as monitor could determine whether there were grounds to lay charges against the officers involved. This is incorrect.

“The decision regarding whether reasonable grounds exist to believe that an officer may have committed an offence must always be the responsibility of the IIO’s Chief Civilian Director,” reads an email from Media & Communications Liaison of the Independent Investigations Office, Rebecca Whalen.

According to information she provided us after publication of our article of Nov. 23, Chief George’s submitted report states: “I have no recommendations for the integrity of the investigation; the investigation was carried out with excellent procedure.”

Sayers takes little consolation in George’s role.

“I’m assuming that whatever interviews (the police) had probably corroborated whatever the police said,” said Sayers.

“(George) reviewed everything and he agreed with the recommendation. We just feel like nothing ever comes down on the side of Indigenous people.”

Sayers says she knows Julian Jones’ family and spoke with them after the findings.

“They hadn’t slept all night. They’re just hanging on. They’re just torn about all of this. How upset and sad,” she said.

“Thomas was on our call with the family and he, of course, cannot say much because of that whole confidentiality based on this court case. All he could say was he had a chance to…see everything and he wrote up his report.”

For the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation, the last couple of years have been particularly difficult, starting with the shooting death of member Chantel Moore by the police in New Brunswick on June 4, 2020.

Moore was shot and killed by an Edmundston police officer during a wellness check. The New Brunswick Police Commission cleared the police officer of any wrongdoing.

This past March, an exhibit in Vancouver entitled “Honour Their Names” used artwork to commemorate close to 90 Indigenous people shot and killed in Canada by police. The exhibit was envisioned by Laura Holland, whose son Jared Lowndes, a Wet'suwet'en man, was killed by the Campbell River RCMP on July 8, 2021.

The IIO investigation into Lowndes’ death is ongoing.

The BC First Nations Justice Council is in the process of creating a specialized policing accountability unit within its Indigenous Justice Centres.

“We continue to see issues with police and Indigenous people. So what can we do to make police more accountable to our people? We continue to have these kinds of issues (shootings) happening…(and) the accountability unit was put there to help Indigenous people because they feel helpless,” said Sayers.

As proposed, an Indigenous oversight liaison could act as a civilian monitor in IIO investigations if the impacted Indigenous community approves the role.

Sayers admits the role being proposed is similar to what happened with the Jones’ investigation, but she contends having someone involved from outside the directly impacted community may make a difference.

“Sometimes it’s also difficult for someone in the community to be that monitor. Do we have an independent one? There are still things that we’re working out. We want to find the best way possible in using these independent investigative officers,” she said.

The justice council is also proposing a way to take First Nations complaints against the police outside of the internal review system that exists now.

“We complain. It goes to the RCMP. There’s total bias there. How can we have confidence in that? So I think if we could set up our own process for complaints about police, we’d feel a lot more comfortable. Maybe we find out the police response was fine. And that’s good. But at least we know it’s gone through an unbiased process that we’ve had opportunity for input into,” she said.

Earlier this week, new BC Premier David Eby announced a new Safer Communities Action Plan, which included the opening of 10 new Indigenous Justice Centres over the next two years. Presently there are two physical centres and one virtual centre in operation.

“It’s trying just to make sure our people are represented. Some people just don’t bother. They just show up at court when they’re supposed to without representation. We want just to make sure everybody has the opportunity to be represented,” said Sayers.

While she applauds Eby’s move and is hopeful the attorney-general-turned-premier will understand the changes that are needed to break Indigenous people from the cycle of being over-represented in the justice system (In 2017-18, Indigenous adults accounted for one-third of those in custody in BC), Sayers says, “The question is, how far is he willing to go? It’s just making sure they’re going to continue working with us to implement the changes that we need.”

Local Journalism Initiative Reporters are supported by a financial contribution made by the Government of Canada.