A group of Indigenous people

Advocates question RCMP’s role in recent deaths of Indigenous peoples

By Philip McLachlan,  The Discourse, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Content warning: This story mentions self-harm and police response to a distress call, as well as content about police violence against Indigenous people. Please read with care.

Advocates are demanding a public inquiry following the death of a Williams Lake First Nation (WLFN) man who died after RCMP were called to his home — the latest plea for systemic reform to a police force which one chief says has an “inherent bloodlust against people of colour.”

Rojun Alphonse’s family called officers to his apartment early in the morning on July 10 because they were concerned that he was going to harm himself — but instead of calming the man in distress, the RCMP showed up to “terrorize” Alphonse with tear gas, automatic weapons, body armour and armed vehicles, said WLFN Chief Willie Sellars.

After the RCMP’s North District Emergency Response Team (ERT) was eventually able to enter his home that afternoon, Alphonse was found with what investigators say “appear to be self-inflicted injuries” and died at the scene. WLFN and the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs (UBCIC) are now asking for a public inquiry into policing of First Nations in “B.C.”

“With a systemic focus, but in addition, a specific examination of the circumstances of this tragedy,” Sellars said in a statement. “Our families and citizens deserve to feel safe and receive supports that promote safety, reduction of risk, and protection of children.”

With the purpose of invoking national reform, WLFN penned a letter to “Canada’s” Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino, calling for a public inquiry into policing of First Nations in “B.C.,” and “a commitment to making changes that are needed to prevent these tragedies.”

Systemic tragedies experienced by many communities

It also calls for reform to the RCMP’s “discriminatory practices” toward Indigenous people.

This latest call echoes those made in the past year after the deaths of Chantel Moore and Jared Lowdnes by various high-profile institutions, leaders and relatives. Just three months ago, Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council released a statement saying police reform needed to happen “now,” asking specifically for better training for de-escalation and trauma-informed teams to deal with mental health issues.

Just two days before the passing of Rojun, family and community members gathered in “Campbell River” on the one-year anniversary of the death of Jared (Jay) Lowdnes, who was shot by “Campbell River” RCMP in 2021. Also present on July 8 were family members and friends of Chantel Moore, a Tla-o-qui-aht woman killed by RCMP in 2020 during a “wellness check.”

Martha Martin and Laura hold each other as those present at the Justice For Jared march, on July 8 – the one-year anniversary of his death by police – raise their arms in support of the families, outside the “Campbell River” RCMP detachment.

Parents of both individuals, Laura Holland and Martha Martin, are calling for changes in policies, and policy development happens, and how investigative offices like the Independent Investigations Office (IIO) of BC are formed.

Significantly impacted community confidence in the system

At a press conference at WLFN on Tuesday, Rojun’s wife June North remembered her late husband as a loving and hard-working man.

“He made sure to take care of all of us, he made sure to teach the kids to hunt, to fish,” she said, struggling to get words out between sobs.

“All of our memories will be forever cherished.”

She questioned how a distress call, meant to help someone in crisis, could be treated as a crime. Losing him has been a tragedy for her family and the community which no apology could make up for, she said.

“We call for justice on how our RCMP have followed through on this call, when our daughter was still home,” she said. “They had no compassion or concern for his mental state, only seeing him as a threat, when they knew it was a distress call and not a criminal act.”

press release from RCMP said officers received a call about a man “in possession of a weapon” who was “contemplating self-harm” at approximately 3:40 a.m., and there was an hours-long confrontation outside the apartment building.

“RCMP officers attended the residence, established a perimeter and a police negotiator attempted to contact the man,” it said.

“At approximately 12:30 p.m., the North District Emergency Response Team entered the home and located a deceased man with a weapon.”

Sellars said what happened on Sunday, July 10 has significantly impacted the community’s confidence in the system. “It’s entirely undermined our confidence in the system,” he said.

“What should have resulted in a welfare check with properly trained individuals instructed to de-escalate the situation, talk Rojun down, instead resulted in a response by a swarm of ERT personnel, automatic weapons, body armour, armed vehicles, and tear gas,” said Sellars.

“In the midst of this aggressive and violent confrontation by the RCMP, Rojun took his life. We’re all in shock and mourning.”

He added that on social media, onlookers branded it as a “gang situation” and it was treated as such. He questions whether this situation would have been treated the same if the individual experiencing a crisis had been non-Indigenous.

“Our families and citizens deserve to feel safe and receive supports that promote safety, reduction of risk, and protection of children,” Sellars said in a release ahead of the press conference.

Calling for action: reform, change and accountability

“We’re sitting here today in unison with the family, and the UBCIC, because everyone deserves justice. What is wrong in the system to cause these outcomes, and what are we doing about it to see change?” Sellars said.

Under the “B.C.” Public Inquiry Act, a commission may be established, by order, to inquire into and report on any matter that the Lieutenant Governor in Council considers to be of public interest. The federal and provincial governments both have the authority to order a public inquiry.

WLFN is requesting a meeting with Minister Mendicino as soon as possible, to hear how the government plans “to address discrimination in policing and public safety.”

Sellars also stressed the need for proper methods of de-escalation of conflict, using cultural values and norms, and properly trained and accountable police on the ground.

In an statement emailed to IndigiNews, a representative for Minister Mendicino said reforming the RCMP “to ensure that Canadians can have confidence in their national police force” is a top priority.

“[Reform work] extends from the creation of new accountability and oversight mechanisms in Bill C-20 to a recent mandate letter to [RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki] containing an array of specific instructions for change,” said the statement from Office of Public Safety communication director Alexander Cohen.

The May 2022 mandate letter includes the direction to “support the development of national standards on crisis intervention, conduct an external review on de-escalation and identify the tools and training necessary to implement them.”

IIO investigating Rojun’s death

Both the federal office and provincial ministry for public safety have noted that since the IIO are investigating Rojun’s death, they are unable to comment on it specifically.

On July 10, the IIOBC announced they would be investigating the death of a Williams Lake man. In its release, IIO explains that both police and ERT members went to his residence and “attempted to engage with the man for several hours.”

“The IIO was notified of the incident shortly after it occurred and has commenced an investigation to determine what role, if any, police actions or inactions may have played in the man’s death,” stated their release.

‘So little change has happened’

UBCIC Grand Chief Stewart Phillip told the room full of family and community members that there have been too many wrongful deaths at the hands of not only the RCMP, but other police agencies, who “just go in and start to shoot.”

Some of the people who participated in the July 8, Justice For Jared march carried signs with strong imagery and messaging, demanding justice for Jared, as well as addressing systemic racism, among other things.

He called for lawsuits against levels of authority, starting with the Minister of Justice, and working their way down to the ERT members who entered Rojun’s apartment. Maybe then, he says, they will start sending mental health specialists instead.

Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, Aki-Kwe, of Muskeg Lake Cree First nation is a lawyer for the UBCIC, and which is lending their support to WLFN as they call for justice and accountability.

“This horrible tragedy that has occurred, has really laid bare a serious concern, that is not a new concern, but it’s one that obviously has not been heard and addressed,” she said.

This concern, she said, is public safety within Indigenous communities, especially when it involves someone in a crisis. She added that many times, people in these communities experience crises because of past difficulties stemming from the policies of “Canada,” like residential “schools” and the “child welfare” system. These things, she said, cause enormous stress for families.

“When families call for support, they need support — culturally safe support. They don’t need tear gas, and escalation,” she said.

She reiterated that this isn’t the first time this has happened, yet so little change has happened.

“The services for public safety should be services that are culturally safe, that de-escalate conflict, that treat people with respect, that understand and ways to help families, children, parents who are struggling,” she said.

“And the violence that occurred here has to be taken very seriously and looked at because it would seem very much to us that this was preventable, that this should not have occurred. This family should have their father, this community should have their member.”

Top image credit: UBCIC Grand Chief Stewart Phillip (top left) and Chief Willie Sellars of Williams Lake First Nation (centre) were among family and community members gathered at the nation’s office during a press conference addressing the death of a member following a distress call to RCMP. They are pictured at the beginning of the conference as it was led in prayer and drumming by Elder Charlene Belleau. – Screenshot by Philip McLachlan

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