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Pikangikum First Nation is a remote-access community located about 100 kilometres northwest of Red Lake, Ont. (John Woods/the canadian press)
Pikangikum First Nation is a remote-access community located about 100 kilometres northwest of Red Lake, Ont. (John Woods/the canadian press)

Court decision sparks awareness of history, division in Pikangikum Add to ...

One summer night two years ago, a small-town Ontario cop arrested a drunk-driving suspect riding an ATV and stumbled directly into the cross-hairs of colonial history.

The story of how a single early-morning arrest touched off a violent riot and dredged up decades of lingering resentment between a 2,600-person Ojibwa community and its government minders surfaced in a recent judgment handed down by Ontario Court Justice David Gibson earlier this year.

At turns scathing and moving, the judgment called conditions in Pikangikum “a national disgrace,” noting a lack of running water or sewage, a persistent gas-sniffing problem and a suicide rate that has earned it the moniker “suicide capital of the world.”

While Justice Gibson issued the decision in January, discussions centring on its legal and literary merits have been grown louder of late.

“The response I have been hearing from people is that they are all very, very impressed,” said Jonathan Rudin, program director at Aboriginal Legal Services of Toronto. “It reads like a piece of literature. It’s a legal decision but it’s also teaching people about the history of the country as seen through lens of what for most people would just be this awful criminal act.”

The ruling begins with a blow-by-blow narrative that left officers fearing for their lives. At 12:14 a.m. on June 27, 2015, a constable with the 11-member Ontario Provincial Police detachment in Pikangikum stopped an ATV loaded with four people. He arrested the operator, Delvin Suggashie, for drunk driving and, when one of the passengers became belligerent, fired a taser to subdue him.

Constable Lieverse (only his last name is given) didn’t know it at the time, but a resident in a nearby home had recorded the encounter on video, which was uploaded to Facebook. Before long, it seemed the whole town had seen the video and decided Constable Lieverse had used excessive force.

Mr. Suggashie’s father was the first to express the community’s view in person. At 6:30 p.m., he made his way to the detachment and told officers that Constable Lieverse needed to be expelled from town, warning that much of the town would soon arrive to make the same point.

There was ample precedent for banishing a cop from Pikangikum, a fly-in community roughly 500 kilometres northwest of Thunder Bay. In 2009, local politicians asked police to remove a white school teacher who was dating an ex-girlfriend of the chief’s son. When the OPP refused to comply, council instructed the OPP to leave town. Only when a band councillor threatened to bulldoze the detachment did officers decide to vacate Pikangikum.

A year later, 200 residents responded to an allegation of police misconduct by surrounding the detachment, tossing rocks and forcing the entire uniformed staff to walk to the airport.

In the more recent case, as Mr. Suggashie’s father had warned, by 8 p.m., the crowd had grown to a mob of 300 to 500 people. Acting Sergeant Ryan Gordon would have known from recent history he would have to heed the crowd’s demands or risk the entire detachment. He arranged for a plane and announced to the crowd that Constable Lieverse would be driven to the airport within 45 minutes.

The crowd added a second demand: Constable Lieverse not only needed to be expelled, he needed to endure the shame of walking to the airport. Sgt. Gordon rejected the request for safety reasons and made an arrangement to remove Constable Lieverse more expeditiously by boat. But protesters moved in to block the boat ramp and began throwing rocks, leaving Sgt. Gordon with little option but a full retreat to the detachment.

There, all 11 officers pulled back to the second floor along with the detachment’s arsenal.

By nightfall, they began hearing yells, smashing glass and the blare of a fire alarm. Several officers thought the building was being set ablaze. Protesters breached the downstairs doors at 10:30 p.m. The officers split into two groups and prepared for a confrontation.

When the rioters reached the top of the stairs, Sgt. Gordon yelled that any attempt at entry “would be met with lethal force.”

Just before 11 p.m., the door swung open. Ready to fire, the officers were instead met with a puzzling sight: two men – Bradley Suggashie, whose hands were bloodied, and Jerius Quill. They were accompanied by an unidentified woman and a six-year-old boy named Bradie.

The officers immediately recognized the curious boy, who liked to hang around the police and their digs. Fear for the boy’s safety soon overtook concerns for their own well-being. Sgt. Gordon told the adults to get Bradie away from the building. Instead, Mr. Suggashie stepped toward Sgt. Gordon, according to the commanding officer’s testimony.

The sergeant would retreat no further. He pushed Mr. Suggashie back and instructed him to go home and bandage his hands.

And then, for all the hours of tense build-up, all hostility fizzled, suddenly and mysteriously. Mr. Suggashie extended a bloody hand for a fist-bump before turning and walking down the stairs with his compatriots.

In all, the building and various police vehicles suffered more than $80,000 in damages.

Mr. Suggashie, 32, pleaded guilty to two counts of breaking and entering with intent to commit an indictable offence. Mr. Quill pleaded guilty to one count of the same offence and one count of mischief for vandalizing police vehicles. It’s unclear whether Bradley Suggashie is related to Delvin.

Justice Gibson took the unusual step of calling a Pikangikum elder, Lloyd Comber, to testify about the “historical plight” of the town. The ruling summarizes the testimony, providing compelling historical context for the riot.

Mr. Comber took the court through an 85-year journey from the 1930s, when his mother and father arrived in the 100-person village to work at a Hudson Bay Company post, to the present-day realities of a town with 75-per-cent unemployment.

He recalled how women once played a central political role in the community and how one elderly couple kept a sacred drum that acted as the beating heart of the community. He dated the beginning of the community’s demise to the day a teacher bought the drum for $100 and fled town. The old ways soon gave way to residential schools, alcoholism and broken families.

“Now how do you tell your mother or your father, your grandfather, the people that you love the most, how do you tell your mother that you got raped or you got beaten?” he testified. “… I know what I’m speaking about because it happened to me.”

Today, 75 per cent of the community is 25 years old or under, according to the ruling. Four in five homes lack sewage and running water. So many children sniff gas that “many adults consider it a normal phase for children to go through as they pass into early adulthood,” writes Justice Gibson, who has been visiting the community for 24 years as a lawyer and judge.

Justice Gibson extended his empathy to the people in charge of keeping the fractured community safe as well. “The officers who were present during this incident were extremely traumatized,” he writes. “Acting Sgt. Gordon has been suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and several officers have missed extensive time, at least one of whom is still unable to return to work.”

Both of the accused spent a year of pretrial custody at Kenora Jail. Last July, all parties came together for a restorative justice circle. The accused and the police shared views on the clash and its fallout.

“We’ve been working hard to repair that relationship,” said current chief Dean Owen, a view echoed by the OPP in a statement e-mailed to The Globe.

Justice Gibson credited both of the accused for their efforts to “repair the noxious effect of their actions” and issued a two-year suspended sentence and 80 hours of community service.

While the decision provides a solution for the two men, Pikangikum still needs work.

“There are many good people here and the conditions they are living in are a national disgrace,” he writes. “It is shameful that a country as wealthy as ours tolerates that any of its citizens should live as many of the people of Pikangikum do.”

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