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Edmonton Institution on November 19, 2014. Edward Snowshoe, from the Northwest Territories, committed suicide there in 2010 after the 24-year-old spent 162 consecutive days in segregation.AMBER BRACKEN/The Globe and Mail

Ten years after Edward Snowshoe died in a federal solitary confinement cell, his family is going to court seeking an apology and compensation from the Correctional Service of Canada.

The lawsuit claims $12.5-million in total damages and alleges that Mr. Snowshoe’s death “resulted from systemic discrimination against him as an Indigenous person.”

Confined‎: The death of Eddie Snowshoe

Mr. Snowshoe died by suicide on Aug. 13, 2010, at the age of 24, within the confines of the maximum-security Edmonton Institution. The Gwich’in man from Fort McPherson, NWT, had spent the final 162 days of his life in solitary confinement, where he was placed after correctional officers alleged that he had threatened officers with a weapon.

The weapon later turned out to be a juice-box.

With the publication of a 2014 Globe and Mail story outlining how Mr. Snowshoe’s mental health had spiralled as he languished inside a cell no larger than a parking space, his death became a case study for the ills of solitary confinement.

Two civil rights lawsuits launched within a month of the story’s publication successfully challenged the constitutionality of Canada’s solitary confinement regime, called administrative segregation, and marked a turning point in national prison reform.

Although many reform efforts cited Mr. Snowshoe’s death, none sought to redress his family’s loss.

His mother, Effie Bella Snowshoe, had long wanted to launch such a lawsuit, but lacked the means to hire legal help.

But a fateful encounter in one of Fort McPherson’s two grocery stores last year changed all that.

“I bumped into Effie at the Northmart and I could tell she was upset,” said Ken Kyikavichik, who was elected Grand Chief of the Gwich’in Tribal Council last September. “The discussion happened organically. I was shocked to learn that so many of the family’s issues were unresolved.”

For years, Ms. Snowshoe has kept a bag containing keepsakes from her son’s life and death close by. It contains a beaded baby strap hand-sewn upon Eddie’s birth in 1985, telephone records showing her many calls to prison and his suicide note. She didn’t learn about the circumstances of his demise until an Alberta fatality inquiry held four years after his death. During that inquiry, a government lawyer laid blame for the death solely upon the victim because “he was not being fully co-operative with the institutional authorities and framework.”

The inquiry raised a number of concerns about Mr. Snowshoe’s treatment in the weeks before his death. Three prison employees testified that they didn’t flag the young inmate as a suicide risk because they hadn’t fully consulted his medical records.

Mr. Kyikavichik said the more he learned about the case, the more he felt compelled to act. “You have a young man, a Gwich’in man, who suffered a cruel, inhumane and degrading form of brutality,” he said. “He was due home by Christmas. Clearly there were numerous breaches of his rights.”

On Wednesday, the Gwich’in Tribal Council is scheduled to file the lawsuit with the Court of Queen’s Bench in Edmonton on the family’s behalf.

The claim will allege that prison staff neglected Mr. Snowshoe’s mental health and failed to fulfill its duty of care.

“The loss of life is always a tragedy, and CSC takes the death of an inmate very seriously,” said Correctional Service of Canada spokeswoman Isabelle Robitaille, who added that the agency wouldn’t comment on a claim that it has yet to receive.

Around the time Mr. Snowshoe died, CSC held upwards of 800 people in administrative segregation on any given day. Since November, 2019, the agency has replaced administrative segregation with structured intervention, which grants prisoners more time outside their cells. Prisoners’ rights advocates say it still constitutes a form of solitary confinement.

During that time period, the overrepresentation of Indigenous inmates in federal prisons has intensified – from 20 per cent of the total prisoner population in 2010 to 30 per cent today.

“We need to bring this to light,” Mr. Kyikavichik said. “It’s our duty to uphold the rights of our people both collectively and individually. We have a family that has experienced extreme, unnecessary trauma. Our tribal council felt we needed to take action.”

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