The RCMP says it cannot release more than a basic description of a police shooting death in Nunavut because the details could create bias in a coroner’s inquest expected to be three to four years away.
A brief statement this month from the national police force on last May’s confrontation, in which a Mountie shot and killed Abraham Natanine, a 31-year-old Inuk father of five, is being criticized as insufficient by the family and legal community.
They are concerned that neither the RCMP nor the Ottawa Police Service, which investigated the shooting and cleared the two Mounties involved of criminal wrongdoing, has given out enough information to allow people to decide for themselves whether the shooting was justified. By comparison, Ontario’s Special Investigations Unit publishes its detailed reports on its website. The RCMP in Nunavut released far less detail on the case than it did last August, after officers were cleared in the shooting death of Attachie Ashoona of Kinngait the previous winter.
“The police can do whatever they want and nothing’s going to come out of this,” Jerry Natanine, Abraham’s father and the mayor of Clyde River, said in an interview. “I’m so hopeless that I just want to forget it.”
Mr. Natanine’s fatal shooting was one of three, two of them fatal, involving the RCMP in Nunavut between February and May, 2020, highlighting questions about the Mounties’ use of force in the far north and a lack of transparency and independence in investigations.
On April 9, the Ottawa Police Service announced it had cleared the two Mounties. The Ottawa force investigates serious police incidents under a memorandum of understanding with the Nunavut government and the RCMP. It said only that the incident happened during a domestic disturbance, and there were no reasonable grounds to lay charges.
Ten days later, a brief RCMP news release set out for the first time what the force says happened when two officers responded to a call shortly after 11 p.m.
“The interaction between RCMP and occupants in the residence at the time escalated to Mr. Natanine retrieving a weapon,” the news release said. “The interaction evolved further, resulting in the discharge of a police firearm, which struck Mr. Natanine. Immediately following the shooting, Mr. Natanine was transported to the health centre by the officers where he was pronounced deceased by medical staff.”
The RCMP said in the news release it could not say more to protect the impartiality of “other review processes” that may follow. In an e-mail to The Globe and Mail, a spokeswoman said that refers to the mandatory coroner’s inquest that has yet to be scheduled.
“Were the Ottawa Police Service, as the primary investigators of this occurrence, and/or the RCMP to publish details of the circumstance in advance of an inquest,” it might “subvert/bias the jury-based legal proceeding,” Pauline Melanson said. “This would be very undesirable as the inquest process is to review the circumstances of a death for the purpose of understanding and developing recommendations that may prevent similar circumstance deaths from occurring.”
Benson Cowan, head of legal aid services in Nunavut, said an inquest is not likely for three or four years, and called that explanation a “convenient excuse” to avoid accountability.
“They cannot point to any Nunavut law or regulation that requires the RCMP to limit the amount of information they share with the family or the public,” he said. “Coroner’s inquests are often held after criminal proceedings have finished, when there is detailed information on the public record. There is rarely – if ever – any issue with finding an impartial jury.”
Jerry Natanine said an Ottawa police investigator told him his son attacked police with a knife. He said he doesn’t know what to make of that, and wants more information, but does not know how to obtain it.
Michelle Illauq, Abraham Natanine’s spouse, recorded a 22-second video of Mr. Natanine lying on the floor after he was shot.
“Neither she nor I see a weapon in that video,” her lawyer, Qajaq Robinson, said in an interview.
She added that at no time did Ms. Illauq see a knife on Mr. Natanine. Ms. Illauq, while not in the house for the entire incident, was there at the time of the shooting, Ms. Robinson said, and believes the force used was unnecessary.
A statement from Ms. Illauq said: “What they say happened isn’t what I remember. I want to see the reports and the statements. When they killed him it shattered so many lives. It’s impossible to find peace without answers.”
Ms. Robinson said Ms. Illauq’s request for a copy of the Ottawa police investigative report was denied. She said Ms. Illauq is being asked to accept a conclusion without being told the basis for it.
“We don’t know who was questioned, we don’t know who evaluated the evidence, we don’t know what forensics found. That’s not in keeping with Canadians’ values and the rule of law,” she said.
Ottawa police told The Globe in an e-mail they are not authorized to give the report to anyone outside of law enforcement agencies, including the family. They say they have a liaison officer to respond to inquiries from family members.
Mr. Cowan said the Ottawa police could release the report to the family, with the agreement of the RCMP and Nunavut under the terms of the memorandum of understanding.
Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.