The case of an injured and mentally ill Inuit woman who went missing for nearly a week after Montreal police left her on the street at midnight has raised anger and questions among Indigenous people and political leaders about how officers have handled her case.
Mina Aculiak, 48, who suffered visible physical wounds, comes from an isolated community and speaks no French and very little English, was released last Friday from a police holding cell about nine kilometres from the rehabilitation centre where she was living. Police gave her a transit ticket before sending her on her way.
An off-duty police officer found her just before noon on Thursday, six days after she disappeared and the first day public alarm was raised about her absence. Police said she was in good condition. She is expected to remain in hospital for a few days before she returns to the Gingras-Lindsay rehabilitation centre.
Her discovery brought relief to her family, but police dealings with Ms. Aculiak have been a source of outrage for months. Inuit and other Indigenous leaders say the behaviour is a prime example of insensitivity and mishandling. “This case is a good lesson in police not caring,” said Nakuset – who goes by one name in accordance with some Indigenous traditions – executive director of the Native Women’s Shelter of Montreal, one of the organizations that assisted in the search for the missing woman. “When people wonder why we don’t call police when we’re in trouble, here’s a good example.”
The saga began April 4 in Ms. Aculiak’s village of Umiaujaq, about 1,200 kilometres north of Montreal, when police responded to a call that she was agitated, making threats and carrying a knife. Officers of the Kativik Regional Police Force stopped her by crashing into her with a police vehicle.
Quebec’s Bureau des enquêtes indépendantes (BEI), the provincial agency that investigates police use of force, at first declined to take on the case, saying Ms. Aculiak’s broken arm did not meet their required threshold of a serious injury.
Ms. Aculiak actually had punctured lungs, lacerated organs and several broken bones on top of the broken arm, La Presse newspaper reported in its own investigation. The paper also produced independent medical analysis describing the injuries as serious. After Premier Philippe Couillard described the reports as “troubling,” the BEI finally took on the case June 4.
Both the BEI and Kativik police said they can’t comment, citing the continuing investigation.
Ms. Aculiak was in a rehabilitation centre where she was awaiting surgery to repair those injuries last Friday, when she stepped out to have a cigarette and ended up buying beer, said her partner, Paul Tookalook.
A staff member of the rehab centre called police when Ms. Aculiak returned intoxicated. A spokesman for the rehab centre said he could not talk about the specific case, but he said they rarely call police unless they have a high level of concern for a patient’s safety.
“Calling police is exceptional, but our top priority is the health and safety of the patient,” said Jean-Nicolas Aubé, spokesman for the regional health agency that oversees the rehab centre.
Police took Ms. Aculiak to detention cells on the edge of an industrial area nine kilometres away from the centrally located rehab centre before releasing her around midnight with a transit ticket. She still had bandages, an identification bracelet and a catheter dangling from her arm, said Mr. Tookalook, who had seen police surveillance video. The transit route from the police station to the rehab centre at midnight on a Friday requires three buses and takes about an hour of travel.
“I am so angry with the police,” Mr. Tookalook said. “Why didn’t they just bring her back here to the centre?”
Montreal police have an Indigenous liaison officer and a number of options to deal with such situations, Nakuset said. Nakuset’s shelter has a social worker who is often called to help facilitate a return. They could have called 911 and had an ambulance take her to a hospital, she said.
“I’m still unbelievably unhappy with the police; I’m pulling my hair out,” Nakuset said. “We have procedures in place and leaving someone on the street is not among them.”
A spokesman for the Montreal police said they are looking into the handling of the case but could not provide an immediate explanation. Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante called the situation “unacceptable.”