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Canada Ottawa officer charged after online remarks about death of Inuit artist

Annie Pootoogook with her work, Winner of 2006 Sobey Art Award, presented by Scotiabank.

An Ottawa police officer who publicly speculated that a celebrated Inuit artist may have "got drunk and fell in the river" while his colleagues were still investigating her unsolved death has been charged under the Police Services Act.

An internal affairs unit at the Ottawa Police Service has charged Sergeant Chris Hrnchiar, an officer in the force's forensic unit, with two counts of discreditable conduct after he allegedly wrote comments on an online Ottawa Citizen article about the death of Annie Pootoogook, whose body was found in the Rideau River on Sept. 19.

The charges against Sgt. Hrnchiar come more than a month after the launch of the federal inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women and girls, a probe that has faced mounting criticism from several aboriginal groups for not explicitly focusing on police conduct. An array of organizations, from Amnesty International to the Native Women's Association of Canada, have charged that police prejudice has contributed to the scale of unsolved cases involving aboriginal women.

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The death of Ms. Pootoogook, 47, an award-winning artist whose career had been derailed in recent years, in part because of an alcohol addiction, was initially deemed by detectives to be something other than a homicide. But more than a week after her body was pulled from the river, an investigator told The Citizen that the case wasn't so clear cut and that there were "elements of it that warrant further investigation."

In the accompanying comment section of the updated Citizen article, Sgt. Hrnchiar allegedly wrote, through his Facebook account, that "of course this has nothing to do with missing and murdered Aboriginal women … it's not a murder case … it's [sic] could be a suicide, accidental, she got drunk and fell in the river and drowned who knows … typically many Aboriginals have very short lifespans, talent or not."

The next comment from Sgt. Hrnchiar's account stated: "Because much of the aboriginal population in Canada is just satisfied being alcohol or drug abusers, living in poor conditions etc. … they have to have the will to change, it's not society's fault."

Sgt. Hrnchiar is scheduled to make his first appearance before a disciplinary hearing on Nov. 1. Officers found in violation of the act can face a range of penalties such as forfeiture of pay, suspension and in extreme cases, dismissal.

Ottawa Police Chief Charles Bordeleau was also criticized by some aboriginal leaders for not immediately condemning the remarks as racist. In an interview with the CBC, Chief Bordeleau characterized the remarks as "being seen as being racist comments." The chief later appeared on the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network where he stated outright: "The comments are racist. They don't reflect the values of the Ottawa Police Service."

Natan Obed, the president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, an Ottawa-based national organization representing Inuit, said that the matter, and the force's handling of the affair, had damaged relations between police and all indigenous people. But he called the announcement of the charges a positive step toward rebuilding trust and setting a "higher standard for the way indigenous people are treated by the police force."

"From the beginning, [Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami] has talked about the fact that the comments that were made were racist. And that they were unacceptable. And we hope that the Ottawa police force would do all that it could to ensure that it shows not just the city, but the country, that it's a police force that doesn't accept that kind of language.

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