Sixteen years ago, 22-year-old Ian Bush lost his life in an RCMP jail in Houston, B.C.
At the time, the details of what occurred were sketchy. The Mounties said a scuffle broke out in a cell between Mr. Bush and the officer who arrested him for having an open beer in public. Somehow, the young man ended up being shot in the back of the head.
The small logging town was stunned. What happened? Was it murder? Self-defence? Did the officer’s gun go off accidentally?
Months went by without any answers from the RCMP from their investigation into what happened. “It takes long because it takes long,” Staff Sergeant John Ward said when asked why their probe was dragging on for months. “The public doesn’t have a right to know anything.”
It was a statement that would reverberate for years afterward and put the Mounties on the defensive when it came to their often-cavalier approach toward sharing information with the public.
I was reminded of my time reporting on this sorry episode in the force’s history as I read a front-page story in Tuesday’s Globe and Mail about the killing of an Inuk man last May. Abraham Natanine, a 31-year-old father of five, was shot to death in his Nunavut home by police. The Ottawa Police Service handled the investigation into what took place; in April, it cleared the two officers involved.
All the RCMP has ever said is that their officers responded to a disturbance call at Mr. Natanine’s residence. The Mounties said the situation escalated to the point Mr. Natanine retrieved “a weapon.” That’s when he was shot. Police said they couldn’t say more beyond that because it could taint other reviews down the road, including a coroner’s inquest.
This claim is patently absurd.
A coroner’s inquest could be three or four years away. There have been plenty held in Canada over the years following the release of information far more detailed than what has so far been provided by the Ottawa police and the RCMP. Impartial juries can always be found.
Jerry Natanine, the father of the man who was shot, said police told him his son had threatened the officers with a knife. A short video taken by Michelle Illauq, showing her husband Abraham lying on the floor after being shot, does not indicate a knife anywhere near him.
Ms. Illauq’s request for a copy of the Ottawa Police Service investigation was denied. Apparently, she has to just accept the word of the RCMP and the Ottawa Police Service that her partner is dead because an officer acted in self-defence.
But we have become conditioned to treat initial police statements about their conduct with suspicion. In so many cases, they are later exposed as lies or at least gross distortions of the truth, often thanks to video recordings taken by bystanders. George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis is the most shocking recent example.
The RCMP wouldn’t be able to get away with this if the shooting of Mr. Natanine had occurred in a big Canadian city. Imagine he was shot in Toronto, and the incident drew outrage and condemnation and protest. You better believe there would be details provided to the public. This should be the default, and in fact, in some places, it is: Ontario’s Special Investigations Unit and the Independent Investigations Office of B.C. both provide far more detailed information about shooting deaths involving the police than has been released in this case. And there is never a concern that these facts are going to compromise any subsequent inquiries.
Ms. Illauq’s lawyer, Qajaq Robinson, told The Globe that her client has been provided with no details about what the Ottawa Police Services’ review considered, or what the forensics examination discovered. She’d like to know who evaluated all of the information. That is pretty basic material to which any family member who has lost a loved one at the hands of the police should have access to.
If the RCMP are so confident in the innocence of its members in this incident, then it should have no hesitancy in releasing the Ottawa Police Service’s report. There are absolutely no grounds for continuing to keep it from Mr. Natanine’s family.
Nor should this state of affairs be acceptable to the government of Nunavut, which should be demanding full disclosure from the Mounties, nor should it be acceptable to the federal government, which could remedy this situation with one phone call.
There can’t be two levels of justice and accountability in Canada – one for the big cities, and another for those who live in the Far North. The circumstances in this case wouldn’t be acceptable in Ontario, and they shouldn’t be acceptable in Nunavut – or anywhere in Canada.
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