Williams Lake First Nation and the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs are demanding an independent investigation and public inquiry after a 41-year-old First Nations father of four died by suicide during an “aggressive and violent” response by RCMP officers to a distress call.
The July 10 incident began when Rojun Alphonse’s family called the RCMP, concerned he might harm himself, Willie Sellars, Chief of Williams Lake First Nation, said at a news conference on Tuesday with Mr. Alphonse’s family.
The RCMP sent an emergency-response team, which is a specialized tactical unit. Mr. Sellars said officers arrived with automatic weapons, body armour and armoured vehicles, and cut the power on the family’s Williams Lake home before lobbing in tear-gas canisters.
“What should have resulted in the welfare check with properly trained individuals instructed to de-escalate the situation and talk Rojun down instead resulted in a response by a swarm of ERT personnel,” he said. “In the midst of this aggressive and violent confrontation by the RCMP, Rojun took his life.”
In a joint statement, Williams Lake First Nation and the UBCIC said the RCMP’s response “resulted in an Indigenous man’s death.” Mr. Sellars added, “if this was a non-Indigenous person, would they still be rolling an ERT team in to this individual? You know, they wouldn’t.”
In the past two years, police violence against Indigenous people – including the killings of Eishia Hudson, Jason Collins and Stewart Andrews by Winnipeg police; Chantel Moore by police in New Brunswick during a wellness check; and the separate killings of Rodney Levi, Julian Jones and Jared Lowndes by RCMP officers – has led to recommendations for reform from government committees, coroners’ inquests and advocates, yet many say change is elusive.
In a news release, the RCMP said it received “a complaint that a man was in possession of a weapon and was contemplating self-harm.” It did not name Mr. Alphonse. The RCMP said its officers attempted to contact the man before an emergency-response team “entered the home and located a deceased man with a weapon, and what appeared to be a self-inflicted injury.”
On Tuesday, June North, Mr. Alphonse’s wife, said the RCMP “gas-bombed” their home, put their daughter in a boiling-hot police car with no air conditioning and questioned her without parental permission, and treated her husband like a criminal.
“They had no compassion or concern of his mental state – only seeing him as a threat, when they knew it was a distress call and not a criminal act,” she said. “He made sure to take care of us all. He made sure to teach the kids to hunt, to fish. All of our memories will be forever cherished.”
B.C.’s Independent Investigations Office, which reviews police incidents involving death or serious harm, is determining “what role, if any, police actions or inactions may have played” in Mr. Alphonse’s death, according to a news release. Staff-Sergeant Janelle Shoihet, a spokesperson for the RCMP’s B.C. region, said the force cannot comment on Mr. Alphonse’s death due to the investigation.
In June, 2021, the House of Commons committee on public safety and national security released a report on systemic racism in policing. It recommended the RCMP “improve training to ensure that it includes enhanced de-escalation, implicit bias, gender-based violence, cultural awareness, and the history of colonialism and slavery in Canada.”
A few months later, coroner’s inquest jurors examining the death of Mr. Levi, who was killed by an RCMP officer in New Brunswick in 2020, recommended that the RCMP implement mandatory training on First Nations cultural sensitivity and “scenario-based suicide intervention training to cadets.”
In his mandate letter to RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki in May, Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino called for an external review of the force’s de-escalation training and support for the development of national standards on crisis intervention.
Alexander Cohen, director of communications for Mr. Mendicino, said that while progress has been made on these issues, “crisis intervention and use of force are difficult areas where there is still a long way to go.”
Robin Percival, a second RCMP spokesperson, did not respond by publication time to questions about the RCMP’s protocol for reports of possible self-harm and the service’s action on various recommendations.
Complaints of excessive force and discrimination by the RCMP against Indigenous people are not new. In 1993, the Cariboo Chilcotin Justice Inquiry heard reports of excessive force by officers against First Nations people in the region, which includes Williams Lake. The inquiry recommended that Mounties have cultural awareness of the First Nations they serve.
Mr. Sellars said Mr. Alphonse’s family has encountered police mistreatment before. Paul Alphonse – who was Rojun Alphonse’s uncle – died in 2000, a week after being arrested.