The 2008 death of Raymond Silverfox of Little Salmon Carmacks First Nation, Yukon is motivating members of the federal parliament to call for the end of a protocol that allows the RCMP to investigate themselves when a civilian fatality or serious injury occurs in custody.
“The time has come for this legislation,” said NDP MP Nathan Cullen, referring to the Civilian Oversight Act (Bill C-472), the private member’s bill he introduced to Parliament in November 2009. If Cullen’s bill is passed, an investigation of the force must be done by an independent civilian investigative service within 60 days of the incident that caused serious bodily harm or death.
The death of Silverfox on Dec. 2, 2008 is held up as proof that such an independent investigative service is needed.
Silverfox, 43, died after being held in a RCMP cell for 13 hours. A recent coroner’s inquest heard that RCMP officers did not monitor Silverfox’s medical condition while he was in custody. He vomited 26 times in his cell during those 13 hours and later died of acute pneumonia at the hospital.
The Yukon RCMP later expressed regret over the “insensitive and callous” treatment of Silverfox, who was ridiculed and mocked by on-duty police as he lay in his own vomit and feces. One constable even told Silverfox to “sleep in your own shit” when the man asked for a mat. Silverfox only received medical attention when he was found unresponsive in the cell.
Supt. Peter Clark, the head of the RCMP in the Yukon, wrote in a statement at the end of April that the police service “failed to respect and live up to the standards and values that not only Yukoners, but all Canadians, expect us to meet.
“We have failed you, and we have failed ourselves.”
Still, the coroner concluded Silverfox died of natural mcauses.
Silverfox’s family issued a petition to the Yukon Supreme Court in May, which accused the territorial coroner of favoring the RCMP.
“My dad did not deserve the treatment he received in the last 13 hours of his life,” said the daughter of Silverfox, Deanna-Lee Charlie, at a press conference on June 1. “I don’t think I will ever get over this.”
Charlie described her father as a proud First Nations man. She became emotional as she reminded those in attendance that her father would never get the opportunity to walk her down the aisle at her wedding.
The leader of the Yukon New Democratic Party, Elizabeth Hanson, and MPs Dennis Bevington (Western Arctic), Don Davies (Vancouver-Kingsway), and Cullen, were present at the Ottawa press conference to show support to the Silverfox family and for the Civilian Oversight Act.
“The recent events in Yukon have shaken the foundation of the trust that has been established over many years,” said Hanson, referring to the public’s perception of the RCMP in her territory.
“We have had at least five deaths in-custody over the last eight or nine years. For a small population of less than 35,000, that is very significant,” she added.
On Feb. 4, the RCMP announced that they would begin a Review Policy that will provide independent external investigations where there is serious injury or death of an individual involving an RCMP employee.
Hanson said she is not satisfied with the new policy, as it will not investigate the specific circumstances of Silverfox’s death. The NDP leader also wants the officers on-duty while Silverfox was in custody to suffer some consequences for their actions.
Cullen said he has garnered wide support for his private member’s bill, including from the RCMP in British Columbia, the Assembly of First Nations and the Auditor General of Canada. However, he has met a roadblock with the Minister of Public Safety, Vic Toews.
“At the federal level, there is a lack of political will,” said Cullen. “We have been offered no reason by the government as to why not [pass Bill 472].”
Windspeaker called Minister Toews’ office for comment on Cullen’s remarks, but our calls were not returned.
Cullen said he met with Toews’ staff in May, but they have not given him a reason for resisting the proposed bill.
Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo told CBC in May that there is a perception that RCMP across Canada hold negative attitudes toward First Nations people.
“Without a full airing of the facts and issues, I think we’re going to continue to be plagued by an inability to overcome those deep gaps of misunderstanding and deep gaps of mistrust,” said Atleo in the May 27 CBC article.