Human Rights Commissioner says racism ‘pervasive’ in Timmins, while local police face SIU investigations

Joey Knapaysweet and Agnes Sutherland, both of Fort Albany First Nation, died the same weekend in February
By Andrew Autio and Adam McDowell - Published on March 14, 2018
There was a flurry of reaction on local social media forums after two Indigenous people died in separate interactions with the Timmins Police Service in the same weekend. (Facebook.com/TImmins Police Service)

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​TIMMINS — Six weeks after two Indigenous people died following interactions with Timmins police, the head of the Ontario Human Rights Commission says the northeastern city must fix its “pervasive” racism.

According to the provincial Special Investigations Unit, Timmins police officers had an “interaction” with Joey Knapaysweet, 21, on February 3, that resulted in the man being shot and killed. The incident marked the first time a Timmins Police Service firearm had been discharged in an encounter with the public in more than three decades. The next day, another sometime resident of Fort Albany First Nation, 62-year-old Agnes Sutherland, died after interacting with Timmins police.

That one deadly weekend in Timmins could mark the beginning of a long season of introspection and reckoning over discrimination against Indigenous people in northeastern Ontario.

Fatalities involving police are a rarity in northeastern Ontario, and having two in the same weekend led to a flurry of reaction on local social media forums. Timmins Mayor Steve Black addressed the issue before a city council meeting a few days after the deaths took place. He said many comments directed at the victims and their families were racist and inappropriate.

Black also asked the public not to make any snap judgments about the Timmins Police Service, but acknowledged that there was an obvious need to rebuild trust and relationships throughout the community. He promised to schedule meetings to begin that process.

The deaths also attracted the attention of chief human rights commissioner Renu Mandhane, who undertook a fact-finding trip to Timmins this month to speak with officials and community representatives. (She also made stops in Moosonee and Moose Factory.) Mandhane told Timmins Today it's part of her job to travel the province and make inquiries about systemic discrimination, but she acknowledged that “the two incidents in February” caught her attention ahead of a four-day excursion from her office in Toronto.

Speaking with the Canadian Press on March 13, Mandhane made a sweeping pronouncement about what she learned: “We did get the sense that there is a pervasive level of racism that Indigenous people experience in Timmins.” The commissioner said she heard it is common for First Nations people in Timmins to experience discrimination from landlords, face extra scrutiny in stores, and be the subject to harassment from motorists who shout abusive comments from their car windows.

Mandhane also criticized the treatment of Indigenous people at the institutional level in Timmins. She said bodies such as the police aren’t speaking constructively with First Nations representatives. “To varying degrees, there just seemed to be a lack of awareness of the need to prioritize service delivery to First Nations people in a culturally competent way,” she told CP.

In response, the Timmins mayor acknowledged the need for introspection but pushed back against the notion that the city is a racist place. “I don’t know that I’d say racism is normalized,” he told CP. “All organizations need to sit back and have a review of what service they’re providing and how they best provide that in a respectful way to all their clients, regardless of their race.”

Fourteen per cent of Timmins residents claimed at least partial Indigenous ancestry in the 2016 census. More than 2,000 people, or five per cent, are Status Indians.

In a joint statement, regional First Nation chiefs compared the situation in Timmins to that of Thunder Bay, where questions of systemic bias against Indigenous people have been pushed to the forefront over the last year.

“We have seen systemic racism in the city of Thunder Bay, and must now wonder if this is also happening in Timmins,” wrote Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler, Mushkegowuk Council Grand Chief Jonathan Solomon, and Fort Albany First Nation Chief Andrew Solomon.

“We are shocked that two Fort Albany members have died at the hands of police. We are very troubled by these tragedies, and our thoughts and prayers are with the families and Fort Albany community.”

Joey Knapaysweet was living in Timmins in order to receive medical treatments which are not available in Fort Albany, a reserve located 400 kilometres north of Timmins on James Bay that is only accessible from elsewhere by plane or winter ice road. The young man reportedly suffered from mental health issues.

The SIU is now investigating his death. The provincial agency looks into serious incidents involving police, and does not discuss timelines for its results. Here’s what is known in the meantime: on the morning of Saturday, February 3, Timmins Police responded to a report of a disturbance at the city's Emergency Medical Services building. According to an SIU news release, the man fled from the officers, who followed him towards Gillies Lake, a popular recreation area in the city centre.

The SIU says an “interaction” followed between the man and officers. One of the officers discharged their firearm. The man was struck, taken to hospital, and pronounced dead.

The man was later identified as Knapaysweet.

A vigil for Joey Knapaysweet was held on February 6 at Gillies Lake, approximately where his last steps were taken. His family issued a statement through a Toronto law firm the following week. “What did he do that was so bad that he had to be shot and killed? I am so heartbroken, with so many questions unanswered,” wrote his mother, Micheline Knapaysweet. Joey, she wrote, was in Timmins to “seek help in dreams for betterment of his life.”

In their separate statement, First Nations authorities accused the officers of using a Taser on Knapaysweet, but this is not confirmed by the SIU. A spokeswoman for the Timmins Police explained the service cannot comment on any allegations relating to their officers’ conduct while the SIU is investigating.

Knapaysweet’s family told CBC News they believe Joey was shot three times, a detail that was also included in local news reports but has not been verified by the SIU. According to the Timmins Police Service, the incident marked the force’s first use of a firearm involving a civilian since 1984.

Sutherland was likewise in Timmins for medical reasons at the time of her death. Once again, what is publicly known about her demise mostly comes from what the SIU has told the media. According to its account, on the afternoon of February 3 (the day Knapaysweet died), Timmins Police officers were called to the Timmins and District Hospital to speak with the woman, who used a wheelchair and had several health issues, including ailing kidneys. She departed the hospital in a taxi. Not long after that, police were called to a disturbance at a shelter just a few blocks away. This time, Sutherland was arrested, brought to a police station, and lodged in a cell.

First Nations chiefs alleged that Sutherland was “treated roughly” while being taken into police custody.

At 10 p.m., an ambulance was called, and she was admitted to hospital. The next day, the Timmins Police Service was notified that Sutherland had passed away.

Six SIU investigators have been assigned to the Knapaysweet case. Three investigators have been assigned to the Sutherland case. The Timmins Police Service was subject to two SIU investigations in 2016 and another two in 2017; those cases concluded without officers being charged.

While the SIU investigations are moving ahead, Mandhane is looking to the future. The human rights commissioner tweeted about Timmins, Moose Factory, and Moosonee on Wednesday, saying she’s “excited to come back, offer human rights training [and] facilitate further dialogue.”

Andrew Autio is a freelance journalist based in Timmins. Adam McDowell is a writer and editor at TVO.org.

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