Williams Lake First Nation wants federal probe into RCMP after member’s death

By Palak Mangat July 20, 2022

Williams Lake First Nation Chief Willie Sellars is pressing Ottawa to launch a public inquiry into the RCMP’s treatment of Indigenous people after an incident involving police allegedly led to one of his community members taking his life, shaking the community’s “confidence in the system.”

Meanwhile, an official with the agency investigating the matter warned his team’s fact-finding mission will likely be a long process, with the force declining to comment on the man’s “tragic death” amid the ongoing investigation.

Sellars spoke to reporters from the B.C. community which has been reeling from the July 10 loss of Rojun Alphonse. That Sunday, Williams Lake RCMP responded to a distress call by Alphonse’s family, some of whom were on hand Tuesday, who reported he was considering self-harm.

“What should have resulted in a 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 [emergency response team] personnel, automatic weapons, body armour, armed vehicles and tear gas,” said Sellars, adding Alphonse took his life amid the violence.

Williams Lake First Nation Chief Willie Sellars warned there is no “effective recourse to address our concerns about the kind of policing we receive,” and it is “long overdue” that the government launch the inquiry. (Facebook/Williams Lake First Nation)

Questioning whether it is “common practice” for ERT to be deployed in a situation where somebody is threatening suicide, he said the incident was “branded” as a gang situation and treated as such on social media — which could have impacted officers’ response. (Local councillor Scott Nelson apologized after sharing videos and photos on Facebook of the unfolding incident. He said he did not know officers were responding to a report of possible self-harm, but worried whether the community was “experiencing a retaliation for the attack behind the Stampede Grounds” the prior weekend.)

Sellars said the event highlights the ongoing mistreatment of Indigenous people at the hands of authorities, warning that “injustice everywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” — sparking fresh calls for accountability.

In a letter to Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino on Monday, copied to the PM, Tory MP Todd Doherty and B.C. Premier John Horgan, Sellars pushed for an inquiry into the incident and the “systemic issues of policing and public safety in First Nations in B.C.” He warned there is no “effective recourse to address our concerns about the kind of policing we receive,” and it is “long overdue” that the government launch the inquiry.

Newly released Statistics Canada figures on the criminal victimization of Indigenous people paint a stark picture of the “greater seriousness of some assaults” faced by the community.

Around 39 per cent of Indigenous respondents say they reported the most serious assault they experienced to the police in 2019, compared to 18 per cent among the general population. That higher figure “may be partly” because of the severity of the assaults, per the agency.

The B.C. incident has not led to criminal charges. Officials are hoping the Independent Investigations Office of B.C., which is now investigating the matter, will help answer some of the family’s questions, though the timeline remains unclear.

The IIO has oversight of all provincial policing agencies and the RCMP in the province. It investigates incidents of death or serious harm involving police officers, whether they were on or off-duty, to determine whether an officer committed an offence.

IIO chief civilian director Ron MacDonald told Parliament Today officers reported entering the residence and finding Alphonse, who appeared to have suffered from “self-inflicted injuries,” dead with a weapon. Now tasked with determining whether there was foul play by police in the incident, he said the IIO’s probe will dive into “all of their actions,” including whether there were any “chemicals” deployed and other “tactics,” and sorting out whether they constitute a criminal offence.

MacDonald said he met with the community and family last week and understands “they do have broader societal questions about how this young person was dealt with,” but his work is limited to scrutinizing officers’ conduct — and the “timeliness of the IIO is not where I would want it to be.”

He said his office is “nowhere near” the point of offering the family more information on what unfolded on the day of the incident, as it is in the process of setting up meetings with witnesses.

MacDonald said the IIO has been “significantly impacted” by a spike in workload, with case files nearly doubling over the last two years. He noted since April 1, there have been 11 police-involved shootings, but he’s currently leaning on 21 frontline investigators, rather than the usual 30.

“In terms of timeframes, I can’t be specific,” he said, while vowing a timely and thorough process.

On the defence

The police watchdog faced stern words from Union of BC Indian Chiefs president Stewart Phillip, who joined Sellars and the family yesterday.

Phillip said when the IIO first formed in 2012, many Indigenous people were hopeful it would help improve relations with the police, though the watchdog has “proven to be absolutely useless” since. He said it allows brutality and violence to continue “with impunity because there’s no consequences” for those implicated.

MacDonald pushed back on that, insisting the comments don’t “reflect reality,” noting his office has referred “numerous cases to the Crown for consideration of charges” since taking office in 2017.

Mary Ellen TurpelLafond, a former judge who is now a lawyer with the union, said the questions raised by the family and its community are not new, but the incident could have been prevented, leaving “a lot of explaining to do.”

She said Indigenous families deserve cultural support and should not be met with “tear gas, escalation, and police emergency response coming to cause so much distress.” Her comments were echoed by Alphonse’s widow June North, who remembered her partner as a hard-working and loving man who was met with “no compassion for his concern or mental state,” with officers only “seeing him as a threat.” North warned the incident has instilled a sense of “fear” among the community, leaving others hesitant to lean on the RCMP in future scenarios.

For Sellars, cases like Alphonse’s show his community is reeling from the “same trauma” dating back decades. (Yesterday’s calls for accountability came amid fresh Statistics Canada data that shows more Indigenous people report having no confidence in their local police services than their non-Indigenous counterparts, at 17 per cent compared to 10 per cent.)

“We work so hard to build these relationships, going against the grain and against the norm to have faith in the system, and it continues to let us down,” said Sellars.