First Nations activists are gathering information on about two dozen cases of suspected suspicious deaths of Natives in police custody across British Columbia. Some of these, according to one researcher, go back to more than 30 years ago.
Christine Smith-Parnell, chair of the Vancouver Working Group on Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, notes that her group began looking into these cases about six months ago. She said she hopes that the public inquiry into the 1998 freezing death of Frank Paul, which will commence on Tuesday (November 13), will start a process that will eventually lead to a review of other cases.
Paul, a 47-year-old Mi'kmaq man from New Brunswick, died of hypothermia after he was dragged out of a Vancouver police jail cell and left in an East Vancouver alley on a rainy evening on December 5, 1998.
"We went back as far as probably the early '70s to start to look at the deaths in custody, and so far we're looking not just at Frank Paul but all the deaths in B.C.," Smith-Parnell told the Georgia Straight. "We had initially 52 cases, and we've narrowed that down to suspicious cases of deaths in custody”¦to about 24 to 25 cases that we need to have a second look at."
A number of these cases were deemed by either the police or the coroners as suicide, the Haida-Tsimshian activist said. She added that in some of them, the families of the deceased have no idea that their loved ones may have died under suspicious circumstances. She explained that her group considers a death suspicious if the information contained in the coroner's report "doesn't add up in terms of how the person died".
Smith-Parnell also noted that the practice of appointing former police officers to the coroner's office doesn't inspire confidence among First Nations that in-custody deaths are being investigated fairly. "That really presents problems, because we're having difficulties with the police, especially in deaths," she said. "It makes it hard for us to trust that they're not watching out for each other."
David Dennis, vice-president of the United Native Nations, claimed that suicide and hypothermia have been the most commonly reported causes of Native deaths while in police custody.
Dennis suggested to the Straight that based on information gathered so far on these deaths, one might suspect that "these people have been murdered".
"Obviously we're going to bring the names forward as a trend of the Vancouver police department using cover-ups to cover up their officers killing Indians on the streets," he said in a phone interview.
Just like Paul's death, allegations of suspicious deaths need to be reviewed individually, according to Insp. John de Haas, head of the VPD's diversity and aboriginal policing section.
"There are many who have tried to knit together deaths across Canada, and yet when you look at them individually, they are tremendously different," de Haas told the Straight. "It's not only the aboriginal community that have attempted to tie those together, irrespective of how many years apart they are, or geographically apart they are, or even systemically apart they are. You have to look at each incident individually first of all to see what were the dynamics of that event, and only then ask yourself, 'Are there systemic issues?' But often it's been approached in the reverse: that there's systemic issues and this death is an example of it. That's unfair."
De Haas, who has built up relations between the police and Native youth groups, said the Paul inquiry will provide an opportunity to release information that "hasn't been put out publicly in the right way".
"There was no public complainant," de Haas said. "It was the Police Act investigation that led to the view within the organization that the duty of care had not been met by two [VPD] members."
In 2004, B.C. police complaint commissioner Dirk Ryneveld recommended a public inquiry into the Paul case, but this was rejected by then–attorney general Geoff Plant. It was only in February this year that the B.C. Liberal government finally gave in to calls from the First Nations community to review the case. In May, Vancouver Mayor Sam Sullivan appointed Plant as Project Civil City commissioner, and his tasks include addressing the issue of street disorder.
In his "reasons for decision" in recommending a public inquiry, Ryneveld noted that the province of Saskatchewan did the same when it learned that four Natives froze to death while another almost died after they had been taken into police custody. These cases happened over a period of 13 years.
"It is important to note that this apparent practice of removing individuals from a location within the city to remote areas outside the city are referred to in Saskatchewan as 'starlight tours'," Ryneveld wrote. "A similar practice in British Columbia, as in this case [Frank Paul], is referred to as 'breaching outside the area'."
The police complaint commissioner also stated in the document that the VPD had not been forthcoming in telling the Paul family what happened: "It was my understanding that the family had received differing reports from the police that included one version that Mr. Paul had been the victim of a 'hit-and-run' accident and struck by a taxi cab; and another version that simply advised them that he had died of hypothermia. It was apparent that the family did not know that Mr. Paul had been in police custody at the time of or shortly before his death."
Victoria-based lawyer Steven Kelliher will represent the Paul family in the inquiry to be led by former B.C. Supreme Court justice William Davies.
"They want to know what actually happened to Frank Paul," Kelliher told the Straight. "And they want to know why at each level of institutional response there appeared to be such complete indifference to his passing. There has been a great deal of conflicting information, and I think certainty is what is being sought, and accountability."
Without mentioning a name, Kelliher said that a corrections officer had surfaced to claim that the VPD internal investigation on the Paul case was a sham. In February of this year, former Vancouver jail guard Greg Firlotte told CBC News that he helped drag Paul to a police van that later dumped Paul in an alley. "I've never been interviewed by the VPD," Firlotte told CBC News. "How can you have somebody die who was in the custody of the VPD”¦and I'm one of the principals, and I've never been interviewed?"
Under the terms of reference for the Paul inquiry, Davies may recommend changes to the policies and procedures of the B.C. Ambulance Service, the Vancouver police board and police department, the police complaint commissioner, the B.C. Coroners Service, and the Ministry of Attorney General criminal-justice branch.
On May 31, 2008, the retired justice is expected to submit a final report on the case that has haunted a number of B.C. institutions, and individuals like lawyer Dana Urban. In 2001, Urban quit as senior legal adviser to then–police complaint commissioner Don Morrison after the latter refused to take action on the case.
Testifying before a special legislative committee to review the police complaint process on April 15, 2002, Urban said that Paul's death could have been prevented. "This man died needlessly on the evening of December 5, 1998, or in the early morning hours of December 6," he said. "He was a drunk. He was unemployed. He was homeless. He had crippled hands and crippled feet. Though he had little, perhaps, to offer our society, he was, in fact, a human being."