Questions need answers

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TORONTO – Leaders of the Island Lake Tribal Council in Manitoba have hired a private investigator and a high-profile lawyer to answer disturbing questions raised by the shooting of a 26-year-old Cree man – questions they don’t expect to have answered any time soon by the Winnipeg Police Service.

“We knew there wouldn’t be any answers,” said Chief David Harper of the Garden Hill First Nation, after ILTC representatives met with Winnipeg Police Chief Keith McCaskill Aug. 11.

Harper said he appreciated that McCaskill attended the meeting at the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs office, but expressed frustration at the fact that it could be months before the results of an internal police investigation are made public and at least a year and a half before a mandatory inquest into the death begins.

“We want the facts before we make any conclusions to our community,” Harper said.

Craig McDougall, from Wasagamack First Nation, one of four northeastern Manitoba communities that make up the ILTC, is the third aboriginal to be killed by Winnipeg police in two years.

He was also the nephew of J.J. Harper, shot in 1988 by a Winnipeg police officer who claimed he mistook him for a car thief. That notorious case, initially the subject of a cover up by police, led to the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry, which recommended sweeping reform of the province’s justice system.

“Excessive force is what we’re up against,” Harper said.

“The real issue is, was there a real threat to police?” asked Wally McKay, a former Manitoba grand chief who is helping the ILTC deal with the Aug. 2 killing of McDougall in the front yard of his father’s home.

McKay said McDougall was on one side of a 4-foot fence, with six police officers on the other side. Referring to the gruesome killing in July, in which a man was killed and decapitated on a bus, McKay noted: “Police were able to negotiate in that situation.”

According to a police media release, officers arrived at around 5 a.m. after receiving several calls for assistance and were confronted by McDougall brandishing a knife. Officers tried to use a Taser but it apparently did not work. McDougall was then shot. He died later at a hospital. Harper said three gunshot wounds to the chest were noted by people who saw McDougall’s body before the funeral in Wasagamack.

Other questions the ILTC leaders want answered:

•Was McDougall armed? Family members say he was holding a cell phone, not a knife. He was on the phone to his girlfriend as the incident unfolded. She heard the shots and his last words, according to media reports. McCaskill told the media a knife was recovered at the scene but has refused to answer questions about the cell phone.

•Did McDougall receive medical attention in a timely manner? His father, Brian, who was handcuffed and thrown to the ground next to his dying son and then placed in a police cruiser, saw no attempt to provide assistance, McKay said.

•What was the reason for family members being detained several hours before being told of the young man’s death, alone, in a hospital – treatment that McKay described as “inhumane”?

McCaskill refused a request for an interview.

Harper, 37, also from Wasagamack, was a respected aboriginal leader and the executive director of the Island Lake Tribal Council.

McDougall appears to have been a very different character. He was convicted in December 2005 of assault charges relating to an incident in Wasagamack, Winnipeg media reported. But his killing, two weeks after the Tasering death of a Metis teenager, has sent shockwaves through the province’s aboriginal community.

“It looks like the Winnipeg Police Service is acting like the top dog or the number one gang in this city,” charged Southern Chiefs’ Organization Grand Chief Morris Swan-Shannacappo.

Donald Worme, a Saskatoon lawyer who has been retained by the ILTC, said there are key issues that police and the provincial government must address. Chief among them is the fact that Winnipeg police do their own investigation of their officers.

The fact that there is a review by another police agency, and then a review by the provincial attorney general, is not sufficient to remove the taint of bias, Worme said. “That’s something the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry had recommended be changed.”

In many other jurisdictions, a specialized unit with no links to police investigates civilian death and injury at police hands.

A few days after McDougall’s death, Manitoba Justice Minister Dave Chomiak announced that an update of the Police Act, which would include provision for outside agencies to investigate police, is in the works.

A public inquiry is presently looking at the ability of Winnipeg police to investigate their own. The case involves Derek Harvey-Zenk, an off-duty officer, originally charged with impaired driving in the 2005 death of Crystal Taman, who was allowed to plead guilty to a lesser charge and serve no jail time.

The two other aboriginals killed by Winnipeg police are:

•Michael Langan, a Metis 17-year-old allegedly armed with a knife, died after being Tasered July 22. The electronic control device has been controversial in Canada since the October 2007 death of Robert Dziekanski at Vancouver International Airport.

•Matthew Dumas, also a Metis and also 17, was shot in January 2005 by an officer who thought the teen had been involved in a robbery that in fact he had nothing to do with. Dumas was alleged to have been armed with a screwdriver. An inquest into his death was recently concluded. The report and recommendations aren’t expected for several months.

Worme, who represented the Dumas family at the inquest, is known for his role in the 2003 public inquiry into the 1990 death of 17-year-old Neil Stonechild, who was taken to the outskirts of town and left to freeze to death by Saskatoon police officers. Other aboriginals had died in the same way, the Stonechild case revealed.