‘This is just wrong’

Four Aboriginal men have died in Yukon RCMP custody in 10 years. A recent inquest just raised more questions.

Jason Unrau

On Dec. 2, 2008, Raymond Silverfox lay dying in the RCMP’s Whitehorse drunk tank. Despite his vomiting more than 23 times, medical attention was not deemed a priority for the 43-year-old, who was kept in custody rather than moved to a hospital. Instead, as closed-circuit camera footage shown at a coroner’s inquest held in April revealed, he was, in the final 13 hours of his life, ridiculed by officers and guards and told to lie in his own filth. Paramedics were eventually called, but by then, he’d succumbed to acute pneumonia.

Silverfox is the fourth Aboriginal person to die in Yukon RCMP custody in 10 years. Robert Stone died in May at a Whitehorse detox centre after a night of being bounced between paramedics, hospital and police. And the equipment that recorded Silverfox’s last hours was installed after December 1999, when John Tibbet Jr. hanged himself in a Whitehorse RCMP cell. Still, by mid-2000, two more Aboriginal men had perished in Yukon police custody.

Days after Silverfox’s death, calls for a public inquiry were crushed at the legislature. When an MLA called the man’s fate an example of “systematic prejudice” within police ranks, Premier Dennis Fentie called the remarks an outrage. But evidence heard at the inquest has renewed calls for a full public inquiry.

“My dad did not deserve the treatment he received,” Silverfox’s daughter, Deanna Charlie, said via phone from her home in Carmacks, a small community on the Yukon River. “I still can’t believe what he had to endure.” Neither can former federal NDP leader Audrey McLaughlin, who in a letter to the local paper called Silverfox’s death “the shame of a whole territory.” Canadian human-rights lawyer Clayton Ruby has weighed in, as has the B.C. Civil Liberties Association. Last week it filed grievances with the Commission for Public Complaints against the RCMP with respect to Silverfox and Stone.

Neither a public apology to the Silverfox family by Yukon RCMP Superintendent Peter Clark, who is on record supporting civilian oversight, nor a joint government-RCMP policing review announced last month, has mollified critics. Silverfox’s family filed for a judicial review of the inquest, which determined Silverfox died of natural causes, and is suing the attorney general of Canada, eight RCMP officers and three guards for damages. Meanwhile, the Crown is examining possible criminal charges against those involved, and a disciplinary probe by police drags on.

But skepticism surrounds the upcoming police review. A 2006 report in the Yukon noted the challenges facing Yukon RCMP, including the role of alcohol abuse. It also made some recommendations. But not much has changed, save for a new Yukon RCMP policy— immediately employed after Silverfox’s death—requiring an ambulance to be called if a person in custody vomits twice. Police transferred detainees to the hospital 174 times in 2008; in 2009 those visits skyrocketed to 417. “Sometimes these individuals are coming in not once, but two and three times a day,” said Yukon Medical Association president Dr. Rao Tadepalli, of detainees and other addicts.

In a cruel irony, paramedics attending to Silverfox at the Salvation Army shelter in Whitehorse the day he died asked the drunk but coherent man if he wished to go to the hospital or the drunk tank.

Silverfox, visiting from Carmacks and picked up for public intoxication, chose to go with the police.