Coroner’s inquest into the death of two Indigenous people in cells in northern Ontario

Holly McKenzie-Sutter, The Canadian Press

A coroner’s inquest opened Tuesday in Ontario into the deaths of two Indigenous people in cells at the Thunder Bay police station in 2014 and 2017.

According to coroner’s inquest prosecutor Peter Keen, evidence is expected to be heard that suggests both men would have survived had they been taken to hospital and treated for their health issues.

Mr Keen gave an overview on Tuesday morning of the evidence that will be heard during 17 days of hearings into the in-cell death of 44-year-old Don Mamakwa in August 2014 and then 50-year-old Roland McKay, three years later, in July 2017.

Both men had been arrested on suspicion of public intoxication and were being held in a cell at Thunder Bay Police Department headquarters.

In an opening statement, prosecutor Keen said Tuesday that the coroner’s inquest jury is expected to hear evidence indicating that Don Mamakwa had not undergone a meaningful medical evaluation and that he would have had 97% chances of survival if he had been taken to hospital.

He added that evidence should also be heard that Roland McKay, who was related to Mr Mamakwa, also had a better chance of surviving in hospital than in his cell, where he died.

Keen told jurors they should also hear from an expert about Indigenous experiences with racism and their difficult interactions with the health care system.

The investigation is expected to explore how racism and bias may have played a role in first responders’ interactions with Messrs. Mamakwa and McKay before their deaths. The coroner’s inquest is not about pointing fingers, but looking at practical solutions to address these issues.

The coroner’s inquest should also hear from experts on the best police practices for dealing with people who are intoxicated.

Similarities between the two deaths

The investigations into the two men are joint due to similarities, Mr Keen said. The two Aboriginals had been drinking, both interacted with paramedics and police, and both died in cells at the Thunder Bay police station, the prosecutor summarized. And their chances of survival under these circumstances were not met, according to Me Keen.

« Truth and reconciliation are appropriate words for an inquest of this nature, » Keen told the jurors.

The Thunder Bay Police Commissioner’s attorney and several police officers filed a motion in January 2021 to have certain cell block surveillance videos excluded from evidence.

In one of these sequences, we see the police taking another Aboriginal man, Dino Kwandibens, into custody for public drunkenness the same evening that Mr. Mamakwa was arrested and then found dead in a cell.

According to Coroner David Cameron’s decision, Thunder Bay police officers can be seen in the video dragging Mr Kwandibens to his cell. You can also hear them using offensive language towards him.

Keen told jurors on Tuesday that footage will be shown later to show how Aboriginal people who appeared to be intoxicated were treated in Thunder Bay that night.


This dispatch was produced with the financial assistance of the Meta Exchanges and The Canadian Press for the news.


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