Families await answers in three fatal shootings of Indigenous people by Winnipeg police this spring

People march in solidarity with the George Floyd protests across the United States in Winnipeg on June 5, 2030.

Eishia Hudson was an artist who loved sports, a 16-year-old girl raised by her grandmother in Berens River, north of Winnipeg, before moving to the city to live with her mother and siblings.

Jason Collins was a 36-year-old father of three children, full of life and love for his family and friends, a power-line worker who worked across the country. His daughter Tianna Rasmussen said he had a heart of gold.

Stewart Andrews, 22, was a young father to not only his one-year-old son, but two stepchildren he was raising with his girlfriend in Winnipeg.

All three were Indigenous, and over a 10-day period in April, all were shot and killed by members of the Winnipeg Police Service. After their deaths, Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs Grand Chief Arlen Dumas said “First Nations have been dehumanized, mistreated and have been killed through WPS officer involved shootings” for years.

Five months later, their families are still waiting for answers as the province’s law-enforcement watchdog investigates whether police were justified in using lethal force.

Leah Gazan, an NDP Member of Parliament from Winnipeg, says it is no coincidence the three shooting deaths in April were of Indigenous people. The MP attended one of the rallies led by Eishia’s family in June, when supporters gathered, calling for an end to police brutality amid recent police-involved deaths of Black, Indigenous and other racialized people in Canada and the United States. Those rallies joined others across North America calling for police reform.

Ms. Gazan said Ms. Hudson was a 16-year-old girl who should have been given a chance to learn from her mistakes.

“We’re in a moment, we need to embrace this moment to make real changes, needed changes, and to ensure justice for Eishia,” Ms. Gazan said. “If people don’t find the death of a 16-year-old girl, for whatever reason, a complete tragedy, I think we need to ask ourselves why that is and I think part of it is the normalized violence that has occurred, that has been perpetuated against Indigenous and Black lives.”

Eishia Hudson. HANDOUT

Ms. Gazan pointed to the federal government’s delay in implementing an action plan in the wake of the final report from the National Inquiry Into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, which calls for, among other things, establishing an independent Indigenous civilian oversight body to investigate police misconduct as well as improving victim services for Indigenous women and girls.

Manitoba’s Internal Investigation Unit (IIU) director Zane Tessler says he’s received interim briefings on each of the three cases and is satisfied with the progress investigators are making but can’t give a timeline for when they would be completed.

The IIU, which conducts investigations into serious incidents involving police, will determine if there are any grounds for criminal charges against the officers involved, something it has done only once since it became operational five years ago.

The string of Winnipeg police shootings began on April 8 after 5 p.m. Police were called to a liquor store robbery allegedly involving a group of young who then stole an SUV from a parking lot, leading officers on a pursuit. The chase came to an end when the SUV, driven by Ms. Hudson, crashed into other vehicles at an intersection, where police then fired at her, according to Winnipeg police. Ms. Hudson was pronounced dead at a hospital. Four survivors, ages 15 and 16, were arrested and charged with robbery and possession of property obtained by crime.

Less than 12 hours later, Winnipeg police said they responded to a domestic call at a residence where they found Mr. Collins inside with a firearm, along with a teenager and a woman who appeared to be in distress. Police said they left the home to de-escalate the situation and the teenager escaped through the back door. Mr. Collins reportedly then confronted police outside where they shot him, according to police.

Nine days later on April 18 – with tension in the city high over those two shootings – police say they responded to a gun call, assault and an attempted robbery around 4 a.m. when they encountered Mr. Andrews and a 16-year-old boy.

At a news conference, Winnipeg Police Service Chief Danny Smyth said Mr. Andrews was shot when he confronted police. He was pronounced dead at a hospital and the 16-year-old was arrested and charged with several offences including robbery, possession of a weapon and firearm, pointing a firearm and failing to comply with a sentence.

Family members say they want to know why police used lethal force on Mr. Andrews, who they say was unarmed.

Mr. Andrews’s mother, Carmel Nasee, told The Globe and Mail she became worried for her son when his girlfriend called her around 5 a.m. that day to ask if she had heard from him. Ms. Nasee, who lives in God’s Lake Narrows First Nation about 550 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg, spent the morning calling hospitals and jails looking for her son until she heard on the news that a 22-year-old had been shot and killed by Winnipeg police.

God’s Lake Narrows band councillors visited her not long afterward to confirm Mr. Andrews had been killed. She said her family has been kept in the dark by police and IIU investigators ever since. She found out from the funeral director her son was shot three times.

Jason Collins. HANDOUT

“We miss him so much. Wishing every day that I can hear his voice. It hurts so much,” said Ms. Nasee, who is now caring for her 13-month-old grandson Nicholas. She says she hasn’t been able to grieve yet, distraught with trying to figure out how to move forward without her son and without answers.

The 16-year-old friend who Mr. Andrews was with the day he died paid a visit to the family when they were Winnipeg, said Mr. Andrews’s grandmother Benita Wood.

“He said [Mr. Andrews] never had a weapon, that’s what he told us. He said Stewart was a good guy, he didn’t deserve to die like this. He said the cops shouldn’t have even shot him,” Ms. Wood said.

William Hudson says his family is planning a vigil this weekend at the intersection where his daughter Eishia was killed. Since her death in April, Mr. Hudson has organized rallies in Winnipeg to bring awareness to the justice he wants to see for his daughter and and “all the other lives.”

“What happened here in Winnipeg should be not only news in Winnipeg, it should be all around Canada, even around the world. This is a problem that we have with Indigenous people and it’s not being noticed enough,” Mr. Hudson said, adding he misses the fun he used to have with his daughter, like embarrassing her in front of friends.

The IIU has investigated at least 24 officer-involved shootings in Manitoba since 2015, according to information on its website. Eighteen of those investigations have involved the Winnipeg Police Service and the deaths of 10 individuals, all of them males between the ages of 22 and 44 except for Ms. Hudson. At least eight of the 10 shooting deaths have been individuals who are Indigenous or from other racialized groups.

In 2017, an IIU investigation into the 2015 shooting death of a 39-year old father of two girls by a Thompson, Man., RCMP constable resulted in a recommendation of charges against the officer. The officer was acquitted of manslaughter and criminal negligence causing death, but was sentenced to probation for criminal negligence causing bodily harm.

Manitoba’s director of the Chief Medical Examiner’s Officer, Mark O’Rourke, said inquests into the three April deaths will presumably be called, but only after the IIU completes its investigations, which he expects will be sometime next year. Most provinces in Canada, including Manitoba, are supposed to call an inquest when a person dies in custody or from use of force by a peace officer.

Stewart Andrews. HANDOUT

In 2016, Manitoba Justice Anne Krahn presided over a medical examiner’s inquest into the death of Craig McDougall, a 26-year-old First Nations man who was shot and killed by Winnipeg police on the front lawn of the home he shared with his dad, sister and nephew in the summer of 2008.

Corey Shefman represented the McDougall family at the inquest, where the judge also examined if systemic racism played a role in Mr. McDougall’s death. Specifically, Justice Krahn heard evidence of differential treatment of police witnesses and family witnesses by officers and investigators following the shooting of Mr. McDougall, including how his father, Brian McDougall, and uncle John were handcuffed and forced onto the ground next to where Craig McDougall lay dying.

“It is about the way the Canadian state treats Indigenous people and Indigenous bodies and the lack of care and we see this in the justice system,” Mr. Shefman told The Globe, pointing to the eight years it took to hold the inquest and the “criminal” treatment of innocent witnesses such as Brian McDougall.

In her report, Justice Krahn said she found no evidence of systemic racism or discrimination but some of her 16 recommendations included implicit-bias training and Aboriginal awareness programs for officers and protecting witness rights during police investigations.

The treatment of Indigenous people by city police has been scrutinized before. The 1991 Aboriginal Justice Inquiry report, co-commissioned by Senator Murray Sinclair, who was Manitoba’s only Indigenous judge at the time, looked at the relationship between Indigenous people and the province’s justice system, following the 1988 shooting death of John Joseph (J.J.) Harper by Winnipeg police and the 1971 beating death of Helen Betty Osborne in The Pas by a group of white men. Some of the 296 recommendations from the inquiry focused on the need for civilian oversight for police, particularly when it comes to misconduct and serious incidents, and employment and recruitment strategies to increase Indigenous representation in police organizations.

It took the Taman Inquiry report in 2008 – which examined police misconduct in the 2005 death of Crystal Taman, a 40-year-old mother killed by an off-duty Winnipeg police officer who was drinking and driving – and several years more before changes were made to the province‘s Police Services Act, which now includes the oversight body of the IIU.

The province began a review of the act last year, which is near completion, said Glen Cassie, a public affairs specialist for the province. The final report, which was originally expected at the end of March, will provide a gap analysis in all areas of the province’s policing, including governance, oversight and service delivery, the spokesperson said.

This article was first published in The Globe and Mail on August 29, 2020.

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