By Lynda Powless Editor
and Colin Perkel THE CANADIAN PRESS
TIMMINS, ONT-Fort Albany First Nation Chief Andrew Solomon has called for an investigation into the actions of the Timmins Police service after a Fort Albany man and ailing older woman were killed in interactions with police.
The deaths of the young man and the ailing older woman after her arrest has sparked grief and anger among Indigenous people in Timmins, Ont., a northern city that is a hub for many First Nations activities.
Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN) Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler, Mushkegowuk Council Grand Chief Jonathan Solomon, and Fort Albany First Nation Chief Andrew Solomon issued a statement following their deaths.
“We are shocked that two Fort Albany members have died at the hands of police. We are very troubled by these tragedies and our thoughts and prayers are with the families and Fort Albany community. We do not yet know all the facts around these altercations but encourage the Special Investigations Unit and the Chief Coroner of Ontario to get to the bottom of these incidents without delay. Our people must continually leave their families and communities to come to cities to seek service that are not available in their respective communities. We have seen systemic racism in the City of Thunder Bay, and must now wonder if this is also happening in Timmins. We expect the respective ministries and officials to take these concerns seriously and work with the families of the deceased, the Fort Albany community, the Mushkegowuk Council, and the City of Timmins.”
Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, which represents nearly 50 Indigenous communities in northern Ontario, expressed concern over the incidents.
“It’s very troubling,” Fiddler said Wednesday in a brief interview from Timmins. “The families have a lot of questions.”
Timmins Mayor Steve Black urged calm pending the outcome of investigations into the deaths. He stressed the police shooting was a rare event in the city, perhaps the first in decades.
“At a time like this, obviously, there’s a lot of sadness, a lot of mourning and a lot of frustration in the community,” Black told The Canadian Press from his office.
In the first incident, police shot and killed Joey Knapaysweet, 21, on Saturday. Details are scant but the province’s Special Investigations Unit said officers responded mid-morning to the Emergency Medical Services building and a man fled.
“There was an interaction between the man and officers and one of the officers discharged a firearm,” the unit said in a statement. “The man was struck. He was taken to hospital where he was later pronounced dead.”
The death of Agnes Sutherland, 62, also on the weekend, occurred after she had sought help at the Timmins District Hospital.
According to the investigations unit, Sutherland was asked to leave the facility and did so by taxi.
However, she was arrested after allegedly causing a disturbance at a shelter. Police took her to the station and put her in a cell, the unit said in a statement. The same evening, officers called for an ambulance to take her to hospital, where she was pronounced dead on Sunday.
Knapaysweet and Sutherland were from the remote James Bay community of Fort Albany, more than an hour’s flight from Timmins, where funerals for both were to take place.
According to a statement released by the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, Mushkegowuk Council and Fort Albany First Nation Joey Knapaysweet, 21, had been living in Timmins to access medical services not available in Fort Albany. According to reports, on Saturday (February 3) he had an interaction with Timmins police which led to him being tasered and ultimately shot and killed by the police. Agnes Sutherland, 62, used a wheelchair and suffered from health complications. It is alleged that when police attended at the scene of the local shelter Ms. Sutherland was treated roughly while being taken into police custody. She suffered severe complications during her detention and ultimately was taken to hospital where she died Sunday evening (February 4).
Relatives were not immediately available to talk about the deaths. However, Sutherland’s son, Glen Sutherland, told the Timmins Daily Press he was frustrated doctors allowed his “mentally unstable” mother, a survivor of the notorious St. Anne’s residential school who needed a wheelchair to get around, to refuse dialysis treatments for her failing kidneys.
“We’ve been trying to get her help by a psychiatrist,” Sutherland told the local newspaper. “We just didn’t know what to do, how to help our mom. We tried the best we can, whatever we knew how.”
Her frequent trips to the emergency room were a cry for help, he said, adding he couldn’t understand why doctors and police officers, who he said knew his mother by name, weren’t able to see the signs and get her help.
Black, who knows some of Knapaysweet’s family personally, attended a vigil in the city for the young man on Tuesday afternoon which reportedly drew about 100 people, some weeping, while others hugged and comforted one another. They stood in a circle around a bouquet of red roses, candles and photographs of Knapaysweet.
Timmins hosts many First Nations events and Black said relations between the Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities, unlike in some other northern centres, were generally positive. However, the mayor acknowledged the recent incidents had increased racial tensions and the focus had to now be on rebuilding frayed trust.
“I don’t believe there’s room for racism in any community,” Black said. “If changes need to be made or things need to be done to improve those relationships, we’re definitely willing to work with our partners on improving those relationships.”
Knapaysweet’s funeral is to be held in Fort Albany on Saturday. He is survived by his parents. Details of a funeral for Sutherland, a mother of six with six great grandchildren, were not immediately available. However, the service will also take place in her native Fort Albany.
Chief Andrew Solomon has addressed these concerns to the Attorney General for Ontario and the Minister of Community Safety and Correctional Services. He has called for an investigation into the actions of the Timmins Police Service as they relate to the deaths of Joey Knapaysweet and Agnes Sutherland.