Inquest must examine death at jail through lens of systemic racism: Commissioner 

By Robin Grant

 Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Wolastoqey chiefs in New Brunswick have voiced their support for a coroner’s inquest into the death of a Tobique First Nation

(Neqotkuk) man who died while in custody at the Saint John Regional Correctional Centre.

In a press release from the Wolastoqey Nation, six chiefs say they support the family of Skyler Brent Sappier-Soloman, who reportedly died of COVID-19 in the early morning hours of Jan. 31, and Tobique First Nation community members.

“When one family mourns the loss of a family member, that loss ripples throughout the nation and is felt by all,” reads the Wolastoqey Nation release issued Monday morning.

“We  are keen to hear the findings of the coroner’s inquest into Skyler’s death and hope the findings from the jury can prevent future tragedies from happening again and improve the conditions for inmates in the province’s correctional system.”

According to court records, Sappier-Soloman was 28 years old and living in Fredericton when he was handed a 90-day jail sentence in December 2021 for an assault.

A post on social media with the hashtag #JusticeForSkyler says the father of three was tripled vaccinated and had no underlying medical conditions.

“Skyler was in respiratory distress for days while under the care of the correctional facility,” reads the post. “He begged for help for 10 hours before being transported to the Saint John hospital where he died approximately 36 hours later. Skyler needlessly died due to medical negligence of the Saint John Regional Correction Centre.”

The chiefs go on to say Indigenous people have a “well-founded and deep mistrust” of the justice and correctional system in the province, adding there are “hard questions to ask” about what happened at the jail and Saint John Regional Hospital at the time of Sappier-Soloman’s death.

After the back-to-back police shootings that claimed the lives of Chantel Moore, of Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation, and Rodney Levi, of Metepenagiag Mi’kmaq Nation, in 2020, First Nations leaders called for an inquiry into systemic anti-Indigenous racism in policing and the justice system.

At the time, Premier Blaine Higgs refused, proposing instead a review into systemic racism against all marginalized groups. Last September, the province appointed Manju Varma to lead the commission tasked with better understanding systemic racism and its effects on marginalized groups.

“We have pointed to deep-seated systemic racism in government institutions including jails, schools and hospitals,” the Wolastoqey chiefs state in Monday’s release. “This call has not been forgotten and continues to prove vital as we suffer another preventable tragedy.

“We hope the coroner’s inquest will reveal whether proper COVID-19 protocols were being followed at the jail and whether timely access to care was available.”

The release says the chiefs expect a prompt and thorough response as Indigenous people “do not have the benefit of passing time.”

When questioned about the incident at the jail, the racism commissioner didn’t comment specifically on what happened. She did, however, say the “presence and treatment of any Indigenous person in carceral institutions must be understood within the context of systemic racism.”

“It is even more important that their deaths while in the care of these state institutions be examined through this lens as well,” Varma wrote in an email.

She extended her deepest condolences to Sappier-Soloman’s family and the entire community at Neqotkuk.

“I look forward to the findings of the coroner’s inquest and hope that the jury’s analysis will consider the racial implication of this case,” Varma said.

As outlined in her mandate, the commissioner is scheduled to publish her report on racism in the fall.

When asked for a comment about the coroner’s inquest and Tobique First Nation (Neqotkuk) chief Ross Perley alleging neglect at the jail last week, Chris Curran, president of CUPE 1251, the union representing institutional care and services, called Sappier-Soloman’s death tragic. He said it is the union’s belief they followed all the protocols and “did the best we could with what we had at the time.”

 Robin Grant is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter who works out of the TELEGRAPH-JOURNAL. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada



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