Jurors deliberating in Thunder Bay police custody deaths inquest

By Holly McKenzie-Sutter


Don Mamakwa and Roland McKay (Supplied Photos)

Jurors at a coroner’s inquest into the deaths of two Indigenous men in Thunder Bay police custody began deliberations Friday about the manner in which Don Mamakwa and Roland McKay died, and are considering recommendations to prevent similar deaths in the future.

Closing arguments and proposed recommendations, including a sobering centre and better training for police and paramedics, were heard a day earlier at the inquest into Mamakwa’s 2014 death and McKay’s 2017 death.

Both men, who were related, died of medical conditions after being arrested for suspected public intoxication. Neither were seen by a doctor or nurse before they died, and evidence has been heard that they had chances of survival had they been taken to a hospital.

Coroner David Cameron told the jury their recommendations should give the two men a voice.

“Wouldn’t it be great if we could ask Don and Roland what their recommendations would be,” he said. “You, the jury, has to give us their answers.”

Cameron also gave the jury instructions on the determination of the manner of death for both men. Jurors will make that determination but will not assign blame.

Mamakwa’s family has submitted that his death was a homicide because first responders and police did not take action to help him get medical care.

Legal counsel for Thunder Bay police officers, meanwhile, argued Mamakwa died of natural causes because his medical conditions were deteriorating before first responders interacted with him.

The police chief’s lawyer argued it was an accident.

Cameron instructed the jury on the possible categories for the manner of death they can decide on, including homicide or natural causes. He also said the manner of death can be “undetermined” if a death does not fit into any category, and said that definition is “not a weak conclusion.”

He said he has not heard evidence to suggest either death was an accident.

“I don’t see any accidental occurrences here,” he said.

“Misjudgment isn’t an accident.”

Mamakwa’s cause of death has been presented as related to diabetes, sepsis and chronic alcoholism. An expert told the inquest that his condition was treatable and he had a 97 per cent chance of survival if he had been treated at a hospital.

The inquest has heard that he asked to go to the hospital but was not taken, as well as evidence that improper records were taken about his medication and he asked for help during the night but was not checked on regularly.

In the case of McKay, all parties agreed that he died of natural causes and his death was caused by hypertensive heart disease, though a lawyer for his family argued that there were unmet opportunities to help him.

Proposed recommendations that parties at the inquest agreed upon include a sobering centre in the city, cultural sensitivity education and other training for officers and paramedics and a new deputy police chief position focused on Indigenous relations.

The jury does not have to accept the recommendations, but Cameron said he senses all of them are based in evidence heard at the inquest. He told the jurors they can make recommendations that are outside the defined scope of the inquest if enough evidence has been heard to support them.

“It’s not the time to be careful here,” he said. “It’s the time to be bold.”


This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 4, 2022.


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