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Family of indigenous Ontario woman who died in custody speaks out

Last Updated Jul 14, 2017 at 3:40 pm EDT

The family of a First Nations woman who died in police custody in Ontario says her death is part of larger widespread tensions between police and indigenous communities.

Relatives of Debra Chrisjohn say they still have questions about what happened to the 39-year-old from the Oneida Nation of the Thames despite the fact that two police officers are now facing charges in her death.

Ontario’s Special Investigations Unit announced Thursday that Const. Mark McKillop of the Ontario Provincial Police and London, Ont., police Const. Nicholas Doering are charged with one count each of criminal negligence causing death and failing to provide the necessaries of life.

Both interacted with Chrisjohn at some point between her arrest on Sept. 7, 2016 and her death later that night.

A lawyer representing Chrisjohn’s family says any future discussion of the officers’ conduct needs to focus on why they did not seek medical attention for Chrisjohn when it should have been apparent that she required help.

She says Chrisjohn’s death is an example of what she calls the problematic relationship between police forces and indigenous communities across Canada.

“What happened to Debra is not an isolated incident,” said Caitlyn Kasper with Toronto’s Aboriginal Legal Services. “It is very obvious that it isn’t these types of issues just in London or the Oneida First Nation. It’s a concern we hear about in Toronto, all across Ontario and all across Canada.”

Robert Chrisjohn, Debra’s father, said the family has been devastated by his daughter’s death.

“Why didn’t the police take her to the hospital sooner when they knew she was sick and needed help?” he asked in a public statement issued Friday. “The police arrested her and were responsible for making sure she was okay. This happens way too often in our community. This happens all the time. The police just don’t seem to care.”

Details of Debra Chrisjohn’s final hours are still vague, though the SIU released some information in announcing the charges against McKillop and Doering.

The SIU, which probes incidents involving police where someone is killed, injured or accused of sexual assault, said Doering was among those who responded to a call for a traffic obstruction on Sept. 7 in London.

Police found Chrisjohn at the scene and arrested her, only to discover that she was wanted on an outstanding charge in nearby Elgin County. Kasper said that outstanding charge was for shoplifting.

She and the SIU said Chrisjohn was transferred from the custody of London police to the provincial force to answer to the outstanding charge.

At some point during that time Chrisjohn went into medical distress and was rushed to the St. Thomas Elgin General Hospital. She was pronounced dead there later that night.

The SIU has declined to offer further comment on the case, since it is now before the courts.

Both Kasper and the SIU declined to release the cause of death, but Kasper said police had enough information on hand to handle Chrisjohn’s case differently.

She said Chrisjohn, who had a documented history of both substance abuse and mental illness, had interacted with London police officers just the day before her death.

On that occasion, she said police did not arrest her but instead took her to hospital for treatment. She said the family feels officers should have responded the same way the following day, adding there were clear indications that Chrisjohn needed medical attention rather than time in police custody.

Kasper said Chrisjohn’s relatives are pleased that officers are now facing charges, but said they’re bracing for a lengthy legal process.

She said the ensuing case should focus on what she called the “foundational relationship” between police and indigenous people from coast to coast, saying current headlines are rife with examples of how the troubled dynamic plays out.

She pointed to the need for a national inquiry on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, which has recently been mired in controversy among a spate of resignations from key staff members and even a commissioner.

She also cited recent deaths of several indigenous people in Thunder Bay, Ont., who were all pulled from a local river after moving to the city from remote northern communities. Indigenous leaders have called upon the RCMP to take over a probe into those deaths, citing a lack of trust in either city or provincial authorities.