The fractured relationship between Inuit and police in Arctic Quebec is reflected in Johnny Anautak’s tears, anger and disappointment.
His last arrest cost him a final visit with his dying mother.
“I called my mom and told her, ‘Sorry mom, I got arrested.’ And then in a snap she was losing her life more,” said Anautak, a tissue in hand, his head hanging down.
Anautak was called as a witness to the Viens Commission because of his experience with provincial correctional services and the Kativik Regional Police Force (KRPF), which serves the 14 predominantly Inuit communities in Nunavik, the Inuit region of Northern Quebec.
The public inquiry, led by retired Superior Court Justice Jacques Viens, is in the community of Kuujjuarapik on the Great Whale River this week to hear how people in Nunavik believe public services to Indigenous people should be improved.
Anautak, 36, said people who have bail conditions are frequent targets for police.
For example, he said public drinking is tolerated, unless you’re under a court-ordered condition not to drink.
As a bail condition for an undisclosed crime for which Anautak was charged, he wasn’t allowed to be in his village of Akulivik.
However, health-centre staff in Akulivik assured him there wouldn’t be any problem if he flew in to visit his ill mother, who was a patient.
Anautak said he arrived in the community and had just left his grandmother’s house when an KRPF officer spotted him and confronted him about breaking his bail conditions. He was promptly rearrested.
Almost choked by tears, his voice pitched high, Anautak told Viens he realized at that moment he would never again see his mother alive.
“I wish I could turn back time, to go see my mom,” he said.
Police suicide intervention leaves witness shaken
Another testimonial came from a frontline worker who was so disturbed by what she saw during one incident involving police that she has never been able to speak about it.
Viens granted her anonymity after she testified, saying her story was important and had to be made public.
In an account that lasted almost 40 minutes, she recalled the day she watched three officers train their guns on a suicidal man.
The man was crouched outside after leaving his house to smoke a cigarette, and he was surrounded by police officers.
“I don’t have their names. I never looked at their faces because I would be terrified to see them,” said the woman.
She said a few people gathered around the man’s house yelled to police, “Don’t shoot him!”
The situation ended without anyone getting hurt.
Questioned about what type of training police might require for similar situations, the woman said she didn’t know, because talking to someone who is thinking about suicide requires treating the person like a peer.
That, she said, can’t happen when the person listening is also wielding a gun.
High rate of incidents
Earlier in the week, Viens commission lawyer Christine Renaud reported Quebec’s Bureau of Independent Investigations (BEI) found Nunavik has the highest per capita rate in Quebec of incidents leading to a BEI investigation.
(The BEI investigates any incident involving police and a civilian in which the civilian is injured or killed, or in which a police firearm is discharged.)
In Nunavik, with a total population of just 14,000, there were 11 investigations into deaths or injuries arising from a police intervention last year.
Compare that to 26 for the Montreal police service, which patrols the entire island (population over 1.7 million), and 37 for the Sûreté du Québec, which serves the entire province (population 8.4 million).
Renaud also said a third of all charges brought against Inuit are for obstruction of justice, which includes, for example, getting in the way of police while they’re doing their jobs.
The rate at which people are charged with obstructing a peace officer is three times higher in Nunavik than it is in the rest of the province.
Related stories from around the North:
Finland: Police in Arctic Finland overstretched, says retiring officer, Yle News
Sweden: Reports of violent crime increasing in Sweden’s North, Radio Sweden
United States: Alaska reckons with missing data on murdered Indigenous women, Alaska Public Media