Awkward moment mars announcement


RCMP taking in-custody death of Indigenous man ‘seriously’ suggests in the past, it didn’t

An awkward moment occurred during the announcement that RCMP were charging Headingley corrections officer Robert Jeffrey Morden with “criminal negligence causing death and failure to provide the necessaries of life” during the 2021 death of inmate William Ahmo.

“We’re kind of hoping this investigation shows to the family we’ve taken this seriously,” stated RCMP spokesman Sgt. Paul Manaigre.

This wasn’t weirdest moment, though.

“A lot of man-hours, a lot of resources were put into play here to get the answers that this family has been searching for for 11 months,” he added.

There’s so much to say one doesn’t know where to begin.

A human being died while in care in a Manitoba institution. Of course it’s serious. RCMP saying they’re serious this time makes one wonder how many times they were not. Or, worse, that without the family asking questions this investigation may not have been.

Why did Manaigre feel the need to list off the “man-hours” and “resources” to convince the Ahmo family of RCMP seriousness? Why does the cost of justice matter? Doesn’t the RCMP — the public body tasked with uncovering justice — want those answers too? Does anyone care if it takes one dollar or a million to uncover the truth when someone is killed?

Imagine RCMP telling a white family the same thing.

Imagine a police spokesman announcing they are taking a white man’s death seriously so his family should be thankful.

Imagine how that family would feel.

I spoke to the Ahmo family via their lawyer Sunday morning.

They wanted to talk but “off the record” because they did not want to “interfere with the prosecution” and were fearful of saying anything “that could complicate the process.”

I told them I understood. I know the family in many ways and I’m aware of how tenuous justice is in the Indigenous community.

I also know certain details in this case, like the alleged racist remarks and actions of jail guards that preceded Ahmo’s death.

The trial will be all about these alleged “racist remarks.” It will be about the fact Ahmo died while in jail; that he’s Indigenous; and that Morden is non-Indigenous or – even more – if he is.

If Saskatchewan farmer Gerald Stanley can be found not-guilty for shooting 22-year old Indigenous man Colten Boushie in the back of the head because a jury believed the gun went off “accidentally,” it doesn’t really matter how much evidence police have collected.

Morden’s trial is going to be political, with dozens of historical intersections at once. It will be about theatrics, persuasion, and well, politics.

The RCMP statement on Friday was as political as you can get.

We will never know what would have happened if the media and public had not joined with the family to put pressure on police to investigate Ahmo’s death, but history says otherwise.

The fact is RCMP don’t often take seriously Indigenous deaths while in custody and certainly don’t put “man-hours” and “resources” into finding out what happened.

If you want evidence, try the 61 deaths in custody a CBC report uncovered last December – many of whom are in Manitoba. Examine the nine Manitoba inmates who have died by suicide in their cells since 2019. Read about the first inmate death in history at the Women’s Correctional Centre last May.

Virtually all are deaths of Indigenous peoples and almost no one knows their names.

When the public and media don’t care, RCMP don’t often act. If there is an investigation, it’s fraught with, well, politics.

I wish it was different and we could blame a few “bad apples” – and no doubt Morden will be tossed onto this pile if found guilty – but Indigenous deaths in custody isn’t about “bad apples.”

It’s about the entire tree.

It’s not like we don’t know this. Multiple reports going back decades like the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry have told Manitoba that Indigenous peoples are sent to jail more than anyone else, often die there, and almost no one is held to account.

Governments, police, and yes, you and me, don’t care much about it.

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