Indigenous deaths in Timmins, Ont., involving police spark sorrow, anger

The weekend police killing of a young man and the death of an ailing older woman after her arrest has sparked grief and anger among Indigenous people in northern Ontario.

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Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, which represents nearly 50 Indigenous communities in the region, expressed concern over the incidents in Timmins, Ont., a hub for many First Nations activities, but said it would be “premature” to make assumptions about the deaths of two people from the same remote First Nation community north of the city.

“It’s very troubling,” Fiddler said Wednesday in a brief interview from Timmins. “The families have a lot of questions.”

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In the first incident, Timmins police shot and killed Joey Knapaysweet, 21, on Saturday. Details are scant but the province’s Special Investigations Unit said officers responded mid-morning to the Emergency Medical Services building and a man fled.

“There was an interaction between the man and officers and one of the officers discharged a firearm,” the unit said in a statement. “The man was struck. He was taken to hospital where he was later pronounced dead.”

The death of Agnes Sutherland, 62, also on the weekend, occurred after she had sought help at the Timmins District Hospital. According to the investigations unit, Sutherland was asked to leave and did so by taxi.

However, she was arrested after allegedly causing a disturbance at a shelter. Police took her to the station and put her in a cell, the unit said in a statement. The same evening, officers called for an ambulance to take her to hospital, where she was pronounced dead late Sunday.

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“It is alleged that when police attended at the scene of the local shelter, Ms. Sutherland was treated roughly while being taken into police custody,” Fiddler and two other Indigenous leaders said in a joint statement. “She suffered severe complications during her detention.”

Knapaysweet and Sutherland were from the James Bay community of Fort Albany — more than an hour’s flight from Timmins _ where funerals for both were to take place.

In their statement, Fiddler, Grand Chief Jonathan Solomon of the Mushkegowuk Council and Fort Albany First Nation Chief Andrew Solomon expressed shock that two Fort Albany members had “died at the hands of police” and urged a speedy and thorough investigation.

“We have seen systemic racism in the city of Thunder Bay, and must now wonder if this is also happening in Timmins,” they said.

Timmins Mayor Steve Black acknowledged the incidents had increased racial tensions in the city, and said the focus had to now be on rebuilding frayed trust.

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“I don’t believe there’s room for racism in any community,” Black told The Canadian Press from his office.

“If changes need to be made or things need to be done to improve those relationships, we’re definitely willing to work with our partners on improving those relationships.”

Still, Black said, the city hosts many First Nations events and relations between the Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities, unlike in some other northern centres, were generally positive. He urged calm, stressing the police shooting was a rare event for the city.

Relatives were not immediately available to talk about the deaths. However, Sutherland’s son, Glen Sutherland, told the Timmins Daily Press he was frustrated doctors allowed his “mentally unstable” mother, a survivor of the notorious St. Anne’s residential school who needed a wheelchair to get around, to refuse dialysis treatments for her failed kidneys. Her frequent trips to the emergency room were a cry for help, he said.

“We’ve been trying to get her help by a psychiatrist,” Sutherland told the paper.

“We just didn’t know what to do, how to help our mom. We tried the best we can.”

Black, who knows some of Knapaysweet’s family personally, attended a vigil in the city for the young man on Tuesday afternoon which reportedly drew about 100 people, some weeping, while others hugged and comforted one another. They stood in a circle around a bouquet of red roses, candles and photographs.

Knapaysweet’s funeral is to be held in Fort Albany on Saturday. He is survived by his parents. Details of a funeral for Agnes Sutherland, a mother of six with six great grandchildren, were not immediately available. However, the service will also take place in her native Fort Albany.

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