Northern Ontario reserve police cleared in in-custody death

Matthew Coutts
National Affairs Reporter
Daily Brew

The death of a woman who may have taken her own life in a northern Ontario First Nations police cruiser might not be the fault of the force itself, but it leaves thunderous questions about its ability to handle its mandate.

An Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) investigation has cleared the Nishnawbe-Aski Police Service of fault in the death of 23-year-old Lena Anderson. Anderson died of suspected suicide while in the back of a police cruiser in northern Ontario’s Kasabonika Lake First Nation earlier this month.

The Toronto Star reports that Anderson had been left in the cruiser because the local police station had recently been rebuilt, but construction wasn't complete and the building had no heat.

While an OPP investigation has found the force not responsible for the death, it does raise questions about the state of policing northern Ontario reserves, and the dangers of underfunding.

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Nishnawbe-Aski police patrol 34 reserves in northern Ontario, and stations in many of those communities are in disrepair and have been deemed unsafe. Construction of several new stations was ordered after the Kashechewan Inquest in 2009 — launched after two men burned to death while trapped in a detachment jail cell.

The police force says lack of support from the government means they are unable to improve their police stations and has left the community in "severe jeopardy."

In a letter obtained by APTN National News, Grand Chief Harvey Yesno and Frank McKay, chair of the Nishnawbe police board, claim chronic underfunding by the federal and provincial governments should be held responsible for future problems in the region.

The letter reads:

The blind eye they have turned to these issues has created a significant safety risk for NAN (Nishnawbe Aski Nation) communities policed by NAPS (Nishnawbe-Aski Police Service). It is our view that on a going forward basis, the Federal and Provincial governments will be responsible, legally and morally, for future deaths that are caused by inadequate resources.

The letter goes on to say that of the 19 police detachments deemed unsafe by the Kashechewan Inquest in 2009,18 have not been addressed, leaving "citizens in grave danger."

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It is tough to say a police force is free from blame in one breath and claim the government responsible in the next. The force must do the best with what it has, and that best should never end in death.

Still, if the government wants law and order to reign on northern Ontario reserves, it must be prepared to lend proper support. For the past four years, the Nishnawbe-Aski Police Service has been funded by the federal and provincial governments through a program launched in 2009.

That deal is set to expire next month. Whether it is funding or support of another kind, something must come next.

No one may be directly responsible for the death of Lena Anderson, but someone should be held accountable the next time this mess turns fatal.