Quebec's chief coroner has ordered a public inquiry into the death of Nicous D'Andre Spring, a 21-year-old man who died while being held at Montreal's Bordeaux jail on Christmas Eve.
Spring was supposed to have been released on bail one day before an incident at the jail in which guards covered his head with a restraining device called a spit hood and pepper-sprayed him twice. He died shortly afterwards.
The chief coroner, Pascale Descary, has assigned coroner Julie-Kim Godin to lead the investigation into Spring's death, which will be public. A prosecutor who has yet to be named will assist her.
Under Quebec's Coroners Act, the chief coroner can order an inquest into any death deemed to be of public interest, or if the chief coroner believes it useful to question under oath persons who are able to provide information that is important to the investigation.
The coroner has no authority to rule on civil or criminal liability but can make recommendations to prevent similar deaths.
In a social media post, Public Security Minister François Bonnardel lauded the decision to hold public hearings.
"This additional step provides transparency to ensure public confidence in our correctional institutions," he tweeted. "I will ensure that the ministry takes all actions to avoid such a situation in the future."
Earlier this month, Spring's family called for an inquiry into systemic racism in the provincial detention system.
In a statement released by the Red Coalition, a non-profit lobby group assisting Spring's family, Spring was described as a young aspiring artist, a son, grandson, brother, cousin, nephew, youth mentor and a friend to many.
Spring, the group said, was receiving support with mental health issues at the time of his death.
Spring's sister, Sarafina Dennie, said in the statement that her brother needed support but was treated by jail guards like a "rabid animal."
"They put a spit mask on him, and a supervisor ordered agents to pepper-spray him while he was still wearing the mask," she said. "Correction officers are supposed to be trained to deal with inmates with special needs."
A spit mask, or spit hood, is a device used to prevent someone from spitting or biting.
Internal documents obtained by Radio-Canada say Spring died of a heart attack after he was pepper-sprayed, and guards thought he was faking his condition.
Since Spring's death, a manager and a prison guard have been suspended pending the results of several investigations, including one being conducted by provincial police, as well as the coroner's investigation.