Family looks for answers after Indigenous man dies by suicide following release from custody

·3 min read

The family of a 26-year-old First Nations man who died by suicide in Williams Lake, B.C. just hours after being released from RCMP custody is going public in the hopes it never happens to anyone else.

Kenneth Seymour Michell of the Ts’kw’aylaxw First Nation in Pavilion was found dead behind a Williams Lake business in the 1100 block of Broadway Avenue South at 6 a.m. Jan. 14, 2021, after having strangled himself with his shoelace.

His family and friends remain devastated and continue to grieve one month after burying him at Xaxli’p First Nation’s cemetery near Lillooet.

“It’s crazy how many hearts he touched,” Michell’s aunt Georgina Lazore told Black Press Media from her home in Cornwall, Ont.

Although Michell struggled with his mental well-being as well as drug and alcohol addiction which resulted in trouble with the law, he had amassed many friends and was close with his large family, even being a ring bearer at Lazore’s wedding.

The young man who enjoyed hanging out with his friends, fishing, listening to music and travelling never stayed in one place for long.

He found himself in Williams Lake where he was taken into police custody on Jan. 11 for outstanding warrants after RCMP were called to a Williams Lake residence in the 700 block of Midnight Drive regarding a suspicious person.

The Independent Investigations Office of BC (IIO), which investigated the RCMP’s involvement into Mitchell’s sudden death, confirmed police were concerned for Michell’s welfare after he was arrested.

Lazore said her nephew even used an officer’s phone to call his uncle when he was in distress because he knew no one in Williams Lake.

The investigation found Crown Counsel also raised concerns during Michell’s Jan. 13 bail hearing and opposed his release.

The court, however, chose not to detain Michell, who told police and others he was experiencing suicidal thoughts.

According to the First Nations Leadership Council (FNLC), who are assisting the family in bringing forward their concerns, Michell was released on conditions and dropped off in Williams Lake in the middle of winter wearing only a sweater. A friend had attempted to pick him up from the courthouse but was told he would be transported to Kamloops, where he called home.

Michell was found dead early the next morning.

Less than two weeks after his death, the IIO concluded police actions/inactions “did not play any role” in Michell’s death, and that both police and Crown Counsel took positions that attempted to prevent it.

FNLC is calling for further investigation including reprimands to the RCMP and judge involved in the case.

BC Assembly of First Nations Regional Chief Terry Teegee said the entire judicial system continues to harm First Nations people despite commitments to reform the justice and policing system, including support for the First Nations Justice Strategy a year ago.

“The strategy included a commitment to training and education to reduce bias among frontline workers, RCMP and judges in the justice system,” Teegee stated in a news release Jan. 24.

“Did this judge receive that training? And if so, what made (the judge) think Kenneth Michell should have been released without support? How did the RCMP and Sheriffs’ Office think it was OK to leave him in the cold, on the street miles from home?”

Secretary-treasurer of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, Kukpi7 Judy Wilson said Michell should be alive today.

“Our people deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, and not brushed aside like Kenneth was,” Wilson said.

“The officials involved must be removed, and the broken so-called justice system must be repaired to ensure that there is no space for the current widespread racism and discrimination toward Indigenous peoples.”

Michell’s loss is even more painful for Lazore who believes his death was preventable.

“It’s so hard,” she said. “It never should have happened.”

Rebecca Dyok, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Williams Lake Tribune