Family of N.W.T. man who died in custody after extended isolation files wrongful death suit

·4 min read
Edward Snowshoe, top right, from Fort McPherson, N.W.T., died by suicide at Edmonton Institution, a maximum-security federal prison, after spending 162 days in segregation. Corrections officers say they were not aware of his three previous suicide attempts at a prison in Manitoba. (Effie Snowshoe - image credit)
Edward Snowshoe, top right, from Fort McPherson, N.W.T., died by suicide at Edmonton Institution, a maximum-security federal prison, after spending 162 days in segregation. Corrections officers say they were not aware of his three previous suicide attempts at a prison in Manitoba. (Effie Snowshoe - image credit)

The family of a Gwich'in man who died by suicide after spending 162 days in segregation in federal prison is pursuing a wrongful death lawsuit against the federal government.

Edward Snowshoe, of Fort McPherson, N.W.T., died in 2010 at the age of 24. He had been kept in isolation for 134 days at Manitoba's Stony Mountain Institution, just outside Winnipeg, before being transferred to the Edmonton Institution, where he spent a further 28 days in isolation until he died, says the statement of claim.

The lawsuit alleges that staff and supervisors at the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) "engaged in numerous contraventions of legislation and correctional policies and made numerous oversights and errors in judgment."

It calls the department's use of "extended and unlawful segregation as a discipline tool ... inhumane, cruel and unnecessarily restrictive," and accuses the department of negligence, breaches of law and policy, and false imprisonment.

Snowshoe subjected to 'a form of torture': Grand Chief

"Eddie Snowshoe's treatment by [Correctional Service of Canada] and his wrongful death resulted from systemic discrimination against him as an Indigenous person present in Canada's federal institutions," reads a news release from the Gwich'in Tribal Council, which is supporting the family through the lawsuit.

Gwich'in Grand Chief Ken Kyikavichik told CBC News that the organization was supporting the case "to right what we believe is a significant wrong."

"What Eddie was subjected to, unfortunately, was a form of torture, in our opinion," he said.

The lawsuit seeks $12.5 million in damages. Kyikavichik said an apology is also being sought from the Correctional Service of Canada, "so the family can have a level of closure."

"You don't get complete closure from something like this," he said.

Correctional Service of Canada said in a statement to CBC News on Wednesday that "the loss of life is always a tragedy, and CSC takes the death of an inmate very seriously."

"We can confirm we have received the claim today and are taking time to review it," the statement reads. "We are unable to comment further at this time."

Officers 'unaware' of previous suicide attempts

Snowshoe was serving a five-year sentence for shooting and injuring a cab driver in Inuvik during an armed robbery when he died. As the territory has no federal facilities, he was forced to serve his sentence in the South.

At the medium-security Stony Mountain Institution, Snowshoe was placed in segregation — with no access to the general population — after brandishing a knife made from a juice box in March 2010. After his transfer to the maximum-security Edmonton Institution in July 2010, he requested to be released from segregation, but a 2014 inquiry found his request went missing and was not located until after his death.

The statement of claim notes that Snowshoe attempted suicide at least three times before he was placed in segregation in Manitoba. Correctional officers told the inquiry that they were unaware he had tried to end his life before and did not know how long he had been in segregation, "even though that information was readily available," according to the final report.

A file photo of the Edmonton Institution. While in segregation, Snowshoe had only a single observation point, through a mail slot.
A file photo of the Edmonton Institution. While in segregation, Snowshoe had only a single observation point, through a mail slot.(Nathan Gross/CBC)

The statement of claim also notes that all decisions to place inmates in segregation are subject to regular reviews, which it says correctional officers failed to perform.

When Snowshoe was transferred to Edmonton, he underwent a mental health assessment, where he disclosed his previous suicide attempts. But he was again placed in segregation with no further review, according to the claim.

The inquiry ultimately ruled that Snowshoe had "fallen through the cracks" of the prison system, something Kyikavichik took aim at in his statements to CBC on Wednesday.

"For the Gwich'in Tribal Council, for Gwich'in people in our communities, that's just simply unacceptable," he said. "For people to fall through the cracks has been, far too long, an excuse by the authorities."

Snowshoe's mother, Kyikavichik said, "knew something was wrong."

"Despite numerous attempts to advise the people who were charged with Eddie's care, her repeated requests for support ... were ultimately ignored," he said.

Civil lawsuits in the wake of Snowshoe's death have challenged the constitutionality of solitary confinement, which has sometimes met the United Nations definition of torture.

But Kyikavichik said he was surprised to learn no one had gone to court on the family's behalf.

"The family ... have felt ignored over this period of time," he said.

Several studies have shown that prolonged isolation can lead to depression, deteriorated cognitive skills, hallucinations and suicidal or self-harming thoughts and actions.

The Liberal government announced it would end the practice in 2019, but experts say it continues under a different name.