Lawsuit alleges Indigenous soldier faced racism, bullying before his suicide

WINNIPEG — The mother of an Indigenous reservist who took his own life alleges in a lawsuit against the federal government that senior commanders were negligent when her son experienced racism and bullying as a soldier in Manitoba.

Cpl. Nolan Caribou, 26, committed suicide during a training exercise at Canadian Forces Base Shilo in November 2017.

"Cpl. Caribou felt increasingly like his chain of command was ignoring him because of his race. He became discouraged and his discouragement led to depression," says a statement of claim filed on behalf of Freda Caribou in Winnipeg Court of Queen's Bench on Nov. 15.

Caribou was an infantryman for five years with the Royal Winnipeg Rifles of the 38 Canadian Brigade Group based out of Winnipeg’s Minto Armouries.

The lawsuit alleges he was passed over for promotions, bullied and harassed because of his race, and that his superiors knew about the torment but did nothing about it, which directly resulted in his wrongful death.

The allegations have not been proven in court and a statement of defence has not been submitted. The family is seeking unspecified damages.

The Department of National Defence would not comment on the lawsuit. An emailed statement said bullying and racism is an issue the Canadian Army continues to take seriously.

An internal inquiry in 2018 found that Caribou was bullied at work. A military spokesperson at the time said five members were reprimanded as a result.

Caribou was a thoughtful, quiet and ambitious young man, the lawsuit says, and was close to his family, especially his younger brother.

It says that during his time as a reservist, he also graduated from the University of Winnipeg with a sociology degree.

Caribou saw the Armed Forces as a way to becoming a chaplain to Indigenous Peoples in the army or in prison, it says. He joined in 2012 and, the lawsuit says, at the time was the only Indigenous person in his unit.

The statement of claim alleges that he was subjected to "initiation" activities, was challenged to fight and was called derogatory names.

In 2014, it alleges, Caribou was jumped during winter training and his clavicle was broken. He didn't want to bring shame on his unit or tell on his fellow soldiers, so he reported it as an injury during the exercise.

Caribou found his locker defaced two years later. He let his senior commanders know what happened but nothing was done, the lawsuit claims. The locker remained defaced until at least six months after his death.

"(It's) a testament to the way Cpl. Caribou was ignored and marginalized," the lawsuit says.

It's also alleged that Caribou's promotion to the rank of corporal was delayed and that he never received a response to an application for a job as a leader in summer training camp.

The harassment and bullying continued over the years, the lawsuit alleges, including at the training exercise where Caribou was found dead.

"The entire time Cpl. Caribou participated in the reserves, he was marginalized because of his race and disrespected by the junior ranks and the senior ranks," the lawsuit says.

"Cpl. Caribou's superiors were present and aware of the abuse, name-calling and marginalization of Cpl. Caribou, but did nothing to directly address the issue or try to stop it."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 25, 2019.

Kelly Geraldine Malone, The Canadian Press