GJOA HAVEN, Nunavut — An RCMP officer says he's sorry he shot and killed an armed man in a remote Nunavut community five years ago, but defended his actions at a coroner's inquest into the death.
Cpl. Ian Crowe finished testifying Wednesday at the inquest into the death of 21-year-old Charles Qirngnirq on Dec. 19, 2016, in the hamlet of Gjoa Haven.
Crowe told The Canadian Press that it's still difficult for him to talk about that day and he hadn't spoken much about it since he was investigated by Ottawa police. The police service, whichinvestigates all incidents in the territory, determined Crowe should not be criminally charged with the shooting.
"I am sorry for my actions ... and I wish I could take it back," Crowe said outside the community hall where the inquest is taking place.
A jury has heard that Qirngnirq was outside the hamlet's airport with a rifle and was upset that his girlfriend and his young son were leaving to fly to the community of Kugaaruk. Police had received reports earlier that day that he was suicidal.
Crowe and his partner Cpl. Tanya Kellogg, the only two officers in the hamlet that day, both testified that it appeared Qirngnirq lifted his rifle at them.
They said they feared for their lives and the community's safety.
The jury is to determine the cause of Qirngnirq's death. While lawyers for the coroner and Qirngnirq's family have said they will argue his death was a homicide, the RCMP's lawyer has said it was suicide.
Crowe, who at the time had been an officer for about eight years and worked in Nunavut for 18 months, said he had arrested Qirngnirq in the past and the two "didn't always have friendly interactions."
He said he and Kellogg stopped their police vehicle about 150 metres from Qirngnirq near the airport. Crowe got out with a carbine rifle and crouched behind the front of the vehicle. He said he thought he could see Qirngnirq better through the gun's scope, but wasn't able to zoom in.
"A part of me completely forgot what the experience would be like to grab the carbine rifle and look through the scope," he said.
"My awareness shot up through the roof," he said. "Everything I was hoping to better assess just went out the window."
Crowe testified Qirngnirq yelled that he wanted to die. Both officers also said Qirngnirq did not acknowledge them until moments before he was shot.
"Charles presented a threat to us but it wasn't immediate," Crowe said. "I was authorized to use lethal force ... By definition, I could have shot him immediately."
At one point, the officer said, it seemed like Qirngnirq pointed his rifle toward them. Crowe then shot Qirngnirq and he dropped to the ground. The rifle lying next to him, later found to be unloaded, had two bullets next to it.
Crowe said he believed Qirngnirq's intentions at the time were to kill his girlfriend and himself, because of the two bullets.
However, Sheldon Toner, the lawyer for the Nunavut coroner, clarified that the bullets were for a different calibre of rifle.
The inquest also heard that a nurse who treated Qirngnirq at Gjoa Haven’s health centre told Ottawa Police Service investigators that she asked him why he had a gun and if it was to shoot his girlfriend.
“No, not to shoot her, just to keep her with me,” the nurse told police that Qirngnirq said to her at the time.
Qirngnirq was taken to the community's nursing station and died before he could be airlifted to a hospital. An autopsy showed he died from a gunshot wound to the pelvis and had a blood-alcohol level of .07. The legal driving limit is .08.
Crowe told the inquest that after the shooting he again worried about his safety, and asked staff at the health centre to lock the doors.
"Once they heard a Caucasian male, a police officer ... had shot an Inuit man in the community, I was worried about what knowledge was provided to the community and what might happen as a result of my actions," he said.
They had called for RCMP backup, Crowe said. It arrived six hours later from Iqaluit.
Crowe added that during his career, he has pointed his firearm at least two dozen times on armed individuals, but had never before fired at someone.
And although it is RCMP policy for officers to receive a psychological assessment 72 hours following a critical incident, Crowe said he did not receive one until two months later. He still works in Nunavut.
Cpl. Eric Beaulieu, Gjoa Haven's current RCMP detachment commander, told the inquest he thinks a lack of housing is affecting mental health in the territory.
"I think this is why problems with mental health are caused in the North. People have three or four families crammed in the house. They have to hot rack (share) the beds," Beaulieu said.
Beaulieu called on the Nunavut government to do more to get houses built as quickly as possible.
"In my opinion, the (Nunavut government) can’t keep up with building houses," he said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 6, 2021.
This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.
Emma Tranter, The Canadian Press