Deaths of two First Nations involving police spark sorrow, anger in Timmins

“It’s very troubling,”said Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation.

The weekend police killing of a young man and the death of an ailing older woman after her arrest has sparked grief and anger among Indigenous people in Timmins, Ont., a northern city that is a hub for many First Nations activities.

Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, which represents nearly 50 Indigenous communities in northern Ontario, expressed concern over the incidents but said it would be “premature” to make any assumptions about the deaths of two people from the same remote First Nation community north of the city.

“It’s very troubling,” Fiddler said Wednesday in a brief interview from Timmins. “The families have a lot of questions.”

Timmins Mayor Steve Black urged calm pending the outcome of investigations into the deaths. He stressed the police shooting was a rare event in the city, perhaps the first in decades.

“At a time like this, obviously, there’s a lot of sadness, a lot of mourning and a lot of frustration in the community,” Black told The Canadian Press from his office.

In the first incident, police shot and killed Joey Knapaysweet, 21, on Saturday. Details are scant but the province’s Special Investigations Unit said officers responded mid-morning to the Emergency Medical Services building and a man fled.

“There was an interaction between the man and officers and one of the officers discharged a firearm,” the unit said in a statement. “The man was struck. He was taken to hospital where he was later pronounced dead.”

The death of Agnes Sutherland, 62, also on the weekend, occurred after she had sought help at the Timmins District Hospital. According to the investigations unit, Sutherland was asked to leave the facility and did so by taxi.

However, she was arrested after allegedly causing a disturbance at a shelter. Police took her to the station and put her in a cell, the unit said in a statement. The same evening, officers called for an ambulance to take her to hospital, where she was pronounced dead on Sunday.

Knapaysweet and Sutherland were from the remote James Bay community of Fort Albany _ more than an hour’s flight from Timmins _ where funerals for both were to take place.

Relatives were not immediately available to talk about the deaths. However, Sutherland’s son, Glen Sutherland, told the Timmins Daily Press he was frustrated doctors allowed his “mentally unstable” mother, a survivor of the notorious St. Anne’s residential school who needed a wheelchair to get around, to refuse dialysis treatments for her failing kidneys.

“We’ve been trying to get her help by a psychiatrist,” Sutherland told the local newspaper. “We just didn’t know what to do, how to help our mom. We tried the best we can, whatever we knew how.”

Her frequent trips to the emergency room were a cry for help, he said, adding he couldn’t understand why doctors and police officers, who he said knew his mother by name, weren’t able to see the signs and get her help.

Black, who knows some of Knapaysweet’s family personally, attended a vigil in the city for the young man on Tuesday afternoon which reportedly drew about 100 people, some weeping, while others hugged and comforted one another. They stood in a circle around a bouquet of red roses, candles and photographs of Knapaysweet.

Timmins hosts many First Nations events and Black said relations between the Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities, unlike in some other northern centres, were generally positive. However, the mayor acknowledged the recent incidents had increased racial tensions and the focus had to now be on rebuilding frayed trust.

“I don’t believe there’s room for racism in any community,” Black said. “If changes need to be made or things need to be done to improve those relationships, we’re definitely willing to work with our partners on improving those relationships.”

Knapaysweet’s funeral is to be held in Fort Albany on Saturday. He is survived by his parents. Details of a funeral for Sutherland, a mother of six with six great grandchildren, were not immediately available. However, the service will also take place in her native Fort Albany.

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