The 2020 death of a 44-year-old Inuk man at Montreal’s Bordeaux jail might have been prevented had the proper procedures been followed according to a coroner’s report obtained by APTN News.
“It makes me feel like people don’t care, and it makes me feel like ‘oh, are our lives just nothing,’” said Annie Hickey Kenuajuak, whose brother Bobby Kenuajuak died in jail on July 11, 2020, after being picked up by police for “aggressive and disorganized” behaviour in a Montreal business.
The coroner’s report concluded that Kenuajuak likely died of a severely irregular heartbeat exasperated by alcohol withdrawal.
The report criticizes guards and management for not immediately bringing Kenuajuak to the infirmary when his symptoms included heavy perspiration, shortness of breath, and a state of confusion.
It also notes guards left Kenuajuak on the floor of his cell for more than 11 hours without checking on him because “inmates frequently sleep on the floor during heat waves.”
Coroner Karine Spènard wrote that leaving a detainee on the floor for so long when they have already shown signs of physical duress is counter to a directive that states “… the role of correctional services officers is, in particular, to ensure that inmates are alive and healthy…”
“I think it’s not fair, like he needed help and support. Like he wasn’t a bad guy, he struggled and everything, but he wasn’t a bad guy,” said Annie Hickey Kenuajuak.
Annie describes Bobby as soft-spoken and genuine, as someone who was proud to be Inuit.
“Like when we were younger, his film was a really big deal.”
At the age of 23, Bobby Kenujuak won a National Film Board (NFB) contest for Indigenous filmmakers and directed the 1999 documentary My village in Nunavik. An homage to his hometown of Puvirnituq, the film shows a side of the Inuit community located 1,600 km northwest of Montreal that few ever see.
“When you hear about us in the south, it is often through stories of disaster and human suffering,” said Kenuajuak in the Inuktitut voiceover of the film. “While this does exist, there is far more, a kind of joy we take from being together.”
After watching a scene towards the end of the film where the community gets together for a dance at the gymnasium, a smile breaks through on Annie’s face.
“Each community, there’s a least a few really skilled accordion players,” she observed. “Bobby was one of them.”
It’s important to Annie for people to know that Bobby wasn’t just someone who struggled with addiction and being unhoused.
She has also chosen to speak out following another recent death at the same jail on Dec. 24 where Nicous D’Andre Spring, 21, died after guards pepper-sprayed him twice while he was wearing a spit hood, a kind of mesh mask that is used to prevent biting and spitting.
In Spring’s case, Quebec’s head coroner has called a public inquiry.
But if Annie’s experience is any indication, people looking for answers might be waiting a while. It took Annie more than two years to get basic answers to the circumstances behind her brother’s death. She said during that time only vague details were relayed to her by email by a Bordeaux jail probation officer because the death was under investigation.
“I wanted details, like what happened to him and she [Bordeaux probation officer] was able to confirm to me that it wasn’t suicide. So like, okay, it’s not suicide, but there’s like all these other things, like what could it be? Was it a murder? Did someone hurt him or something, I asked, was he alone?
“She said he was alone. It was just hard to get a straight answer,” Annie said.
It wasn’t until Annie received the coroner report in October of 2022 that she finally knew what happened to Bobby back in July of 2020.
“I was relieved to finally find out the truth and everything, but at the same time I was really hurt by the negligence of the staff and how little repercussion happened,” said Annie.
The coroner report, released to the public less than three months before Spring’s death, noted that Quebec’s Public Security internal investigations division “recommended that the establishment [Bordeaux] remind the officers of the correctional services their supervision obligations as well as taking the necessary measures appropriate to the agent on duty during the night of July 11, 2020.
“The division also has recommended that the head of the unit be reminded of his obligations as a manager.”
Quebec’s Ministry of Public Security did not make anyone available for an interview nor did they provide a statement to APTN News.
But other experts are starting to question what is going on at Bordeaux.
“I question the training, what the procedures are, the note-taking,” said Michael Arruda, who worked as a Montreal police officer for 25 years and is now a consultant in crisis interventions.
Arruda said that it’s too soon to make a direct link between the Spring and Kenuajuak cases, but they nevertheless point to issues that need addressing.
“I’m also concerned about the supervision, in both of these cases there was a supervisor, management, that was at the scene and took some decisions and I’m wondering, are they qualified? What are the training for these supervisors, when they’re in the middle of this, when they’re supposed to be guiding the agents?” said Arruda.
Annie felt her brother’s case has one thing in common with Spring’s, they both show a lack of care and respect by the guards for their own procedures and protocols.
“Like, who are these people? They’re looking at someone and saying, ‘like it doesn’t matter, I’m not going to do this job,’” said Annie.
Toward the end of her interview, Annie watched parts of My Village in Nunavik on the NFB website. Having grown up in Newfoundland and Labrador, Annie said she has fond memories of visiting Bobby in Puvirnituq in the Summer.
“He really did love his community, when I went there for a festival, he was so proud, he was so happy, he showed me all around,” said Annie who currently lives near Montreal. “He showed me where my uncle lives and where my cousins live, and he was just so welcoming. Watching it makes me want to go back,” she said before pausing.
“I’ll definitely visit his grave when I return to Puvirnituq again.”