Ottawa police chief admits comments posted by officer about Annie Pootoogook were ‘racist’

About 100 people attended the memorial for Pootoogook at St. Paul’s Church on Thursday.

Jorge Barrera
APTN National News
Ottawa Police Chief Charles Bordeleau said comments recently posted online by one of his officers about the death of Inuit artist Annie Pootoogook and Indigenous peoples were “racist.”

Bordeleau said the comments damaged the relationship between the police and the Indigenous community in the city.

“The comments are racist, they don’t reflect the value of the Ottawa police service,” said Bordeleau, during an interview with APTN’s Nation to Nation program which aired Thursday. “They have undone some of the tremendous work that our officers are doing each and every day to build strong relationships with our Indigenous communities.”

The comments were posted by Sgt. Chris Hrnchiar through Facebook in response to an Ottawa Citizen story about Pootoogook’s death. They were posted several days after she was found in the Rideau River on Sept. 19.

Hrnchiar posted that Pootoogook’s death “could be a suicide, accidental, she got drunk and fell in the river and drowned, who knows.” He also wrote that “much of the Aboriginal population in Canada is just satisfied being alcohol or drug abusers.”

Bordeleau said he knows Hrnchiar’s online comments were hurtful and the police chief regretted the officer’s decision to post them.

“I understand the hurt it has caused our community,” he said. “I apologize on behalf of the Ottawa police service that those comments were ever posted.”

Bordeleau said he initiated an investigation into the officer’s comments and ordered them deleted. He is awaiting a report on the investigation from the professional standards section before making any decisions on possible disciplinary action.

During a previous interview with CBC Ottawa, Bordeleau stopped short of calling the comments racist and said racist officers were not working in the police service

During his interview with APTN, which aired Thursday, Bordeleau said the investigation of Pootoogook’s death is a priority for the police. He said investigators have now reviewed hundreds of hours of surveillance tapes and interviewed numerous witnesses to construct an accurate narrative of Pootoogook’s last moments alive.

“They are having some success with that,” he said.

The Inuit community in Ottawa continues to struggle with Pootoogook’s death.

A funeral was held for Pootoogook in Cape Dorset Wednesday and a memorial was held Thursday in a downtown Ottawa church.

Annie Pootoogook's memorial service held in Ottawa on Thursday, Oct. 13, 2016. APTN/Photo
Annie Pootoogook’s memorial service held in Ottawa on Thursday, Oct. 13, 2016. APTN/Photo

About 100 people attended the memorial for Pootoogook at St. Paul’s Church. The majority of the memorial service, which was officiated by Rev. Aigah Attagutsiak, was done in Inuktitut. Even the hymns, like Nearer My God to Thee, were sung in Inuktitut.

The memorial opened with the undulating Inuit drumming of July Papasie.

Papasie said he drummed to celebrate Pootoogook’s life. He said she no longer feels pain.

“She is not going to live in fear and suffer anymore,” said Papasie.

Many of Pootoogook’s friends and relatives spoke during the memorial.

“We are going to deeply miss her,” said Kilatja Simeonie, one of Pootoogook’s cousins. “I’ve been missing her. Last week, I almost asked people if they had seen Annie, then I had to say to myself, she’s not here anymore.”

Mary Akavak said she was one of the last to see Pootoogook alive. She said she was with Pootoogook about two days before she was found in the Rideau River.

“All day we were together and she kept saying thanks and thank you,” said Akavak. “I guess that was her way of saying goodbye.”

Many of those who spoke mentioned that Pootoogook was trying to escape an abusive relationship.

Her partner of eight years William Watt has denied he physically abused Pootoogook. He admitted to striking her once in 2012, an incident for which he was charged. The charge was eventually withdrawn.

July Papasie drums during Annie Pootoogook's memorial service in Ottawa on Thursday, Oct. 13, 2016.
July Papasie drums during Annie Pootoogook’s memorial service in Ottawa on Thursday, Oct. 13, 2016.

In her own address at the memorial Attagutsiak encapsulated what many of Pootoogook’s friends and family believe.

“She seemed to be happy all the time, even though her heart was crying,” said Attagutsiak.

The notes from a lament played by Isaac Woods-Hudson on his bagpipe melded with the crying of Pootoogook’s friends and family at the closing moments of the memorial.

Woods-Hudson, who is Ojibway, said he never met Pootoogook but he was moved by her death and wanted to pay tribute.

“It touched me,” he said.

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