‘Why did my daughter die?’ Mi’kmaw mother demands inquiry into Nova Scotia jail

A Mi’kmaw mother in Eskasoni is demanding answers about why her daughter died in a Nova Scotia jail.

Sarah Denny, 36, a mother of two, was serving a sentence for violating her house arrest.

On March 26, she died at the Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility, a jail for women in Dartmouth, NS, 360 km west of Eskasoni of double pneumonia and fluid around her heart.

“I do want to know what happened,” her mother Kathy told APTN News. “What’s going on there? Why, why did my daughter die? What can what needs to be improved in their services?”

Prior to being sent to jail, Sarah was at her mother’s in Eskasoni under house arrest while serving a six-month sentence for an assault conviction.

During that time, Kathy was diagnosed with terminal cancer – and Sarah had the flu. Kathy said her daughter was concerned about her getting sick so she stayed with her boyfriend.

“She wanted to change her address to over there but her probation officer didn’t let her,” said Kathy. “She kept getting sick and she was afraid to get me sick.”

Sarah was arrested for violating her house arrest conditions.

According to Kathy, her daughter’s condition was worse – and she warned the police.

“I said you guys (police) should be wearing masks Sarah’s not feeling well she might have Covid, or she might be septic,” said Kathy. “She needs to see a doctor.

“The officer told me ‘Okay we’ll take care of that.’”

The last time Kathy spoke with her daughter was on March 21.

“I said did you see the doctor yet? And she goes ‘no not yet.’”

Then on March 26, police would be back at Kathy’s home.

“They knocked on the door I said ‘what’s going on?’ Sarah died, looked at me and Sarah died. I said, ‘What?’”

Sarah Denny
Chase and Kathy in Eskasoni. ‘I remember her telling me that she wants me to be better than her,’ says Chase. Photo: Angel Moore/APTN

Chase is Sarah’s oldest son.

“I remember her telling me that she wants me to be better than her,” he said. “She’s like, ‘Son promise that you’ll be better than me’ I was all right I’ll do my best.”

Irena Whithall is Sarah’s older sister.

“No one should be burying their little sister she’s supposed to be burying us,” said Whithall.

Sarah was part of the Eskasoni Drum Group – and according to her mother, helped her with addictions and mental health.

“We’re going to scream and complain and write letters to everybody who will listen to us.”

‘Extremely long waitlists’ for health care in jail

According to Emma Halpern, executive director of the Elizabeth Fry Society of Mainland Nova Scotia, many women who are in the province’s jails have addictions and mental health issues.

She said their number one complaint is poor access to healthcare.

“There is an extremely long waitlist to get into see healthcare,” she told APTN, “that sometimes their medical concerns are not taken seriously, that they can beg and beg to go to hospital when they feel that they are not well and still they are not sent.”

The Department of Justice has launched an investigation into Denny’s death – an automatic response when a person dies in custody.

The province conducts an internal review and the findings are kept private.

Halpern said that is problematic.

“No one ever learns about what happened and how we can prevent this type of horrific death from happening again,” she said.

Halpern said another issue is that Sarah didn’t belong in jail to begin with.

“You hear that a young mother is inside for breaches of conditions and that’s when she dies, it just really forces the question of, you know, how are we failing Indigenous people so much still after everything that we know, because we know so much better we do know so much better.”

In Eskasoni, Kathy said doctors gave her six months to live – that was two months ago.

She said she’ll fight to the end to find out what happened to Sarah.

“If I pass away next week, next month, it doesn’t matter, I have a large family,” she said. “My family is angry, her friends are angry.

“We want changes and we want an inquiry.”

The province said it can’t comment on Sarah’s death because of privacy laws.

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