Police under investigation following the deaths of two Indigenous people in Ontario town

The Ontario Special Investigations Unit is looking into the deaths in Timmins as the mayor calls for calm.

Residents of Timmins, Ontario, are dealing with grief, anger and questions after two Indigenous people died during interactions with police over the weekend.

Joey Knapaysweet, a 21-year-old man was shot dead by police near Gilles Lake on Saturday, and Agnes Sutherland, a 62-year-old woman, died in hospital on Sunday after being detained in a jail cell. Both were part of the Fort Albany First Nation.

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The cases are now under investigation by Ontario’s Special Investigations Unit (SIU), a civilian agency that has the power to examine and charge police officers with a criminal offence. Meanwhile, the city’s mayor is asking that residents focus on healing and reserve judgement until the investigation is complete.

Officials are keeping quiet about the details of the deaths while they are under investigation, but the SIU has revealed the basic outlines of the interactions between both citizens and police.

'CRY FOR HELP'

In the first incident, officers responded to the Cochrane District Emergency Medical Service building on Saturday to “deal with a man.” “There was an interaction between the man and officers and one of the officers discharged a firearm,” says the SIU statement. “The man was struck. He was taken to hospital where he was later pronounced dead.”

In the second incident on Saturday, police were called to Timmins District Hospital to “investigate a woman.” The woman was asked to leave the hospital at 2:45 pm and did so in a taxi. She was later arrested for allegedly causing a disturbance at a shelter and was brought to the police station where she was held in a cell. At approximately 10:00 pm, an ambulance was called and she was taken to the hospital where she was pronounced dead the following day.

Sutherland’s son, Glen Sutherland, told the Timmins Daily Press that his mother was wheelchair-bound and suffered from undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder after spending time in St. Anne’s residential school, which operated in Fort Albany until 1964. Survivors of the school describe being punished through electrocution in a homemade electric chair and being forced to eat their own vomit.

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Sutherland told the local paper his mother’s frequent visits to the hospital were a “cry for help,” and he struggled to understand why doctors and police who were familiar with his mother weren’t able to get her the help she needed.

Timmins Mayor Steve Black addressed the deaths at Tuesday’s city council meeting, saying “it would be inappropriate not to make comments” about what “transpired over the weekend.”

He also encouraged residents to be thoughtful about how they respond to the incidents. “I would encourage our community to please refrain from some of the comments that are being made towards the individual and the family that are not appropriate and racist in some regard in social media circles and definitely inappropriate for a time like this," Black said. He also suggested that criticism of the police be withheld until the SIU completed its investigations.

'BLACK CLOUD'

Timmins and the James Bay Region are already under a state of emergency due to increased levels of drugs and alcohol coming into the area. The Mushkegowuk Council, which represents local Indigenous communities, is holding an emergency summit this week to address the problem.

“There’s a black cloud hanging over the city of Timmins,” said Jonathan Solomon, Grand Chief of Mushkegowuk Council, at the emergency summit on Tuesday in reference to the deaths over the weekend. But Solomon told CBC he was optimistic that all three levels of government, police and health partners could work together to find a solution to the region’s drug and alcohol problems.

In the meantime, ceremonies will be held to help community members deal with the deaths of Knapaysweet and Sutherland. Peetabeck Health Services is offering counselling, a sacred fire and a sweat lodge ceremony in Fort Albany for those affected by the deaths.

The SIU is also urging anyone with information about the investigations to contact the lead investigator or submit video evidence to the SIU website.

Knapaysweet is survived by his parents. Sutherland leaves behind six children, 16 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.