Two Anishnaabe brothers say Ontario police officers threw them to the ground, repeatedly shocked one of them with tasers to the point where he soiled himself, and falsified notes to justify the “illegal assault, detention, and arrest,” a new lawsuit alleges.
Randall May, 57, a member of Nipissing First Nation, and his half-brother Aaron Keeshig, 50, a member of Neyaashiingmiing First Nation, are suing members of Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) and the province over what they say were their unjustified and violent arrests that were rooted in racism.
No one has filed statements of defence yet and none of the allegations have been proven in court.
The arrests, which took place in September 2018 on May’s front lawn in Ramara, a township about two hours north of Toronto, were apparently triggered by reports about an Indigenous man that had fallen off his bicycle earlier that day, according to the lawsuit. CBC first reported on the lawsuit.
A cellphone video taken by a relative inside May’s house and shared with VICE News shows officers repeatedly yelling at the brothers to get on the ground and to stop resisting, despite both May and Keeshig already being on the ground and not visibly fighting back.
The crackle of the tasers and May’s subsequent screams can be heard.
“It’s not fair,” May told VICE News in an interview. “It’s not fair to me and it’s not fair to people … that have to experience that type of brutality. And it needs to be called into question.”
The lawsuit comes after the police killing of George Floyd sparked condemnations of police brutality and systemic racism in the U.S. as well as Canada. Between April and June, at least five people, all of whom were Black, Indigenous, or people of colour were killed by Canadian police during wellness checks. Alberta RCMP also came under fire earlier this summer year after officers tackled and beat a First Nations chief while arresting him over an expired licence plate.
Promise Holmes Skinner and Cory Wanless, lawyers who are representing May and Keeshig, told VICE News in an email that there was “no doubt” in their minds that “race played a major factor in why police decided to approach Aaron and Randy in the first place, as well as the extreme and gratuitous level of violence they then used against them.”
“Randy and Aaron hope that by standing up and fighting for justice, that they can draw attention to the larger issue of police violence against Indigenous peoples in Canada,” they said.
In an email, OPP spokesperson Staff Sgt. Carolle Dionne said the lawsuit prevented the force from “commenting on the details that led to the call for police involvement and the full actions of all the parties involved.”
She added, however, that an investigation into a complaint filed by May to the Office of the Independent Police Review Director (OIPRD), a provincial body that handles civilian complaints about police conduct, “found the allegations unsubstantiated” and that he didn't request a further review.
According to the statement of claim, the brothers were walking their bikes back to May’s home the evening of Sept. 15, 2018. May was already on his front lawn when Orillia OPP Const. Mark Connor allegedly approached him from behind and tried to stop him.
May told VICE News he didn’t think the officer had any reason to detain him.
“I was just going to go home, and that’s when he started pulling on my arm and telling me, you know, to stop resisting and ‘You’re under arrest,’ without telling me what for,” he said.
Connor began pushing May, the lawsuit alleges, and when he backed away, the officer allegedly grabbed him “by the throat and threw him into the bushes, where he landed face first in poison ivy.”
Keeshig arrived at the property and tried to verbally de-escalate the situation, but the lawsuit says Connor pushed him back. The officer then allegedly turned towards May again and began shooting him with a taser gun, even though May was still several feet away in the bushes.
Keeshig told VICE News he feared for his brother’s life but was worried that, if he tried to physically intervene, he would be shot.
When Connor’s backup, Const. Andrew Markle, arrived at the scene, the lawsuit alleges he rushed Keeshig, slammed him into the driveway, and handcuffed him.
Markle then joined Connor in repeatedly tasering and punching May before handcuffing him, too, the lawsuit alleges.
Two additional officers also arrived and “participated in the illegal detention and arrest,” the lawsuit alleges. They are listed as John and Jane Doe because their identities are not known.
The brothers were taken to the Orillia OPP station and held overnight; the lawsuit claims they were denied medical treatment, despite both having “substantial injuries,” and were not given a chance to speak to a lawyer.
Officers also allegedly forced May to spend the night in his soiled underwear and he resorted to trying to wash his clothes with toilet water.
The lawsuit alleges police falsified their notes to justify their conduct, including lying about Keeshig falling off his bike and carrying an open beer when he arrived at May’s property and May being “aggressive and assaultive” towards police.
May was later charged with one count each of assaulting a police officer and resisting arrest. Both he and Keeshig were also charged with being intoxicated in a public place and having liquor in an open container.
The charges against May were later withdrawn. Keeshig received a letter saying his charges had been dismissed but then learned he’d been convicted while not present in court; the conviction was overturned.
May filed a complaint to the OIPRD the same month of the arrests. However, the lawsuit notes that OIPRD complaints aren’t investigated independently, but generally referred back to the same police force named in the complaint.
In this case, that was the OPP Professional Standards Bureau; the lawsuit alleges the officers assigned to the case harassed May and pressured him to drop the complaint, with one allegedly offering to withdraw May’s criminal charges in exchange.
Dionne noted the investigation into May’s OIPRD complaint “found the allegations unsubstantiated” and that May did not request a review.
The brothers are seeking $400,000 in damages as well as declarations that police violated several of their Charter rights, including the right to not be arbitrarily detained or discriminated against based on race.
Both May and Keeshig said their experiences have deepened their distrust of the police.
“I don’t even like saying hello to them,” Keeshig said. “It’s hard for me to be nice and trust them because I don’t, from just the treatment they’ve done to me before.”
May said he was hopeful the lawsuit would motivate the OPP, or others “higher powers that be,” to create change within their ranks.
“I think one of the first rules would be to de-escalate a circumstantial scenario rather than intensify it with brute force and bravado,” he said. “So that would be nice, to make a difference if possible… As soon as this clears up and it’s past us, then it’ll feel like less of a weight on my mind and my self-esteem.”
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