Romeo Wesley lies face-down on the floor with his hands cuffed behind his back. Two police officers, one shirtless, stand over him. Each have a foot on his back, applying pressure to his chest. Wesley’s legs kick up in the air.
A doctor enters the room and leaves without intervening. A staff member mops the floor around Wesley, cleaning up the blood from his arm, which he injured moments earlier when he punched through a glass window.
It took eight minutes after he stopped kicking for a doctor to check his vitals and perform CPR.
Minutes later, on September 9, 2010, the 34-year-old, was dead on the floor of the Cat Lake First Nation nursing station, run by the federal government.
His final moments are captured in a 30-minute video that was played this week during an inquest into his death that is being held in the remote community in northwestern Ontario.
It shows Nishnawbe Aski police officers pepper spraying Wesley, beating him with a baton, handcuffing him and then holding him down by stepping on his back. It took eight minutes after he stopped kicking for a doctor to check his vitals and perform CPR.
According to an autopsy report, the cause of death was: “chest compression and prone positional restraint in a man with acute alcohol withdrawal.” But his death may have been preventable, according to Dr. Anthon Meyer, who penned an expert report in 2016 examining the circumstances around his death. Wesley’s arm injury was not life threatening.
WARNING: video contains graphic material
VICE News obtained the video after the coroner overseeing the proceedings denied a bid by the Ontario coroner’s counsel to keep it from public view. Most of Wesley’s family wanted the video made public, a family representative told VICE News.
“I don’t think anyone knows what’s going on here,” Abigail Wesley, Romeo’s first cousin and a health care worker with the elderly, said in an interview. “It has to be known that this is happening.”
“There’s a lot of anger and a lot of disbelief that this is what actually happened in our own community, in our own nursing station — a place you go seek medical attention when you’re sick,” Abigail said. “He died in the hands of professionals.”
She said her family is scared to go back to the nursing station today. “The broken window’s still there seven years later. There’s no changes.”
“There’s a lot of anger and a lot of disbelief that this is what actually happened in our own community, in our own nursing station.”
This is the first time a coroner’s inquest is being held in a fly-in First Nation, and is due to the community’s push for it to be held where Wesley lived and died, instead of nearby Sioux Lookout.
Romeo Wesley had problems with substance abuse. In the lead up to his death, Wesley spent three weeks in Sioux Lookout, where he had at least six alcohol-related interactions with police, according to a coroner’s brief.
He reported to the nursing station in Cat Lake four times over two days, complaining of various problems. On his final visit the night of September 9, he arrived at the nursing station in a panicked state, saying he had used cannabis and oxycodone and believed he would die.
When the man became upset, a nurse called police. Wesley then became violent and punched a security guard in the hallway. The guard ran into the waiting room and closed the door, confining Wesley in the hallway. Wesley then punched the glass window in the door, cutting his arm. That’s when police arrived.
Jurors, lawyers and police were all flown in this week and will be staying in the community. The three-week inquest will examine the causes of Wesley’s death, and make recommendations on how similar tragedies can be prevented in the future.
Next week, the nurses, doctor and police who were there that night are expected to testify.
The issues surrounding Wesley’s death are sadly common in northern Ontario First Nations.
A report prepared by the Auditor General of Canada, released in 2015, found “numerous deficiencies” when it comes to healthcare for First Nations in Manitoba and Ontario. The report found that just one of the 45 nurses in the audit’s sample had completed all their mandatory training and that numerous nursing stations weren’t up to building or health codes. Meyer’s 2016 report further found that the Sioux Lookout Zone where Wesley died lacked adequate support for substance abuse and mental health services, calling the situation “an environment of despair.”
“Unfortunately, this is a world out of sight and out of mind.”
“Overcoming these deficiencies in First Nations health services will require nothing less than a transformation of healthcare, from a system that is essentially reactive — responding mainly when a person is sick — to one that is proactive and focused on keeping a person as healthy as possible,” Meyer wrote.
He concluded: “Unfortunately, this is a world out of sight and out of mind.”
Coroner’s inquests are similar to trials in that they hear from witnesses and experts and then make recommendations that can prevent future deaths. An inquest into the deaths of seven First Nations students in Thunder Bay, for example, resulted in 145 recommendations, including better funding for schools in First Nations communities and that police tackle racism.
Seven years later, Wesley’s family is looking for closure and healing.
Abigail wants to build the relationship again between the community and their healthcare workers so people won’t be scared to go to the nursing station.
“My hope is a better working relationship in every little reserve.”