Thu Apr 30, 7:35 PM
By Michael Oliveira, The Canadian Press
TORONTO - The excruciating deaths of two aboriginal men arrested for public intoxication marked another dark chapter in Canada's shameful history of neglecting First Nations people and must never be repeated, a jury was told Thursday at the inquest into a jailhouse fire at an isolated northern Ontario reserve.
Final submissions were being heard at the probe into the deaths of Ricardo Wesley, 22, and Jamie Goodwin, 20, in Kashechewan, a community of some 1,700 people linked to the outside world only by an ice road in the winter and by plane the rest of the year.
The jury previously heard the January 2006 fire quickly tore through the reserve's ramshackle police station, which lacked a working smoke detector, fire extinguisher and sprinkler. Police tried to free the two men before the building was engulfed in flames but could not unlock their cells and had to flee, leaving them to die.
For years, reports were written and correspondence was sent by the local police and leadership asking that improvements be made to the jail, but the requests were never granted, court heard.
"Canada's shame is in its treatment of its First Nations people, and that shame is not just part of our history, it's part of our present," said Julian Roy, a lawyer for the Wesley family.
He said the jail's inadequate facilities reflect the "ugly truths" about how little the provincial and federal governments have done for the isolated community, despite repeated warnings that living conditions couldn't be much worse.
The community has been plagued by problems with water quality, which prompted an evacuation in 2005, and the population has been evacuated another four times since 2005 because of spring flooding.
"Kashechewan is one of the most impoverished places in this country, it's not a secret," Roy said.
"The ugly truth is those cells were not out of place in that community. The conditions in those cells were Third World because the conditions in the community were Third World."
Lawyer Dan Newton, who represents the Goodwin family, said it's unfortunate the tragedy had to occur before the governments were taken to task.
"It should not take a death," Newton said, adding the evidence suggests both men would have been conscious for a good part of the ordeal in the burning building, knowing no help was coming.
"No one, absolutely no one, should ever have to die in those circumstances."
Court heard the fire originated in Wesley's cell, and a flammable mattress was likely lit with matches that he had, even though he was searched by police.
Those details are more examples of how preventable the deaths were, Roy said.
"These things are all obvious now," he said. "The problem is they were all obvious then too. This wasn't rocket science - these things were all known."
But government lawyers pointed to the ineffective search and inappropriate mattress as factors that were within the local police's control and out of government jurisdiction.
Fire-retardant mattresses and blankets were available to the community but the police officers didn't know who should order them, said lawyer Nanette Rosen, representing the federal government.
She urged the jury to resist the temptation to "find a villain" to blame while acknowledging that funding for policing was slow to flow, though it increased from about $14.5 million in 2003-04 to $23 million in 2008-09.
"The funding absolutely took a few years," she said.
"I would submit that your government, Canada, can do better. There is a serious gap with respect to fire inspections of police detachments on First Nation reserves."
While no one "who's sensible or reasonable" would defend the conditions at the jail, the inquest's mandate is limited and is not meant to address all the problems in Kashechewan, lawyer Ken Hogg, who represented the Ontario Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services, told the jury.
"Your role is not to respond to every challenge facing Kashechewan today, no matter how deserving that need may be," he said.
"I'm not trying to diminish the seriousness or importance of those issues, but I'm suggesting to you that there is a scope to this inquest. ... This isn't a royal commission, it's not a public inquiry."
The jury is tasked with providing recommendations on how to prevent similar tragedies and is expected to do so on May 8.
The final submissions will wrap up Friday, to be followed by an address to the jury by coroner Dr. David Eden.