The death of a First Nations man who died by suicide after a family member called the RCMP for help in Williams Lake was a “needless tragedy,” said Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, Union of BC Indian Chiefs (UBCIC).
Phillip was speaking at a joint media conference where the UBCIC and Williams Lake First Nation (WLFN) announced Tuesday, July 19 they are calling for a full public and independent inquiry into the role of the RCMP in the man’s death, beyond an investigation already underway by the Independent Investigations Office BC.
Rojun Alphonse, 36, a member of WLFN, died in his home on Sunday, July 10, hours after a family member made a call at approximately 3:40 a.m. Sunday to RCMP that he was in possession of a weapon and was contemplating self-harm.
Police arrived and established a perimeter around the threeplex in a residential neighbourhood where Alphonse had lived with his wife and children for many years. By mid morning Sunday, the North District Emergency Response Team (ERT) arrived with an armoured vehicle.
A police negotiator spoke over a loudspeaker asking two people in the house to come out with their hands up.
ERT officers deployed several canisters of tear gas into the home through a window they had smashed.
“We are extremely disappointed with how police interactions with Indigenous peoples often result in tragedies like these and we are demanding immediate action and police reform,” Phillip said.
Issues such as these have come forward multiple times in the past, he added.
WLFN Chief Willie Sellars said what should have resulted in a welfare check with properly trained individuals escalated into a “swarm of ERT personnel with automatic weapons, armed vehicles, body armour and tear gas.”
He said it was in the midst of the police ‘violence’ that Alphonse took his life.
“We are all in shock and mourning. When is it common practice that an ERT team is deployed to a situation where a person is threatening suicide?”
Sellars said the situation was escalated by social media presence of onlookers and “immediately branded as a gang situation and treated as such.”
As they await further details of the incident, Sellars said they are asking if the incident had involved a non-Indigenous person would the police response have been the same.
“This is not just an Indigenous issue. This is a issue for all Canadians,” he said, noting the incident has impacted the community’s confidence in the system. “We are sitting here today in union with the family and the UBCIC because everyone deserves justice.”
Struggling to speak through her tears and sobs, Alphonse’s widow June North said her husband was a dedicated family man who will be missed.
“We call for justice on how our RCMP have followed through on this call when our daughter was still home and still had gas-bombed our family home.”
North described how her daughter exited the home and was taken away in a police car and questioned without a family member present.
“We are very lucky our daughter was not harmed,” she said. “The fear of the RCMP will always be there for our daughter and us all.”
Hazel and Gregory Alphonse spoke about their son and how his death has impacted them.
“Just imagine yourself with all the cops around you and with all the rifles that they had. Just imagine my son was scared. I keep putting myself in Rojun’s home, me being there with my daughter,” Hazel said. “We know our son. He wasn’t a dangerous man. He was a loving person.”
Legal counsel for UBCIC Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, joined the conference by telephone.
She said the tragedy has “laid bare” serious concern for public safety in community and in particular when a person has a crisis.
“When families call for support, they need support. Culturally, safe support. They don’t need tear gas and escalation and police emergency response coming to cause so much distress that an individual acts in a way in response to that situation and harms themself in this tragic way,” she said. “It seems very much to us that this was preventable and should not have occurred.”
Sellars said they want the request upheld and will be looking for a response from the government in the coming days.
When contacted by Black Press Media, Williams Lake RCMP Acting Insp. Darren Dodge said they could not provide further comment as the matter is under investigation by the IIO.