The Death of Debra Chrisjohn: Racism and Police Violence Against Indigenous Women

Nearly a year after the death of Debra Chrisjohn in police custody, and even after the filing of charges against police officers responsible, Constable Mark McKillop of the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) and Constable Nicholas Doering of the London Police Service, many issues remain unaddressed and unanswered about police actions in her arrest, detention, and death. Beyond the specific actions undertaken by police, the circumstances of Chrisjohn’s death raise issues of police racism and violence against Indigenous people and communities.

Debra Chrisjohn (39) of the Oneida Nation of the Thames was arrested on September 7, 2016. The Special Investigations Unit (SIU), the agency that examines cases of police harm to civilians in Ontario, announced on July 13, 2017, that constables McKillop and Doeriing have been charged with one count each of criminal negligence causing death and failing to provide the necessaries of life. Both had contact with Chrsijohn on the day she died. The family has received few facts about the death of their loved one beyond this.

The family wants to know why the officers did not seek medical attention for their loved one when it became apparent that she needed help. Debra Chrisjohn’s father Robert Chrisjohn, asks: “Why didn’t the police take her to the hospital sooner when they knew she was sick and needed help? The police arrested her and were responsible for making sure she was okay. This happens way too often in our community. This happens all the time. The police just don’t seem to care” (quoted in McQuigge 2017)

Caitlyn Kasper, of Toronto’s Aboriginal Legal Services, claims that police had enough information available to deal with Debra Chrisjohn’s case in a different way. For example, police knew that Chrisjohn had a documented history of both substance abuse and mental illness. At the time of her arrest and detention on September 7, 2017, there were clear indications that Chrisjohn was in need of medical attention, not time in police custody

The family and community advocates insist that any discussion related to the actions of these officers in this case must address the troubling behaviors of police forces across Canada in dealing with Indigenous communities. This is, of course, an ongoing history of colonial violence and brutality. In the words of Caitlyn Kasper: “What happened to Debra is not an isolated incident. It is very obvious that it isn’t these types of issues just in London or the Oneida First Nation. It’s a concern we hear about in Toronto, all across Ontario and all across Canada” (quoted in McQuigge 2017)

.According to Kasper, the case against the officers must focus on what she terms the “foundational relationship” between police and Indigenous people across the Canadian state (McQuigge 2017). Kasper notes the ongoing questions of police responsibility in cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women, Many believe that police have been purposefully negligent in investigating those cases. Others suggest that police are themselves involved in the killings and disappearances of Indigenous women. Samantha Doxtator, a friend of the victim, has stitched together traditional moccasin vamps to commemorate Debra Chrisjohn and is sending them to be included in an art installation in memory of missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada and the United States.

Giselle Dias, an area psychotherapist who has spent 25 years working for prisoners’ rights, insists it be acknowledged that Indigenous and marginalized communities are most impacted by the criminal justice system in Canada. She agrees that Chrisjohn’s death points fundamentally to the a systemic issue of over-policing and mistreatment within racialized communities (Ghonaim 2017). And she is rightly not optimistic about the court process offering any redress. In her words: “Just because these police officers have been charged, it doesn’t mean that they’re going to be found guilty. I will not rest assured” (quoted in Ghonaim 2017).

In case after case this truth remains. The system protects itself and that includes protecting killer cops.

 

Further Reading

Ghonaim, Hala. 2017. “Family of Indigenous Woman Who Died in Police Custody Seeks Answers and Justice.” CBC News. July 13. http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/london/family-of-indigenous-woman-who-died-in-police-custody-wants-justice-1.4204624

McQuigge, Michelle. 2017. “Charges Point to Police-Indigenous Tensions.” Sudbury Star. July 15. http://www.thesudburystar.com/2017/07/15/charges-point-to-police-indigenous-tensions

 

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