Romeo Wesley (34), of Cat Lake First Nation, died after being pepper sprayed, beaten, handcuffed, and stepped on by two police officers in his community’s nursing station in 2010. On July 20, 2017 the coroner’s inquest into his killing by police was released and concluded incredibly that his death was accidental. Now for most reasonable people if a civilian pepper sprayed, beat, restrained, and stepped on someone and they died it would not be viewed as an accident. Death would be recognized as a probability outcome of those actions being inflicted on someone.
Wesley had gone to the nursing station, in the community 400 kilometers north of Thunder Bay, concerned about shortness of breath and looking for help. A nurse there viewed his behavior as erratic (one would think acting erratically is not atypical for someone in medical distress) and called Nishawbe-Aski police.
The two officers who arrived pepper sprayed Wesley, tackled him onto the floor, beat him with a baton, and handcuffed his hands behind him. With police forcing him face down on the floor and with their boots on his head, neck, and back, Wesley stopped breathing. The inquest determined this to be an accident but we might reasonable ask if he would have died in the absence of this police assault.
None of the medical staff at the nursing station, including the doctor and nurses, did anything to help Wesley, perhaps fearful of police response if they tried. They only checked on him after he stopped breathing.
The coroner’s inquest, in a manner not unique in cases of police killing civilians, decided to blame the victim in their ruling. They found the cause of Wesley’s death to be “struggle and restraint (chest compression, prone positioning, handcuffing) as well as agitation and trauma (pain)….with acute alcohol withdrawal/delirium tremens.” Restraint, agitation, and trauma are all directly attributable to actions taken by the police officers. These were not accidents.
The jury made 53 recommendations. Some of them highlight systemic racism within government services in Indigenous communities (without actually naming racism). They include:
Cultural training courses for nurses before being placed in an Indigenous community.
Hiring medical staff and police officers who speak the language of the communities they serve.
Developing a protocol for police interventions in medical facilities within Indigenous communities.
Designating Nishnawbe-Aski Police Services as a police force under the Police Services Act in Ontario and thus providing for some civilian oversight.
By all accounts Romeo Wesley was a beloved member of the community and is missed by many. The community was hoping for much more from this inquiry.