Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Woman's pleas for help ignored by RCMP, nurses, say chiefs, family

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RCMP told a woman pleading for help in a jail cell to "sleep it off" and believed she was faking illness -- negligence that eventually resulted in her death, northern chiefs said at a press conference in Winnipeg today.

Tracy Okemow, 31, died in a Winnipeg hospital on Nov. 30.

At the time, RCMP said Okemow had been taken from a home on Nov. 28 after another individual called for assistance. She was taken to the local nursing station, where she received medical care, and was later lodged in a cell under the Intoxicated Persons Detention Act.

The next morning, RCMP said, the woman told an officer she was not feeling well, and she was returned to the nursing station and then flown to Winnipeg, where she died.

Thursday, the Manitoba Keetwatinowi Okimakanak, which represents 30 northern First Nations in Manitoba, and Okemow's family alleged police scolded Okemow to "sleep it off" and told her to stop faking even as she collapsed trying to put on her shoes before being taken from the jail cell in God’s Lake Narrows to a nursing station.

MKO officials released statements from a jail guard and two other community men who were in jail cells next to Okemow and witnessed her treatment, saying the statements are evidence that RCMP and federal nursing staff at the northern nursing station are guilty of negligence in Okemow's death.

Okemow, who MKO described as a single woman with a history of attempting suicide, pleaded for help, but she was ignored by RCMP and nursing station staff for an entire day until it was too late to help her, chiefs and family said.

"My sister called for help and the RCMP ignored her. They should have taken Tracy to the nursing station again. Maybe my sister would be alive today," said Ralph Okemow, Tracy's brother.

Two weeks before Okemow’s death she had been medevaced after a suicide attempt with prescription pills. It was the latest in a series of attempts Okemow made, dating back to the age of 12. Okemow's history of depression was well-known and the authorities should have put her immediately into a hospital not a jail cell, family and leaders said.

"She was manhandled by police in her worst condition," God’s Lake councillor Hubert Watt said. "Not only were her human rights violated but I believe negligence by these officials played a role in her death."

MKO calls for inquiry, inquest

MKO Grand Chief David Harper said Ottawa should be obliged to call an inquiry into the actions of the nurse and two RCMP officers on duty Nov. 29, when an anonymous caller called the detachment for help. The northern chiefs also called for Manitoba’s medical examiner to call in inquest.

Okemow's family, meanwhile, intends to file lawsuits against Health Canada, which staffs nurses at the remote First Nation, as well as the RCMP.

Authorities said last week that the cause of death would be determined pending the results of an autopsy.

The death is being investigated by the RCMP D Division Serious Crime Unit as it’s considered an in-custody matter.

The Brandon Police Service will review the investigation with a local community member, selected by chief and council, who will be acting as an observer in the investigation.

God’s Lake leaders say Okemow's is the second death in a year in the remote community that could have been prevented. A year ago, a two-month old baby, Drianna Ross, died of pneumonia in hospital after nursing station staff initially sent her home with her parents with a package of Tylenol.

God’s Lake is located 550 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 13, 2012 A7


Updated on Thursday, December 13, 2012 at 2:17 PM CST: Adds first emerging details of accusation from press conference.

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