The official narrative of what happened to Will Ahmo — an Indigenous inmate at Headingley Correctional Centre — and how he ended up in a Winnipeg hospital on life support with brain and spinal injuries, is virtually non-existent.
At 7 p.m. on Feb. 7, the RCMP received a report of an "unresponsive male" at the jail resulting from an "incident" with guards. The nature of the incident was "not clear," the police said, and the inmate was taken to hospital with "life-threatening injuries."
A week later, Ahmo — a 45-year-old father of Anishinaabe heritage — was dead. He is one of six inmates to die at correctional institutions in Manitoba in 2021 alone, an average of more than one dead inmate per month.
The RCMP’s major crimes unit quickly took over the case. When contacted this week, an RCMP spokeswoman said the agency would not release additional details until its investigation was complete.
Meanwhile, Manitoba Justice said in a written statement that it recognizes the seriousness of "any death in custody," and that there would be an internal review. Citing the RCMP probe, the province declined further comment.
But according to Corey Shefman — a human-rights attorney working with the Ahmo family — the disturbing details will eventually come to light.
"There is absolutely no way the Ahmo family is going to sit back and let this get swept under the rug," he told the Free Press.
According to Shefman, who got involved with the case shortly after Ahmo died in hospital on Feb. 14, the altercation that led to his death began when a guard at the Headingley jail refused to stop making "racist jokes" in front of inmates.
In Manitoba, roughly 75 per cent of all people locked up in provincial and federal correctional institutions are Indigenous. Meanwhile, 70 per cent of them — including Ahmo prior to his death — are on remand, meaning they have not been convicted of the crime they’re accused of committing.
The guard’s racist comments, Shefman said, led to an argument with Ahmo, which escalated into an hours-long standoff between the inmate and jail staff. The details of how the situation escalated aren't clear, but eventually, the serious incident response team was called into the unit.
Ahmo was unarmed, Shefman said.
"Our understanding is the serious incident response team came into the unit in full tactical gear and threw stun grenades. We’ve heard there were gas canisters used. This is just on Will. This wasn’t a riot. There was no one else there," Shefman said.
"They beat him to death."
While Shefman says the family’s investigation into the circumstances surrounding Ahmo’s death is ongoing, their understanding is the confrontation happened in front of numerous eyewitnesses and in full view of video surveillance cameras.
The case has sparked calls for an independent investigation and demands for a public inquiry into a spate of Indigenous deaths behind bars in Manitoba. It also touches upon deep-seated problems that have long plagued Manitoba’s prisons and jails, including the over-incarceration of Indigenous people, the high percentage of inmates locked up in pre-trial detention and the lack of transparency under which correctional facilities operate.
From 2005 to 2016, there were at least 14 inmate deaths in Manitoba jails — a figure that does not include the deaths of inmates at Stony Mountain Institution, a federal penitentiary.
The Fatality Inquiries Act requires the chief medical examiner to provide an annual statistical review of its caseload for the minister of justice. Those reports are eventually made public, but only after they have been tabled in the Manitoba legislature.
When reached for comment Tuesday, a spokesman for the chief medical examiner said the latest report available is for 2017, and that the report for 2018 "may be available in the near future," indicating the justice minister has not tabled such reports for the past three years.
Michelle Gawronsky, the president of the Manitoba Government and General Employees' Union, which represents guards in provincial correctional institutions, said in a written statement that she sends her condolences to the Ahmo family, adding that she is unaware of "the outcomes of the investigations that have been initiated."
"We look forward to learning about their findings and would ask anyone paying attention to this incident to please suspend their judgment until the investigations are concluded and the findings made public," Gawronsky said.
"Correctional officers work in a volatile and often dangerous environment, and situations can escalate quickly. Officers often must make quick decisions to protect their safety and the safety of their fellow officers and other inmates."
Ahmo had a lengthy criminal history stretching back two decades, but he was also well-known and respected among Indigenous communities in Winnipeg. He was in custody while awaiting a court date at the time of his death.
Shefman claims the "level of violence and aggression" used against him by guards was "utterly disproportionate" to any threat he could have posed.
"I’ve never heard of anything like this in Manitoba before…. This was a team of heavily armed guards against one unarmed inmate. This is as extreme of a situation as I’ve ever heard," he said.
"We’re watching the RCMP investigation with great interest…. We would like to see charges. In our view, there’s no possible justification for the amount of force that was used on Will."
Grand Chief Jerry Daniels of the Southern Chiefs Organization has called for a public inquiry into Ahmo’s death, as well as the death of Dwayne Simard, an inmate who died at Stony Mountain on March 1. Both men were members of Sagkeeng First Nation.
Daniels told the Free Press that he would like to see video surveillance of the confrontation between the guards and Ahmo made public. He would also like the results of the autopsy report to be released.
"The gap is widening in terms of First Nations being involved in the justice system… and these are the outcomes that we’re seeing. We’re seeing our people being hurt and being the victims of these institutions," Daniels said.
"What we want to do is bring out the details…. These are institutions that are publicly funded and the footage there should be made public."
Shefman said that regardless of the outcome of the RCMP probe, he expects other court proceedings in this case. He believes Ahmo's family will file a wrongful-death lawsuit against the provincial government and also expects an inquest to be called.
Due to a 2017 change ushered in by the Pallister government, inquests are no longer mandatory for deaths behind bars, but Shefman said if one is not called, the family would use every legal recourse at its disposal to force one.
Shefman also stressed that the case must be understood in the wider context of systemic racism in the Canadian criminal-justice system.
"I don’t think you can separate what happened to Will from the fact he was an Anishinaabe man…. The violence against Indigenous people in Winnipeg, in Manitoba and particularly in the Manitoba criminal-justice system, is rampant," he said.
"We believe quite firmly that racism — both systemic racism and directed, acute racism — contributed to Will’s death."
Ryan Thorpe likes the pace of daily news, the feeling of a broadsheet in his hands and the stress of never-ending deadlines hanging over his head.