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Waiting too long for answers

Inquest into 2008 police shooting still hasn't begun

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 3/12/2015 (627 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Justice delayed is supposed to mean justice denied, but of course that depends on what you mean by justice.

On Aug. 2, 2008, Craig Vincent McDougall, a 26-year-old Oji-Cree man, was shot four times by police as he stood on one side of a low, front-yard fence outside his family's Simcoe Street home, and police stood on the other. McDougall was reportedly intoxicated and distraught at the time, and the girlfriend he had been speaking with on his cellphone just before it happened has said she heard police shouting at him to drop a knife.

Craig McDougall’s father, Brian McDougall (centre), is comforted by family members in 2008.

WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Craig McDougall’s father, Brian McDougall (centre), is comforted by family members in 2008.

Craig Vincent McDougall

Craig Vincent McDougall

Not exactly a whodunit or a complicated case on the face of it.

Yet, it took the Winnipeg Police Service a full two years and three months to turn its investigation over to the Ontario Provincial Police to be reviewed. It would be another three years before the police officers involved would be cleared of any criminal responsibility in the shooting, and the mandatory inquest was called. But, more than seven years after McDougall died, the inquest hasn't started.

By contrast, there have been four other Winnipeg police-involved deaths since McDougall died and, in all four cases, those inquests have already been completed. And the inquest into the death of Brian Sinclair -- who died a month after McDougall and was a much more complicated file -- is not only long over, the 200-page, 63-recommendation report was released a year ago.

But there is some added context and history to the McDougall case. His uncle was John Joseph Harper, whose own shooting death during a street encounter with a police officer 20 years earlier was the catalyst of the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry. That exhaustive public process was supposed to lead to the kind of police and justice-system reforms that would help prevent these kinds of incidents from happening again. And again.

So why hasn't the McDougall inquest started?

The last two years of this seven-years-and-counting legal quagmire are the result of procedural concerns brought by Corey Shefman, the McDougall family lawyer who is handling the case pro bono. But it's those initial five years it took for the inquest to be called that form the most puzzling part of the case's troubling timeline.

Brian McDougall, Craig's father, has been left in the dark since the death of his son that early summer morning. And, because of the protracted investigation and inquest process, that darkness has never lifted.

The police portion of the case had most of its principal witnesses interviewed the day it happened, according to Shefman. And the forensics were done in three months.

Why, then, did it take so long to conclude the investigation?

"We will not be providing comment on this matter," was the non-answer answer the police service provided last month.

And then there is the other end of that troubling five-year timeline; what happened -- and what didn't -- when it reached the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. Because even after chief medical officer Dr. Thambirajah Balachandra was finally informed there would be no criminal charges brought against the officers involved, and promptly instructed his staff to launch the inquest process, it would take seven months for his staff to do as he asked. By the time they complied, it had been five years and six days since Craig McDougall had died.

I asked Balachandra why it took seven months.

Balachandra, on a sabbatical when I reached him last month, didn't recall the case.

"I have to check on it," he said.

Later that same day, he called back.

"Somehow, the file got entangled somewhere," Balachandra said.

He didn't explain how it happened, or who was responsible. Instead he took the full blame himself.

"The buck stops with me," he said. "I should have been more careful."

In an almost unheard of addendum, Balachandra went on to express gratitude for having the delay brought to his attention and vowed he would study all similar cases over the last 10 years.

"We could have been more efficient," he said. "So we will try to be more efficient."

The creation of the Independent Investigation Unit of Manitoba, a recommendation of the AJI that took more than two decades to happen, should streamline the process of investigating police-related shootings because it removes the lengthy outside review elements. But it doesn't address what the McDougall family, and for that matter the police officers involved, have had to endure waiting so many years for the justice system to fully examine what happened. Or why it has taken so long.

Bob Norton is a retired RCMP officer turned private investigator who was hired to look into the case by McDougall family's home reserve, Wasagamack First Nation. In June 2013, just two months before the inquest was finally called, Norton wrote to then-justice minister Andrew Swan to express his concern that, five years after the shooting, there were still no public reports on how and why it happened. The former Mountie put the delay into a powerful perspective with these words: "I suspect that if the incident had been reversed, Mr. McDougall would be at least four years into a penitentiary term."

Next week, lawyers on all sides are scheduled to discuss a witness list. But Shefman expects that because of court scheduling issues, it will be at least another year before the inquest finally begins. That would mean the family, the police officers involved and for that matter the public will have waited more than eight years to learn what took Winnipeg police more than two years to investigate.

Which brings up that perplexing question again.

Why has it taken so long?

Shefman is left with the only answer that makes any sense.

"No one thought it was very important."

No one, that is, but Craig McDougall's father and family. And the lawyer who is donating his time to search for all the other whys.

Why did it happen to another young aboriginal man? And why does it keep happening?

gordon.sinclair@freepress.mb.ca

Read more by Gordon Sinclair Jr..

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