By Lloyd Dolha
A full-scale public inquiry into the death of a 47 year-old Mikmaq man nine years ago at the hands of the Vancouver Police Department began on November 13th in Vancouver.
Frank Paul, of Big Cove First Nation in New Brunswick, was picked up by Vancouver Police on the night of December 5, 1998 for being drunk in a public place. A police surveillance video showed him crawling on his hands and knees, unable to walk. He was later removed from his cell and dumped in an east end alley behind a detox centre where he died from hypothermia due to exposure.
Headed by former B.C Supreme Court justice William Davies, the inquiry will examine the roles of the Vancouver Police and all government agencies involved in the case over the years following his needless death.
Mr. Davies said the inquiry will examine the roles of the VDP, the B.C. Ambulance Service, the B.C. Coroner’s Service, the B.C. Police Complaints Commission and the Criminal Justice branch of the Attorney general’s office. The aim of the inquiry is not to find fault, but to make recommendations on changes in police policies and practices.
The Paul family had originally been informed that Mr. Paul died as the result of a hit and run. Two years later, a phone call from the former counsel to the B.C. Complaints Commission, Dana Urban, alerted the family to what really happened. Two Vancouver police officers were disciplined internally, receiving one and two day suspensions, and the police department considered the matter closed.
But a corrections officer who was working the night Paul died, claimed the internal police investigation was a sham and took it to the police complaints commission in 2003. Commissioner Dirk Ryneveld recommended a public inquiry into the case at the time, but his recommendation was rejected by the provincial government.
Crown lawyers reviewed the case in June 2004 and determined that charges were not warranted.
Aboriginal leaders say the results of the inquiry will have profound implications for aboriginals across the country who suffer racism in their dealings with police and government agencies.
“This inquiry has been a long-time coming,” said B.C. Assembly of First Nations regional chief, Shawn Atleo. “It’s important that this inquiry provides an accurate account of the night Frank Paul died, so that recommendations can be made to change the polices and practices of justice systems so that this doesn’t happen in the future.”
The inquiry, which is expected to last up to six months, will take place in four stages. The first will look the hours leading up to Paul’s death on December 5, 1998.
Stage two will look at the response by Vancouver police, the B.C. Ambulance Service, the Coroner’s Service and Criminal Justice Branch of the Ministry of the Attorney General.
The third will look at what drug and alcohol services were available to officials the night Paul died while a fourth stage will examine policies and procedures.
Paul’s cousin, Peggy Clement told the inquiry Mr. Urban said Paul had been dumped in the alley “like garbage being put out for the night.”
George Macintosh, counsel for the VDP, said police had Paul in custody so often, including some 160 times between 1990 and 1998, they knew him by his first name.
Paul was taken into custody twice the night he died. The first time police gave dry clothes, sent him to the drunk tank to sleep it off, then gave him a cup of coffee before releasing him.
But a few hours later he was back, after police found him collapsed from consuming a bottle of cheap rice wine. This time, unable to stand, and a provincial corrections officer was told to drag him into a waiting police wagon, which was to drive him home.
Instead, Paul was left in the alley. Macintosh admitted “the department is regrettably aware of its failure” to safeguard him the night he died. For Paul’s family, the inquiry represents a chance to bring some much-needed closure to a sad chapter in their lives.
“What happened to my cousin was a grave injustice,” said Peggy Clement.” “We will never see Frank again, but through this inquiry, he may finally get the justice he deserves.”
But First Nations leaders were not so forgiving.
“It was systemic, institutionalized racism that led to Frank Paul’s death,” said Chief Phillip Stewart, president of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs. This inquiry is about exposing the investigation, or rather, lack of investigation into Frank Paul’s death.”