A candlelight ceremony two months after the discovery of 21-year-old Justin Brooks’ body in the Prince Rupert Harbour was a bittersweet gathering for his family, who, while mourning the loss, have found support from groups also seeking justice.
The Union of BC Indian Chiefs (UBCIC), the BC Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA) and the Vancouver Aboriginal Transformative Justice Services Society (VATJSS) have teamed up to address what they consider to be a lack of due diligence by Royal Canadian Mounted Police when investigating deaths of Aboriginal people in the north.
“The RCMP were very indifferent and negligent in their investigations into the passings of these three young people,” Stewart Phillip, Grand Chief of the UBCIC said in an interview with The Northern View.
“Organizations like the Royal Canadian Mounted Police are only interested in protecting their own, and they certainly are not attempting to bring justice to the native people in the north,” he later said.
RCMP ruled out foul play as a factor in Justin’s death, despite being allegedly assaulted by people prior to his death according to family.
“We will never get to hold him, hug him, or see his big beautiful smile again, or tell him just how much we loved him,” Justin’s mother Cheryl Ryan said during her speech at the candlelight ceremony.
“Justin touched the hearts of so many people. We will continue to stand together as one until we get the answers we need and deserve,” she said.
The UBCIC, the BCCLA and the VATJSS held meetings in Vancouver before deciding to come to Prince Rupert to gather information on three cases within the last decade where the bodies of First Nation youth were discovered in and around the ocean.
The partners will be developing a report on the issue, with Phillip saying they’re committed to engaging the issue and working with the families.
“The authorities should know we are committed to this issue and the families… and intend to do whatever it takes to shed some light on these shoddy investigations, and the climate of negligence that surrounds these cases,” Phillip said.
Phillip said meetings the groups had with family members and elders while in Prince Rupert were emotional.
“There’s a tremendous amount of frustration and pain and hurt here in this region with respect to being constantly victimized by the very system that we rely on to deliver justice to our families,” he said.
Micheal Vonn, policy director of the BCCLA, said the association has heard from First Nations communities across the north that police treat them poorly in comparison to non-First Nations communities.
“There is clearly a problem in B.C. when First Nations families and communities are unable to place their faith in law enforcement either to protect them, or to properly investigate crimes committed against them,” Vonn said in a statement.
Victor Steinhammer from the Prince Rupert RCMP detachment said RCMP, “continued to be committed to meeting and working with our communities and stakeholders to answer any questions they may have about policing operations”.
Justin Brooks’ aunt, Sheri Latimer, said her family is honoured and grateful the groups are helping to get their voices, and Justin’s voice, heard.
Latimer said it was heartwarming to see hundreds of people come out to support finding justice for Justin, but also the families of Emmalee McLean and Kayla Rose McKay, two more Aboriginal youth who died under mysterious circumstances.
Relations of Emmalee Rose McLean attended the candlelight ceremony, and are happy to see unresolved deaths of aboriginals being addressed.
Therese White is Emmalee’s aunt, who the 16-year-old lived with for the last year of her life.
“I was really fortunate to have her for that one year,” White said.
White’s daughter Naomi also lived with Emmalee that year and said she thought of her as a sister, not a cousin.
The pair both described Emmalee as a cheerful, happy and outgoing young woman. Naomi said she was crushed when she discovered her cousin was found deceased and partially submerged in the harbour off of Cow Bay.
White claims RCMP told Emmalee’s family she drowned, and that they had spoken to persons of interest during their investigation. A coroner’s report showed there was alcohol in her system.
“There was still a lot of unanswered questions, but as far as they were concerned she just didn’t get out of the water. But how did she get into the water?” Therese White said.
Kayla Rose McKay’s relatives are also mourning the loss of the youth without fully understanding why.
Kayla, 13, was the youngest to be found deceased near the Prince Rupert harbour, in 2004. Kayla would’ve been 14 the following month.
“It’s been nine years since we lost Kayla Rose… There’s been a lot of sleepless nights wondering who caused the death,” Gary Brown, Kayla’s grandfather and guardian since she was a baby, said during the ceremony.
Brown told people in attendance that Kayla’s death was blamed on alcohol, but he wasn’t satisfied with the report written on her death.
“Her clothes weren’t even on, her clothes weren’t even on right. Something happened… It wasn’t just alcohol poisoning,” he said.
“She had dreams. She wanted to get married and graduate at [Northwest Community College]. Those dreams didn’t happen,” he later said.
Justin’s family is concerned that RCMP returned Justin’s clothing and belongings he had on him the night of his death a week after his body was discovered, despite telling them the investigation was ongoing.
The family is also upset they weren’t allowed to see Justin’s body to confirm it was indeed him who was pulled out of the harbour.
“We went a whole week without knowing. It wasn’t until the day we viewed him at the funeral home the family finally knew it was their son. We went through with the planning of the memorial service, picked out the coffin… without even knowing if it was his body or not,” Latimer said.
The family alleges RCMP said Justin may have been on the rocks at the Rotary Waterfront Park and slipped into the ocean, something the family denies saying Justin wouldn’t have went near the ocean because he couldn’t swim.
“There are so many times where the police jump to the conclusion that it was alcohol poisoning, suicide, or a slip and fall. Our intention of coming up here is to ensure the police understand our members here in Prince Rupert and all of our communities are not alone,” Christine Smith from VATJSS said during the ceremony.
Prince Rupert RCMP met with Justin’s family following the ceremony, with Latimer claiming they hadn’t spoken with the family since early April.
Justin’s family will continue to look for answers elsewhere. The family has been fundraising to offer a cash reward, and possibly hire a private investigator by selling tickets for a 50/50 draw and selling Justice for Justin T-shirts and hoodies.
Contributing to that fund is more than $450 that was raised at the ceremony through a blanket dance.
The first step the family will take with funds is offering it as a cash reward for anyone with critical information on what happened to Justin on March 4. The family wants justice for not only themselves, but also Justin’s nine-month-old baby.
“Justin will never be able to hold his precious son Lucas again. You’re daddy didn’t mean to leave you baby boy. He was taken from us, and not by choice,” Justin’s mother said.