A memorial caravan ride took place Friday morning for an Anishinaabe man who died after what police called an “incident” with corrections officers at a Manitoba jail.
The family of William Ahmo is hoping to spark changes for Indigenous people who are involved in the justice system.
“Maybe this is the light at the end of the tunnel that William left us to do … to start saying enough is enough,” said Marilyn Courchene.
Courchene, who is from Sagkeeng First Nation, organized the memorial ride for Ahmo, who died on Feb. 14, a week after being taken to hospital with serious injuries after the incident at Headingley Correctional Institution, west of Winnipeg. RCMP Major Crimes Unit, along with RCMP forensic identification and Headingley RCMP are investigating.
Ahmo’s family and First Nations leaders have called for an open and transparent investigation into the cause of Ahmo’s death.
Courchene said family and friends of Ahmo planned to meet at Swan Lake First Nation’s urban office in Headingley Friday morning before driving to the Headingley Correctional Institution, where they planned to sing traditional songs and lay a wreath outside of the facility.
“We’ve been losing too many people in the prison system. Of course, we are totally marginalized in that system. And I think that once our people start going into those institutions, they come out even tougher and harder,” said Courchene.
She would like to see community involvement in the investigation into the death of Ahmo. She also said more restorative justice practices need to be put in place to reduce the number of Indigenous people who are incarcerated.
“If there is anyone in our area that has been charged or faces charges … we could work with them in a holistic manner, meaning healing circle, sharing circles…. This way we hold them accountable and that we decide what is in the best interest for them.”
Ahmo’s son said his father was their family’s protector, always calling to make sure his son was keeping up with school and his relatives weren’t fighting. Emory Ahmo said he also hopes his father’s death will help bring changes to the justice system.
“Nobody should have to die inside a jail. Nobody should have to suffer that fate, no matter your colour of skin, no matter what you’ve done. That’s not the reason that the system was put in place. It was put in place to rehabilitate people and help them back on their feet,” Emory said outside the jail on Friday.
“They stole my dad from me. They stole my uncle’s brother from him. They stole my mom’s son. And it’s not right. They failed to uphold justice.”
William’s mother, Darlene Ahmo, held her grandson’s hand as the two spoke about the son and father they lost too soon.
“My son had so much good in him,” she said. “He didn’t need to die like this.”
Calls for more oversight
The deaths of Ahmo and 16-year-old Eishia Hudson, who was killed by a Winnipeg police officer in 2020, have prompted calls from Indigenous leaders for civilian oversight that is separate from the Independent Investigations Unit of Manitoba, which investigates police-related deaths and serious injuries.
“I strongly believe there needs to be an advocacy office for Indigenous folks that are involved in the criminal justice system,” said Mitch Bourbonniere, a community outreach worker who works with people involved in the justice system.
“[If] that position is held by a skilled, passionate person, then it would be super effective and it would be helpful to everyone, in terms of keeping issues at the forefront and really protecting the community, protecting families and getting answers for people.”
Arlen Dumas, the grand chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, agrees.
He said that it’s worth taking another look at recommendations from the 1991 report of the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry, established in response to the 1987 trial of two men for the murder of Helen Betty Osborne and the 1988 Winnipeg police shooting death of JJ Harper. It had 296 recommendations to change the justice system, with its major recommendation calling to establish an Indigenous justice system based on rights of self-government.
“You need First Nations oversight,” said Dumas.
“Some of those findings and some of the suggestions were made for us to move forward in a positive way. And I think that eventually we need to develop those things where there’s an independent, autonomous entity that can take a look at these matters in a in a completely objective way.”
The ride coincided with Aboriginal Justice Awareness Day, annually recognized by First Nations leadership in Manitoba on the last Friday of February. It was formerly known as JJ Harper Day, which was started by the Island Lake Tribal Council and Southeast Resource Development council in 1989.