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'Horrific tragedy': Indigenous leaders call for inquiry into fatal RCMP incident in Williams Lake

Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, President, Union of the BC Indian Chiefs addresses a news conference in Vancouver, B.C., Wednesday, January 15, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, President, Union of the BC Indian Chiefs addresses a news conference in Vancouver, B.C., Wednesday, January 15, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

Warning: This story mentions suicide, which may be disturbing for some readers. Resources for people in crisis have been included at the bottom of the article.

Indigenous leaders are calling for an independent public inquiry into the death of a father of four and member of the Williams Lake First Nation, saying the RCMP's response to the family's distress call included heavily-armed officers and tear gas.

At a news conference Tuesday, Chief Willie Sellars said he was speaking on behalf of the grieving family of Rojun Alphonse, who died after police were called to his home on July 10. The family, Sellars said, called 911 because Alphonse was having a mental health crisis and they were concerned that he may harm himself.

"What should have resulted in a welfare check, with properly trained individuals to de-escalate the situation and talk Rojun down, instead resulted in a response of a swarm of (Emergency Response Team) personnel with automatic weapons, body armour, armoured vehicles and tear gas," Sellars said.

"In the midst of this aggressive and violent confrontation by the RCMP, Rojun took his life. We're all in shock and mourning."

Alphonse's mother, through tears, said a few words about the death of the son whose funeral arrangements she made that morning.

"Just imagine yourself with all the cops around you and with all the rifles that they had, just imagine. My son was scared. He wasn't a dangerous man, he was a loving person," she said.


The Williams Lake RCMP issued a statement about the incident, announcing that the Independent Investigations Office would probe the death.

Mounties said in a news release that they were called at 3:40 a.m. after police "received a complaint that a man was in possession of a weapon and was contemplating self-harm."

"RCMP officers attended the residence, established a perimeter and a police negotiator attempted to contact the man."

Approximately nine hours later, police said, the Emergency Response Team entered the home where they found a man dead. His injuries were described as "appearing to be self-inflicted."


Sellars, who was joined by Grand Chief Stewart Philip of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs and lawyer Mary-Ellen Turpel-Lafond, said the response to the distress call and the tragic outcome raise critical questions about policing in First Nations communities.

"If this was a non-Indigenous person, would the results have been the same?" Sellars asked.

"What is wrong in the system to cause these outcomes and what are we doing about it to see change? Time and time again, we see this mistreatment of Indigenous peoples in every single one of our communities."


An investigation by the IIO into this case, all those speaking at the news conference said, will not adequately address the deep-rooted, systemic issues that lead to the disproportionate number of police-involved deaths of Indigenous people in communities across Canada.

Philip said he has supported many families whose loved ones have been killed by the police and he has no confidence the IIO investigation will lead to accountability for the officers involved – or to changes to a policing culture that he described as "populated with rednecks that have an inherent a blood lust against people of colour."

Turpel-Lafond called Alphonse's death a "horrific tragedy" that shows how police forces fail to promote or ensure public safety in Indigenous communities. The response to someone in crisis, she said, needs to be culturally safe, recognizing that there is a long history of mistrust of police among Indigenous people. A call for help, she added, should not be responded to by an onslaught of armed officers.

"For First Nations, police responses are not providing safety," she said.

"It would seem very much to us that this was preventable, that this should not have occurred. This family should have their father, this community should have their member."


Sellars has written to the federal minister of public safety to demand an inquiry into Alphonse's death and to ask for an in-person meeting in British Columbia.

"This tragedy has driven home to us again that the standards of public safety and policing in our community are inadequate and discriminatory," he wrote.

"Like the failed policies in child welfare and safe drinking water, Canada should not permit this horrible and discriminatory policing to continue … It is long overdue for a proper public inquiry into policing of First Nations in British Columbia and a commitment to making changes that are needed to prevent these tragedies."

If you or someone you know is in crisis, here are some resources that are available:

  • Hope for Wellness Help Line (1-855-242-3310)
  • Canada Suicide Prevention Helpline (1-833-456-4566)
  • Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (1 800 463-2338)
  • Crisis Services Canada (1-833-456-4566 or text 45645)
  • Kids Help Phone (1-800-668-6868) Top Stories

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