Death in the Arctic: A Community Grieves, a Father Fights for ChangeFrançais
This multimedia piece explores the violent death of Robert Adams, a 19-year old Inuit man in Arctic Canada, the impact of his death on his community, and his father’s subsequent fight for mental health services, coroner’s services, and justice system services for Inuit in the North. Judges described “Death in the Arctic” as a "truly impressive reporting feat" offering "rare insight into an isolated, chronically ignored community." They underscored the "intimacy" and "narrative force" of the project, calling it "profoundly moving and affecting," and the photography "stunning." Originally published by Radio Canada International – Eye on the Arctic on December 14, 2018.
When Bernie Adams’ 19-year-old son Robert was stabbed to death in the Inuit village of Kangiqsujuaq, Quebec in March 2018, Adams thought nothing could hurt more.
But being an Inuk trying to navigate a child’s violent death in Quebec only amplified his grief, Adams says.
The Viens Commission into the relationship between Indigenous peoples and Quebec’s public services wound up its hearings in December 2018 with a final report expected the following September.
But Adams says while Quebec and Canada’s numerous reports and commissions on Indigenous peoples over the last 20 years get big headlines in the South, they’ve done little to change day-to-day life in remote Inuit communities like his.
Now, says this father, he wants answers.
Bernie Adams in Kangiqsujuaq, Canada. (Eilís Quinn/Eye on the Arctic)
KANGIQSUJUAQ, Quebec — On Monday, March 19 of this year, Bernie Adams, a father of eight, was watching a Sopranos DVD in his living room. Robert, his 19-year-old son, was in the bathroom across the hall, running gel through his hair and trying to style it just so before a night out with friends and his brother Mark.
“Making himself handsome and drowning himself in too much cologne,” says Adams, laughing at the memory.
Nothing else about that night stands out for Adams other than the pride he felt at seeing his son back to normal: walking, happy and above all, healthy.
In April 2017, Robert had been hit by a truck on the airport road outside the community. He was medevaced down south and spent 16 days in an induced coma at Montreal General Hospital. His injuries were serious: a severe concussion, brain bleeds, broken ribs, a punctured lung, a cracked tailbone. Bernie and his wife Mary worried about the extent of his head injuries and what it might mean for their son’s future.
But after six months of rehab, Robert was back. Some who knew Robert say the accident seemed to have been a wake-up call for the rebellious teenager who’d already failed two grades and seemed more interested in partying than preparing for his future.
Robert’s parents say their son worked hard to overcome the trauma of his accident and was grateful to hospital staff for helping him recover. (Robert Adams’ Facebook page)
But back home, Robert was still learning to live with his brain injury. It made it difficult to focus sometimes. Short term memory could be a problem. But despite it all, he was back in school trying to graduate. And above all, he was back at basketball, his favourite hobby, working to emulate his idol LeBron James in every way he could.
To Adams, Robert was a fighter. After coming back from such a catastrophic set of injuries, it was hard to imagine that his six-foot son, also an avid weightlifter, could be vulnerable to anything ever again.
Robert came out of the bathroom once he’d styled his hair just right and walked over to where his father was sitting.
“Be careful out there,” Adams remembers saying.
“I’ll be careful,” Robert said, leaning down to give his father a big sloppy kiss on the forehead before walking out the door.
“Love you Dad. Later.”
Adams didn’t know it then, but it was the last time he’d see his son alive.
Bernie Adams remembers the phone ringing that night around 11pm. It was his eldest daughter Zoe.
Robert was at the nursing station, she said. It was serious.
(The circumstances of Robert’s stabbing are well known in the community but, Quebec’s provincial police force, the Sûreté du Québec, said they couldn’t confirm any details before evidence is presented in court.)
Zoe, a first responder and volunteer firefighter, lived near where the stabbing took place. She ran to attend to her youngest brother’s injuries. She says the experience is still too painful for her to talk about publicly.
When Bernie and Mary arrived at the nursing station, they remember being surrounded by other members of the community’s first-responder team. Then a nurse came out. She told them she was sorry, they did everything they could, but Robert didn’t make it.
Bernie and Mary asked to see their son. They remember wanting to kiss his forehead and hold his hand one last time, but being told they couldn’t. Robert’s body was evidence now and needed to be sent to Montreal for autopsy, they were told.
The only person who could touch him now was the coroner.
Robert’s brother Mark Adams in Kangiqsujuaq, Quebec. (Eilís Quinn/Eye on the Arctic)
When Bernie Adams looks back at the time immediately following his son’s death, he remembers it in fragments: the compassion and respect of the Quebec provincial police flown up from down south to investigate the case, the kindness of neighbours who brought food, and the relief that councellors where flown in from The Nunavik Regional Board of Health and Social Services (NRBHSS) Inuit Values and Practices department in Kuujjuaq, who could speak Inuktitut to his family.
There was also the emotion of a school memorial service where students signed a basketball in Robert’s honour and sent it back home with the family.
But the provincial police eventually went back south, the councillors returned to Kuujjuaq, and the neighbours stopped coming by.
Adams returned to his job as building supervisor at the Qaqqiq Gymnasium to help keep his mind off his son’s death.
But sometimes it felt like the whole community was grieving, says Adams. There were Robert’s family and friends, the family and friends of Mattiusie Qamugaaluk, the 32-year-old man charged with first-degree murder in Robert’s death, and then, in an unrelated tragedy, there were the family and friends of a man in his 30s who had committed suicide that weekend, but whose body was only found on March 20, the day after Robert’s death. And then on March 22, in another separate incident, there was an attempted murder and subsequent arrest.
In the small community of 750 people, it felt like the overlapping tragedies had engulfed everyone, Adams says.
As time went on things started getting harder, he says. His emotions went from shock, to sadness, to anger and he didn’t know if it was a normal way to grieve. He was worried about his family. Mary was struggling. His sons cried uncontrollably. His eldest daughters seemed numb. And then there was eight-year-old Elisapie, his youngest, who wouldn’t stop asking where Robert was and when he was coming back.
In May, Adams went to the nursing station to ask for an appointment with a psychiatrist for his entire family. He says he was told a psychiatrist wouldn’t be in the community until mid-July, two months away. (In response to Eye on the Arctic fact-check requests starting in September, the NRBHSS said they’d made inquiries to verify the psychiatrist’s schedule for Kangiqsujuaq this year, but by publication of this report, had not received a response.)
Adams remembers turning his energy online, looking for support groups for families of murdered children. He found nothing in Nunavik, so he started looking for something in other Inuit regions of Canada like the eastern Arctic territory of Nunavut. Even if there was only a Facebook group for grieving Inuit fathers, he thought it might help.
But he came up empty handed.
In desperation, he contacted Canada’s National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls — a body set up in 2016 to examine the high rates of violence against Inuit, First Nations and Métis women and girls — to ask for help and resources. But given their mandate, they could offer only limited support, Adams said, showing the email he wrote them, one among dozens he’s written to Indigenous organizations, federal and provincial politicians and Inuit leaders in recent months asking for help.
Adams said at that point he felt like he’d exhausted every avenue.
He felt broken at first, he says. But then, he got angry.
“Having a son that was murdered. And my friends in town that are hanging themselves, left right and centre, my children’s friends (are) hanging them [selves] left right and centre while the politicians are fighting over scraps,” says Adams.
“We’re begging for help and nobody is willing to help us. No one. Even the Inuit politicians. They’re allowing the victims and the survivors to learn how to deal with the hurt and the pain amongst ourselves with each other. The blind leading the blind and the deaf leading the deaf.
“We’re trying to heal each other but we can’t, because we’re all hurting up here and nobody is willing to help us.”
Mary Pilurtuut, the president of Kangiqsujuaq’s Wellness Committee and a former mayor of the community. (Eilís Quinn/Eye on the Arctic)
Kangiqsujuaq is a fly-in community of 750 people in Arctic Quebec, some 350 km above the treeline.
It has a stunning location on the Hudson Strait and is the gateway to Pingualuit provincial park, a protected area of Arctic nature and wildlife and home to a giant meteor crater flooded with blue water that’s being developed for tourism.
This area was inhabited for generations by semi-nomadic Inuit. They moved their camps according to the formation and breakup of the sea ice and the migration patterns of the birds, animals and sea life they relied on for food. But they were forced to settle by the Canadian government in what is now Kangiqsujuaq starting in the mid-1900s.
The majority of 9-5 jobs held by Inuit in the community are mainly government related, either for the municipality, or for one of the bodies that administrate Nunavik. Some people do fly-in rotation work at the Raglan Mine, approximately 100 km west of the community.
But for many families, community and social life here still revolves around subsistence hunting. When the village of Quaqtaq, 138km southeast from here, gave the heads-up this spring that a beluga pod has passed their community and was swimming in Kangiqsujuaq’s direction, the community Facebook page lit up with activity and local hunters across the village could be seen preparing their boats.
From the outside, Kangiqsujuaq has everything going for it. Yet still finds itself wrestling with the same social issues confronting Nunavik’s 14 communities – a suicide rate more than ten times the rest of Canada, an epidemic of alcohol and drug abuse; violence and property crimes amongst the highest in Canada; limited educational opportunities and an unemployment rate of 23.7 per cent according to the last national census, compared to the average of 7 per cent for the province of Quebec and Canada as a whole.
Nunavik’s social issues are linked with Canada’s colonial history in the Arctic – the forced settlement of Inuit by the federal government, the residential schools set up to forcibly assimilate Indigenous people into Canada’s dominant culture, and the sled dog slaughter by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in the 1950s and 1960s that effectively kept hunters prisoners in one place, shattering many Inuit families’ traditional way of life.
But despite the well-documented root-causes, Nunavik still lacks the resources to fully respond to the issues facing its population of approximately 13,000. The region’s smaller communities like Kangiqsujuaq are served by nursing stations. Staffed overwhelmingly by southern health care workers, turnover is high. These smaller communities also have no full-time doctors or psychiatrists.
And despite the high rates of crime and violence; the region is served by an itinerant court flown up from southern Quebec. Arctic weather means court cases can be delayed months beyond what would be considered acceptable in southern Canada. And many of the legal tools used in the South, like restraining orders against domestic abusers, are useless in isolated fly-in communities with only a few hundred people.
Bernie Adams grew up in the Inuit region of the Atlantic Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador, but is a Nunavik Land Claims Beneficiary through his mother’s side of the family. He says the ongoing lack of resources in Canada’s Inuit regions perpetuates the intergenerational trauma and has led to a normalization of violence he partly blames for his son’s death.
Adams describes how he was beaten and emotionally abused throughout his childhood, behaviour he attributes to his parents own treatment in residential school. Outside the home, Adams was repeatedly raped by teenagers and men in his community, then known as Goose Bay. Adams said the behaviour was so normalized, it never crossed his mind to disclose to an adult.
Anna-Marie Cartwright, Adams’ sister, a graduate of McGill University’s Aboriginal Social Work Practice certificate program in Montreal, and an incest survivor, says the taboo around sexual abuse in Inuit communities has changed little since she and her brother were victimized as children.
“I’m a proud Inuk woman,” says Cartwright. “But sometimes I think we don’t speak out because we’re more afraid of what white people think of us, than we are about talking honestly about the huge social issues in our communities. But the cost of that silence is enormous.”
At age 11, Adams turned to drugs and alcohol to try and cope. They numbed the pain for awhile, he said, but they also unbottled the rage and anger stemming from his rapes. He became increasingly violent.
In 1980, at age 17, Adams joined the military in a last ditch effort to channel his aggression, but was given a dishonourable discharge in 1981 after a night of heavy drinking ended with him beating up a fellow soldier.
By 1985, his life had spiralled out of control. By now there had been numerous stints in jail in Newfoundland and Labrador and the province of Ontario, for everything from drunk driving to assault. In 1985, he found himself in court again, this time in Cornwall, Ontario after getting drunk and beating a man so severely he ended up in hospital. Adams says the judge gave him a choice, rehab or prison. Adams ended up going to Our House, a drug and alcohol rehabilitation centre.
“At the beginning, I just didn’t want to go back to jail again,” Adams said. “But I remember sitting in that circle; the English people, the French-Canadian people, different races, men, women. Whatever happened to us, we were all covering our pain with addiction and I didn’t feel like just some fucked up Eskimo anymore.”
He got counselling and joined AA. Years later while visiting family in the the Nunavik community of Salluit, he met Mary Anogak and started a family. It was a rocky rebuilding but he still marks his sober birthdays from July 1, 1985.
“I went through the same shit that I think most Inuit in Canada have to live through, but I got help – even if it was the judge that forced me into it,” Adams says. “But when the shit hit the fan for me, I was in the South where there was program to take me on right away. Counsellors. AA. But if the shit had hit the fan up here, then what?”
The Isuarsivik Treatment Centre in Kuujjuaq offers substance abuse rehabilitation in Nunavik but the demand far outweighs their capacity. Construction of a bigger center is set to get underway in 2019, but Adams says it’s still not enough, and that there needs to be more support in Nunavik’s smaller communities for when people finish treatment.
“Even after all these years. Even with all our social problems. Explain to me how that can still be.”
'This has to stop'
Less than two months after Robert’s death, and the suicide of the man in his 30s, Kangiqsujuaq was hit by another wave of tragedies: the suicide of a young woman, community members say happened on June 8th, followed by an ATV accident on June 10th that killed one person and seriously injured another, followed by the death of a beloved elder on June 11th. And then there were the Facebook posts announcing suicide after suicide in other Nunavik communities, a crisis that would only make headlines in the rest of Canada in October.
“It messes with your head; my little brother’s murder everything we’ve had to deal with in our community,” said Robert’s eldest brother Nigel Adams, a public safety officer in Kangiqsujuaq. “We live with these traumas everyday. If this was happening anywhere else in Canada, I guarantee you politicians would have found a way to address it by now. Quebec and Canada are failing Inuit and that’s why I speak about it even though it’s painful.”
Bernie Adams says his son’s death has made him more militant about addressing the social problems in his community, even though he knows it rubs people the wrong way.
There probably isn’t a politician, Inuit organization, or journalist in Nunavik that hasn’t had at some point received emails from Bernie Adams criticizing their complacency, lack of action or poor coverage of Nunavik’s crime and social issues.
“We Inuit aren’t supposed to speak out about anything bad in the communities,” Adams says. “If we do, we get ostracized. It’s the person speaking out that’s the problem, not all the bootlegging, drugs and violence, or criminal lack of services in Nunavik to deal with any of it.
“We’re all afraid. That if we speak out against the provincial or federal government, the southerners will say all we want is money and we should just get over it. That if we speak out against Inuit politicians or organizations, we, or our family members, might lose our jobs with them, or that our fellow Inuit will say we’re just trying to be ‘white.'”
“But you know what? My son was murdered. There’s nothing anyone can do or say to me – Inuit or white – that’s going to hurt me more than that. So I’m going to speak my truth. I want everyone to know what Inuit have to deal with in so-called modern-day Canada that people in the South don’t even think about.”
WARNING: This section contains graphic details that some readers may find disturbing
Some time in March, Bernie Adams got a call from the coroner’s office Montreal. He doesn’t remember their name, but says they identified themselves as a lawyer.
His son’s autopsy had been completed and the body would be sent back on the plane, they said. Robert’s body would be naked and in a coroner’s bag.
(The Quebec coroner’s office said they weren’t able to respond to an Eye on the Arctic fact-checking request to confirm the date of the call, or the name and title of the person that made it, or the date Robert’s body was returned to Kangiqsujuaq, saying an access to information request had to be made. Eye on the Arctic had not received the responses by the time of publication of this report.)
Adams says the call did not sufficiently prepare him for the condition of his son’s body when it arrived in the community. And that the body bag was something he described as looking like a garbage sac.
Nunavik has no coroner, morticians or funeral directors. Villages are left to deal with their deceased community members on their own.
In Kangiqsujuaq, the deputy mayor and one of the first responders volunteered to clean Robert’s body and prepare it for burial, says Adams.
But they told him the coroner’s stitches were crude and that the body was unclean. They told Adams Robert’s body was completely rigid and that they couldn’t get Robert’s arms through the sleeves of the Eminem hoody — Robert’s favourite — that the family wanted their son buried in.
(Kangiqsujuaq’s deputy mayor and the first responder in question did not respond to Eye on the Arctic‘s interview requests while in Kangiqsujuaq, or to subsequent fact-checking requests made by phone and email.)
Adams remembers zipping down the body bag enough to see the stitches on Robert’s chin and deciding he couldn’t bear anymore.
He zipped it back up. Because it was from the Quebec government, Adams thought he was legally obligated to bury his son in the coroner’s bag.
This is not the case, but there was nobody to tell him otherwise.
“I feel like such a failure as a father that I let my son be buried that way,” says Adams wiping away tears.
“The people in this community did the best they could for my son – I’m not mad at them – I’m grateful for everything they did for Robert. But that’s what it’s like up here. We’re not professional funeral directors. We’re not professional morticians. But with the rates of suicide and violence in Nunavik, why don’t we have them?
“On a daily basis, I now have to live with that horrible image seared in my brain of Robert; his injuries, his hands sticking out underneath the waistband of his favourite hoody because his arms were too stiff to put in the sleeves; him being buried in a body bag resembling a large garbage bag; and that he’s going to be buried like that forever, because I didn’t know any better.
“I still struggle every day to learn how to forgive myself for letting that happen to my son.”
The conditions of Nunavik’s deceased when they come back from the coroner has been an ongoing concern in many of the region’s communities.
In Inukjuak, a Nunavik community of 1300 people on the Hudson’s Bay coast, town manager Shaumik Inukpuk and Pauloosie Kasudluak, mayor until the November 2018 municipal elections, say the lack of professional funeral services, and the trauma it causes to families who’ve lost loved ones, is an open secret in Nunavik.
“Our deceased community members come back in plastic bags, naked” Inukpuk says. “You open it and see the stitches not properly done when they’re sewn up after autopsy. To be close to that is disturbing to see.”
Kasudluak says autopsies performed 1500 kilometres away by another culture are already extremely difficult for Inuit, but something they understand is necessary to determine cause of death. But what’s hard for Inuit to accept, he says, is the lack of dignity shown to the bodies when they’re sent back, even if it’s not something the coroner is doing intentionally.
“I guess down South it’s different but in our Nunavik communities we still respect our deceased,” he says. “And the way our bodies come back from the coroner is not culturally compatible with how Inuit want to treat our deceased community members.”
In the decades since Inuit were forced into permanent settlements by the federal government, and missionaries established the church in the Canadian Arctic, Inuit communities have relied on their local women’s auxiliary of the Anglican church to wash and prepare bodies for burial.
Even today, burying the dead in Nunavik depends entirely on volunteers: the women’s auxiliary to clean the bodies, something like the landholding corporation to donate plywood for caskets, and community volunteers to build the coffins or dig the graves. And in many cases, when families can’t afford to fly their loved ones bodies back to the Arctic from southern Quebec, it’s the municipalities that step in to foot the bill, something Nunavik mayors told Eye on the Arctic costs anywhere $9,000 to $14,000.
But with communities growing, municipal budgets increasingly under strain, and a younger generation not stepping in to replace ageing volunteers, the current model can’t go on forever, Kasudluak said.
“We need a new regional policy to address everything from funeral services to the way our deceased community members come back from the coroner,” he says. “I think we should talk about it now before it becomes a bigger problem, or one that our communities can no longer handle.”
Fabien Pernet, assistant to the executive director of the Nunavik Regional Board of Health and Social Services (NRBHSS), says the board is well aware of the issue and, in 2017, arranged a meeting with the coroner’s office to address the problem.
“We tried to sensitize them to reactions in the communities,” Pernet said. “But they said bodies were considered toxic goods and there was nothing they could do.”
But the NRBHSS is still working in the issue, he said. And in August, submitted a letter to the Viens commission with recommendations to the coroner’s office.
While coroners are obligated to respect the deceased they work on, their job is to determine cause of death. The are not trained, or mandated, to prepare bodies aesthetically. In the South, families hire funeral homes to liaise with the coroner after autopsy, and to clean, embalm, and if the family wishes, prepare the body for viewing.
But such services don’t exist in Arctic Quebec.
The Quebec coroner’s office estimates that autopsies are performed on between 15-20 deceased from Nunavik a year.
The office declined a recorded interview with Eye on the Arctic to address the issues raised by Nunavik residents in this report, but provided written comment saying official protocols were followed “to the letter” when dealing with the Adams family.
“Although coroners are sensitive to this situation and require pathologists who perform autopsies to pay close attention to the appearance of the remains, an un-embalmed body may have an imperfect look when it’s received after transport,” said Joannie Lambert-Roy, the communications and media relations manager for the Quebec coroner’s office. “The use of the plastic bag is inevitable for hygiene reasons.”
But Lambert-Roy says the office is open to further exploring the issue.
“The Coroner’s office takes the concerns of Aboriginal communities seriously,” she said in an email. “At the Viens commission recently, [the office] pledged to set up a review and prevention committee into Indigenous deaths. If communities have concerns around the transport of remains, such a committee is certainly a promising way to study the issue and suggest possible solutions.”
“A committee?,” said Adams when informed of the response of the coroner’s office. “I’ve got no problem with a committee, but will it be made up of grieving Nunavik parents and family members? Will the coroner sit there with us and listen to our sorrow, our hurt and our pain? Will they listen to how we have to live with what we saw for the rest of our lives?”
The Qaggiq Gymnasium in Kangiqsujuaq, Quebec on itinerant court day, June 20, 2018. (Eilís Quinn/Eye on the Arctic)
In mid-June of 2018, the week before Nunavik’s travelling court is scheduled to arrive in Kangiqsujuaq for the first time since Robert’s murder, Bernie Adams is on edge.
He’s been told Mattiusie Qamugaaluk, the man charged Robert’s murder, will be appearing.
Adams doesn’t know if that means the trail will start on that day, of it it will be for something else.
Someone told him he could submit a victim impact statement to the court, but he doesn’t remember who. It might have been one of the homicide detectives from Amos. Or maybe a court worker who called him from Kuujjuaq? He says he doesn’t know if he’s supposed to read it out, give it to a lawyer or give it to the judge. He doesn’t know where he’s supposed to go to find the information or who to call to find out.
In Canada, victim impact statements are submitted to court during sentencing, after there’s been a finding of guilt or innocence. Qamugaaluk’s trial date still hasn’t even been set. (At the time of publication of this report it still has not been set.) But Adams said nobody’s told him any of this and he wants to be prepared for whatever might happen. He says he just wanted to get the statement in front of someone, anyone, as quickly as possible.
He says it’s urgent, because he’s watched since the beginning of June how the Kuujjuaq death of Chloe Labrie, a 28-year-old white lab technician from southern Quebec, and the arrest of the local man accused of her murder, made headlines across the country and was covered extensively in the regional press, while his son’s murder went unmentioned except for a 85-word brief by a regional media outlet announcing Qamugaaluk’s arrest.
“For most people down south, for the French judges and lawyers, for the justice system, for the media, my son is probably just another dead Eskimo,” says Adams. “But I’m his father and I won’t let them do that to him.”
So he’s filled out his victim impact statement with lists of Robert’s hobbies, ambitions and lists of everyone who loved him.
Adams says he hopes he’s done enough.
Adams confusion on the workings of the Quebec justice system are not unique in Nunavik.
The justice system there works differently from the rest of the province.
There are no resident judges in Nunavik. Instead, the 14 communities rely on a travelling court that visits their communities an average of two to four times a year – weather permitting.
For each itinerant court cycle, judges and the majority of the lawyers, are brought up from down south to hear cases.
If they’re in Kuujjuaq on the Ungava Bay coast, or Puvirnituq on the Hudson’s Bay side of Nunavik, the cases will be heard in a small courthouse. But in the other communities they’ll be held wherever there’s room, like in a local gymnasium.
Weather cancellations are common. And because judges and the majority of lawyers have to return to their regular jobs down south, court dates can’t be held over a day or two until the weather clears up. When it comes to rescheduling, it’s often a matter of months.
Numerous reports have been issued over the last 20 years outlining the inadequacy of the justice system in serving the province’s Inuit population. They range from 1993’s Aqqusiurniq Sivunitsasiaguniqsamut Inuit Justice Task Force final report, to the 2014 Parnasimautik Consultation Report prepared by Quebec’s major Inuit organizations, to a 2015 report from the Quebec Bar Association that laid out in detail the ways the justice system was failing the people of Nunavik, to the 2016 Special Report by the Quebec Ombudsman that examined inadequate detention conditions, administration of justice and crime prevention in Nunavik which blasted the years of inaction in addressing the issues faced by Quebec Inuit, saying in the report’s conclusions that: “…stakeholders have been aware of the situation for several decades, it is disappointing to see that in 2016, the authorities concerned still have not taken concrete concerted action to improve the situation.”
In 2018, Montreal defence lawyers Victor Chauvelot and Louis-Nicholas Coupal filed a class action lawsuit seeking financial compensation for Nunavik detainees whose bail hearings have been delayed beyond the three-day Canadian maximum after arrest.
The justice system has also been a focus of Quebec’s Viens commission, set up in 2016 to examine the relationships between Indigenous peoples and Quebec’s public services, with Inuit testifying to a range of challenges in navigating the justice system including poor communication from authorities, and that the misunderstanding of things like bail conditions can lead to legal problems. (The majority of Nunavik’s Inuit speak Inuktitut as their mother-tongue, while in the province of Quebec, the official language is French and the majority of legal proceedings are conducted in English.)
“It didn’t get this way overnight,” said William Tagoona, the director of communications for Makivik Corporation, the organization that represents the Inuit in Quebec . “It’s little by little, year by year, the inaction of government after government, that got us to where we are today.”
Charlie Watt, Makivik’s president, says the years of recommendations with little or no action, is why solutions need to start coming from Quebec Inuit, not Quebec City, the province’s capital.
“Twenty something years ago we commissioned an Inuit Justice Task Force and spent millions of dollars to document the injustice done by the lack of a proper justice system in Nunavik with recommendation for change,” Watt said in emailed comment to Eye on the Arctic, referring to the report that enumerated how the justice system was letting down offenders, the accused and crime victims in the region.
“That report was presented to Quebec and it has collected dust every since. Recently the Crown Prosecutor’s office was closed in Kuujjuaq without consultation of any kind. This is unacceptable.”
The day before the itinerant court is scheduled on June 20, 2018, Adams leans over a railing on the second floor at the Qaggiq Gymnasium. He’s been the building manager here for 10 years. Today’s he’s looking down at the basketball court where Robert spent hours trying to imitate LeBron James. It’s only a few steps away from Adams’ office. He remembers how proud he felt when he’d look down from the railing and see his son shooting three-pointers or practising with friends.
But Adams doesn’t have time to dwell on it now.
Kaniqsujuaq is a tiny village without a courthouse. That means that Adams, as the building supervisor, is tasked with setting up the court on the same gym floor where he once watched Robert at his happiest.
As the day goes on, Adams gets more and more anxious – he says nobody from the police or Crown prosecutor’s office has contacted him to explain where the accused has been or what is supposed to happen in court today.
In Nunavik, the Sapummijiit Crime Victims Assistance Centre, established by the Kativik Regional Government (KRG) in 2004, has Inuit staff and accompanies victims, and the families of victims, through the judicial process, and can act as a liaison between police and lawyers.
A KRG spokesperson said because of confidentiality, KRG couldn’t comment on the Adams family’s experience or frequency of contact between them and Sapummijiit.
A spokesperson for the Crown prosecutor’s office in Quebec City and a spokesperson for the Quebec provincial police (SQ) said their door was always open to answer questions from the families of crime victims.
Adams says he remembers an SQ investigator giving him his card in Kangiqsujuaq in March in case he ever had any questions, but Adams said he didn’t contact him in the ensuing months because he didn’t know what he was supposed to, or allowed, to ask about.
“Nobody tells you how to be the father of a murdered 19-year-old in Nunavik,” says Adams. “Like dealing with his body when it came back from coroner, me as the parent is left making mistake after mistake that I’ll have to live with for the rest of my life; this feeling that I’m failing my son in death, the same way I failed to protect him in life from being murdered.”
On June 20th, 2018, the day court is scheduled in Kangiqsujuaq, Bernie Adams wakes up to learn court is cancelled because of high winds. The pilots didn’t think they’d be able to land, a court worker from Kuujjuaq tells Adams, they’ll try again in two months.
“It’s taken weeks for me and my family to get emotionally ready for today,” Adams says wiping tears with the back of his hand. “But then court’s cancelled like that and it’s like they’ve torn off the scab and ripped open the scar again.
“Court hearings can take months to get here. It lets the bad people continue their criminal ways. And for the victims and their families? We got nobody.”
Adams describes the itinerant court lawyers and judges individually as good people doing their best, but says they’re working in an overtaxed system that he doesn’t think works for Inuit in the North.
He also says the movement in Canada towards community-centred justice in Indigenous communities and tools like Canada’s Gladue principle that requires courts to consider alternatives to incarceration for Indigenous offenders, considering their backgrounds and how experiences like residential schools, or colonial practises in Canada, negatively impacted their lives, don’t work in the Arctic.
“Maybe the Aboriginals need it down South and it comes from First Nations politics, but for Inuit here up North, all it does is send violent offenders, rapists, and criminals with mental health problems back to our small communities where there’s no programs or services to manage them,” Adams says.
“They terrorize our communities and there’s nothing regular people like us can do about it. Southern politicians, Aboriginal politicians, those activist people down south, they say it’s a question of Aboriginal rights. But what about the rights of my dead Inuk son? Why isn’t anyone fighting for him or for the next Inuk that’s going to get killed?”
The Kativik Regional Government, the administrative body for Nunavik which also oversees public security in the region did not respond to requests for comment on whether there were sufficient resources in Nunavik’s smaller communities to supervise offenders after release.
An undated photo of Mattiusie Qamugaaluk. (Mattiusie Qamugaaluk’s Facebook page)
Mattiusie Qamugaaluk is the 32-year-old man arrested and charged with the first-degree murder of Robert Adams.
In Canada, any person charged with a criminal offence is presumed innocent until proven guilty in court.
Reached by phone, Qamugaaluk’s defence lawyer Jacques Stuart, declined to comment on the current charges faced by his client relating to Robert Adams’ death; (first-degree murder, threatening to use a weapon; failure to comply with an undertaking), while the case was still making its way through court.
Qamugaaluk’s mother and three siblings did not respond to interview or requests for comment made in Kangiqsujuaq, through Facebook, or through intermediaries, during the reporting of this story.
Qamugaaluk has prior convictions in Montreal and various Nunavik communities over the last 10 years for theft, vandalism, break and enter, criminal harassment, assaults on both the public and police officers, sexual assault against women and one minor, failure to comply with probation orders and failure to comply with a court order to take medication.
Qamugaaluk was set to appear in court in Kangiqsujuaq on February 7, 2018 to face two new charges of criminal harassment, but the judge and lawyers never made it to the community.
Court was cancelled at the last minute because of weather.
Less than six weeks later, Robert Adams was dead and Qamugaaluk had been charged with first-degree murder.
“Reconciliation doesn’t mean anything to me,” says Adams pictured here with his daughter Elisapie in Kangiqsujuaq, Quebec. “It hasn’t stopped the bootlegging, violence and social issues in my community. Didn’t stop my son from getting murdered. Sometimes I think your country just wants us all dead.” (Eilís Quinn/Eye on the Arctic)
While the Adams family continues to grieve, so does the community of Kangiqsujuaq.
Community members say the Adams and Qamugaaluk families are still suffering along with their friends and loved ones.
And with the suicides and accidents this year, everybody in Kangiqsujuaq has been affected by tragedy in some way.
(Charlie Arngak, the mayor of Kangiqsujuaq until November 2018, did not respond to interview or fact-check requests during the reporting of this story. Or to requests for comment on whether the community had the resources it needed to deal with this year’s tragedies. New mayor Qiallak Nappaaluk could not be reached for comment.)
Mary Pilurtuut, a past mayor of Kangiqsujuaq, and the current president of the community’s Wellness Committee, a body that acts as a liaison with the Nunavik health and social services board in Kuujjuaq, stresses the village’s resilience but says it’s been hard watching the suffering in the community.
Pilurtuut says the Inuktitut-speaking counsellors flown in from the Nunavik health board’s department of Inuit Values and Practices after a crisis are valuable to communities, but that there’s only a handful of such counsellors for the entire region.
Pilurtuut says eighty to eighty-five percent of Nunavik community funding comes from the province of Quebec but that the resources needed to truly address community issues long term simply isn’t there. The Wellness Committee gets $25,000 a year for its programming, she says, but it often has to look elsewhere to fully realize its projects.
“Something needs to change,” she says. “We Inuit, we’ve been known to be silent people. Very quiet. Even when we need to speak up or speak out, we tend to lay back and say nothing. I guess we have to try to keep practising what we need to say and speak on. But sometimes, I think we’re still afraid.”
In fall, the wave of suicides Nunavik residents began talking about on Facebook in spring, finally hit the news media in southern Canada.
An emergency meeting was held in Kuujjuaq at the end of October.
Bernie Adams says the southern media attention won’t change anything long term, just the way the media attention around the Viens commission didn’t make navigating Quebec’s public services in the aftermath of Robert’s death, any easier for his family.
Adams says he’s frustrated with the amount of reports, commissions and inquiries into Aboriginal issues that have been undertaken since Canada’s 1996 Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, that he says, have done nothing to change day-to-day life in his community.
In Canada, the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG), examining violence against Indigenous women, wraps up in December 2018, with the final report expected in April 2019.
In Quebec, the Viens commission will wrap up hearings by the end of 2018 examining the relationships between the province’s public services and Indigenous peoples.
Their final report and recommendations are expected by September 2019.
Adams testified at both inquiries this year, but says he feels they, along with media coverage around reconciliation, one of the cornerstone policies of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau that seeks to redefine the relationships between the government and Canada’s Indigenous peoples are more about southern consumption than really changing the day-to-day lives of Indigenous peoples.
“It doesnt’ mean anything to me, sadly,” she says. “(The inquiries, reconciliation) end up feeling, like, just talk out there. But I ask myself, ‘Where’s the work that’s being talked about? Where’s the money to address what’s being talked about?’ It’s not reaching us. I don’t see it in my community.”
Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, Canada’s national Inuit organization, includes reconciliation as one of their key objectives in the organizations’s 2016-2019 Strategy and Action Plan, but declined to comment for this report.
Mary Simon, a long-time Inuit rights activist from Kuujjuaq, and former Canadian ambassador for circumpolar affairs, launched a petition this November calling on the Canadian and Quebec governments to declare a state of emergency over the suicide and social issue crisis in Nunavik.
Simon lost her own 22-year-old niece to suicide in October and in a Facebook post, described how the lack of services in Arctic Quebec prevented her niece from getting the help she needed.
(At the time of publication, the petition was still 943 signatures away from its 18,000-signature target.)
Pilurtuut says strong actions from Inuit leaders like Simon give her hope. But concrete actions from provincial and federal policy makers just aren’t there to ensure lasting change.
“Even when I was the mayor, whenever the premier or a politician was coming to Kangiqsujauq, I’d just say (to myself), it’s like a waste of time energy. We’re not going to get anything out of those visits. I never liked it.”
Andre Anogak, Robert Adams’ half-brother, in Kangiqsujuaq, Quebec. (Eilís Quinn/Eye on the Arctic)
Makivik Corporation, the organization that represents Quebec Inuit, says the challenges faced by the residents of Kangiqsujuaq, and other Nunavik communities, this year, prove that the status quo is not working.
“Makivik is not only concerned about the growing lack of services in Justice and Mental Health in the Inuit territory of Nunavik but also lives the effects of the absence of these services,” said Makivik president Charlie Watt. “It is shameful there are serious gaps in many fields and our people suffer for it.
“Our problems will not be solved by the South. Solutions will be found by our people.”
Sylvie D’Amours, Quebec’s minister responsible for aboriginal affairs, says the issues raised by the residents of Kangiqsujuaq are being actively worked on by the government.
“The Quebec government is deeply concerned about the precariousness of Nunavik’s social fabric,” D’Amours said in emailed comment to Eye on the Arctic. “The Government of Quebec offers its full and complete collaboration to Inuit organizations in the search for solutions adapted to the realities of Nunavik Inuit.”
D’Amours said the government was also committed closely examining recommendations from the Viens commission when the final report is tabled in 2019.
“By launching this inquiry, the Government of Quebec seeks to improve service delivery to First Nations and Inuit, to restore trust between Indigenous communities and Quebec’s public services, and to work in partnerships with Indigenous peoples to ensure services are delivered sensitively, relevantly and reassuringly.”
Meanwhile, back in Kangiqsujuaq, Bernie and Mary Adams, Robert’s brothers, sisters, friends and extended family, say they’re still struggling to grieve Robert’s death. For Bernie Adams, there were late night calls to his AA sponsor in Montreal this summer, when he wondered if just one drink might ease the pain for a while, but says he’s not ready to give up.
“I’m still raising three young children at home and want to show them I still have hope for the community and for Nunavik. If I lost my hope I could go back to the way I was at 22; drunk, stoned and violent.
“But I have to keep fighting for my son. I don’t want him to be another Inuk man or boy dead by violence that Canada, Quebec, and Nunavik failed, but then gets to forget about.
“They don’t. I’m his father, and I won’t let them.”