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Charges in Abdi Case Still “A Long Way from Justice”

by Sarah Nixon

On March 6, the Special Investigations Unit (SIU) laid charges against Constable Daniel Montsion following a seven-month investigation into his involvement in the death of Abdirahman Abdi. The SIU, a provincial police watchdog unit responsible for investigating cases of death, serious injury or sexual assault involving members of the police force, concluded that Const. Montsion should be charged with manslaughter, aggravated assault and assault with a weapon. Const. Montsion, who had been assigned to desk duty since the incident on July 24, 2016, was suspended from work with pay and awaits a March 29, 2017 court date.

Abdi, a Somali-Canadian with mental health issues, died in hospital after an altercation with Ottawa police on the morning of July 24, 2016. After reportedly groping a woman at a Bridgehead coffee shop on Wellington Street, Abdi fled from police toward his Hilda Street apartment complex, where officers arrived and proceeded to restrain him. Eyewitnesses reported that Abdi was pepper-sprayed, punched and beaten with a baton during the altercation.

Surveillance video of the incident has not been released to the public, but Heather Badenoch, a communications consultant, is among a small group of individuals who have reviewed the footage. Badenoch described what transpires in the video to the CBC. Badenoch said the footage shows Abdi was lying still, face down on the pavement in front of the building, when Const. Montsion “punches him in the head very violently, twice, and we never see Abdi move again.” When paramedics arrived on the scene, they found Abdi showing no vital signs. They attempted to revive him and transported him to hospital in critical condition. He was pronounced dead at 3:17 p.m. the following afternoon.

The SIU’s announcement of the charges to be laid against Const. Montsion was received with some reservations by the Justice for Abdirahman Coalition. The Coalition was formed in the wake of Abdi’s death by a group of diverse community members determined to advocate on his behalf for genuine change to Ottawa’s policing and law enforcement institutions. Farhia Ahmed, spokesperson for the group, wrote in an email to the Leveller that the Coalition “welcomes the decision by the Special Investigations Unit (SIU) to lay charges against Constable Daniel Montsion,” but stressed that the charges are only one important step. “We are a long way from justice,” she wrote. Ahmed explained that the SIU has laid only 20 culpable homicide charges since its creation in 1990, 11 of which were manslaughter charges. “There has only been one conviction,” she wrote, while two cases remain before the courts. In a statement released by the Coalition on March 7, they explain that “Abdirahman was not armed and had no violent or criminal history. More importantly, he posed no threat to the officer who took his life.”

Craig McFarlane of the law and legal studies department at Carleton University also expressed reservations about the announced charges. “Const. Montsion’s attorney, Michael Edelson, is a very good lawyer who has had incredible success at protecting his law enforcement clients from severe repercussions,” McFarlane wrote in an email to the Leveller. McFarlane speculated that “the Crown will have a very difficult case to prosecute despite the ample video evidence,” and went on to state that incidents like the absolutely unnecessary beating death of Abdi will continue until police forces and police officers face severe professional and criminal consequences for their acts.”

“That Abdi died at the hands of police in Ottawa is somewhat of an anomaly. That police routinely use force against racialized groups, the mentally ill and the homeless is not an anomaly,” McFarlane wrote.

However, President of the Ottawa Police Association Matt Skof shared an opposing view in an interview conducted by the CBC shortly after the incident in July. “To suggest that race was an issue in this, it’s inappropriate,” Skof said, also referring to Abdi as “assaultive in behaviour” during the altercation that led to his death.

Montsion failed to attend his bail hearing on the afternoon his charges were announced. Instead, he reported to the Elgin Street police station and was later released from the Kanata OPP station by the senior officer on duty at the time. A representative for the Ministry of the Attorney General justified the action in an interview with the CBC, citing a Criminal Code statute that gives discretion to the officer-in-charge to decide who can be released from holding prior to a bail hearing. However, Montsion’s release and his failure to appear in court caused public concern, with accusations being raised that Montsion is receiving special treatment because he is a police officer.

Controversy in relation to Abdi’s death has also arisen in recent days as a result of Const. Montsion’s use of Oakley brand “Standard Issue Assault Gloves.” Oakley sells a line of gloves designed for use by military and law enforcement professionals. The gloves range from lightweight designs made in part of leather and suede to the heavier duty model worn by Const. Montsion, which are equipped with thick carbon to cover the knuckles of the wearer. Oakley describes this particular product as a “military protective glove” on their website, while a company representative described the carbon plating as “a pair of brass knuckles on a glove” to the CBC. A user review of the gloves displayed on the Oakley site boasts that they “are great for their intended use — assaults,” while another user noted “[k]nuckles are very well protected while punching just about anything.”

The CBC also reported that a source within the Ottawa Police Service identified Montsion’s wearing of the gloves as “central” to the SIU’s assault with a weapon charge. Within the OPS, various units receive these assault gloves to wear on the job. Montsion’s unit, the Direct Action Response Team, was one such unit. Spokesperson for the Toronto police Meghan Gray told CBC News that its members have been using similar reinforced gloves for 20 years, and that they are meant to protect officers when they encounter hazards like “broken glass, jagged metal/wood from door frames, locks, hinges” and so on. However, Gray explained that although gloves are never supplied for the purpose of increasing an officer’s ability to deploy force on another person, police have the discretion to determine the necessary degree of force in a given situation. Gray told the CBC she “simply can’t speculate on how the gloves factor into every incident.”

As a result, concern has been raised about the lack of training for police on the appropriate use of these reinforced gloves. The Ontario Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services, the entity responsible for approving weapons carried by police in the province, has stated that gloves qualify as protective equipment rather than weapons and therefore do not warrant review.

Ottawa Police Chief Charles Bordeleau has ordered an audit of the gloves to determine all members who own them throughout the police force, including those who received the gloves from their units and those who purchased them directly from Oakley. The audit is to be completed by March 22.

In the meantime, the Justice for Abdirahman Coalition will continue its advocacy work, which has been ongoing since August. In that time, the Coalition has established a dialogue with the OPS, and met directly with Bordeleau to address a set of issues within the police force and provide recommendations for their resolution. The Coalition also played a key role in reversing the decision against implementing body camera technology for Ottawa police officers, with a pilot project now set to begin in the near future. The Coalition met with the Ottawa Police Service Board in January to recommend that an independent third party audit of the OPS’ diversity and equity practices be conducted. These are only a few highlights of the many accomplishments made by the Coalition in the past seven months. As Ahmed wrote to the Leveller, the death of Abdirahman must not be in vain. Abdirahman represented the most vulnerable in our community and his violent death should spur us to do more to address the real issues around systemic racism and the lack of support for mental health.”

Anyone who wants to support the Justice for Abdirahman Coalition can start by visiting their website: www.justiceforabdirahman.ca.

This article first appeared in the Leveller Vol. 9, No. 6 (Spring 2017).

Numbers Don’t Lie: MedLife takes a look at refugee health in Canada

by Ash Abraham Coutu

When approaching a discussion surrounding the crisis in Syria, it can be helpful to strike a balance between logic and emotion. MedLife, a University of Ottawa campus based club, did just that with their MedTalk conference, which examined the numbers and costs associated with refugee health.

UOttawa epidemiology professor Raywat Deonandan dispelled several commonly held misconceptions about refugee resettlement in a presentation, in which he mentioned that only four per cent of refugees have been settled in North America. Forty-eight per cent of refugees are found in Asia and twenty-nine per cent have been resettled throughout Africa.

Deonandan also described healthcare costs for refugees, which on average are only one-tenth of  a Canadian’s healthcare costs. He noted that refugees pay taxes, yet “their taxes do not give them the same choice or breadth of services as other taxpayers.”

Biomedical science student and organizer of the MedLife event, Israa Dawod, was floored by the information laid out in Deonandan’s presentation. Dawod told the Leveller that, “I knew we weren’t taking in as many people as we could but I was blown away by all of those numbers. Without these numbers, we would go on assuming that what we hear in the media is correct and it’s not.” Dawod added, “I think we have an obligation in a privileged society such as ours to take in refugees. I do a lot of refugee work and most of them are children.”

Suelana Taha, who works directly with refugee children, gave a presentation from her perspective as the Newcomer Patient Navigator at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO).

Taha told the Leveller, “when the [Syrian] refugees first started coming to CHEO, there were misunderstandings and miscommunications but I’ve started to see changes.” Taha asserts that education has been key in perpetuating the change. She says, “it’s about educating these families so they don’t fall through the cracks.”

Language barriers and a lack of awareness of available health services often hinders refugee families from accessing healthcare. To tackle this issue, Taha provides culturally sensitive information to staff members. Additionally, Taha makes sure each family has an interpreter. One practical way interpreters assist is by calling families to remind them of their upcoming appointments. As a result, CHEO has seen a decline in their “no show” rates. Taha believes it is important to treat newcomers’ health issues right away. She points out, “we have refugee children who are coming in with advanced dental care issues and they are in pain. We can prevent more pain and save the hospital more money with admissions. Fix the problem first before it becomes bigger and costs more in the long run.”

Although saving money is an advantage, Taha says, “our goal is to make kids better and feel supported.” The quicker the children are treated, the faster they are able to integrate into society and begin to live a healthy life. Taha says, “Syrian refugee children are resilient. All children are resilient.”

This article first appeared in the Leveller Vol. 9, No. 6 (Spring 2017).

Algonquins of Barriere Lake Embody Refusal of Settler-Colonial Extraction

by Trycia Bazinet

In order to protect both the environment and Indigenous ways of life, land defence and water protection camps of all sizes are organizing  across Turtle Island. While Standing Rock has made headlines in recent months, there are camps closer to home that are embroiled in struggles no less important. One of these camps can be found in La Vérendrye Park (300 kilometres north of Ottawa) and is led by the Algonquins of Barriere Lake. Here they are contending with a mining claim, stretching over 80 square kilometres, which is held by the mineral exploration company Copper One Inc.

Even though the Algonquins of Barriere Lake live on unceded territories, the community has a Trilateral Agreement (signed with Canada and Québec in 1991) and a supplementary bilateral agreement with Québec (1998), which means they have a say in extraction projects that take place in their territory. Yet, their sovereignty is still being challenged.

In 2016, the mining moratorium — in place since 2011 and retroactively suspending numerous mining permits, including ones held by Copper One — was lifted by the Québec Ministry of Energy and Natural Resources without consultation or consent from the community. During the fall of 2016, Copper One trespassed onto the territory of the Algonquins of Barriere Lake to conduct exploration activities.

According to Ugo Lapointe of MiningWatch Canada, a group dedicated to reinforcing the need for safe and responsible mining practices in Canada, this kind of trespassing is permissible due to Québec’s “free entry” mining system.

The “free entry” mining system is essentially a modernized version of the gold rush where, broadly speaking, anyone with a credit card and internet access can buy a mining claim. The basic premise behind the system is that the federal government claims ownership rights of subsurface minerals and can then lease these rights to any entity who holds a prospecting licence, having been obtained by paying a small fee to a provincial or territorial government.

Once “free entry” is granted, exploration work including drilling can be conducted.

With this in mind, the Algonquins of Barriere Lake are looking to broaden their support base in order to successfully resist these attacks on Anishinaabe lands and rights. At a March 11 fundraiser in Ottawa, community elder Michel Thusky equated mining exploration activities on Algonquin territory as a “massacre against their culture.”

Unfortunately, Anishinaabe people are no strangers to this and to other kinds of violence.

To date, Québec has denied Copper One’s request for a permit to further explore the land in question. Copper One, however, has initiated legal action against the Québec government. The first hearing took place on Feb. 24.

At the aforementioned fundraiser, Norman Matchewan, Councilor of the Barriere Lake Algonquins, speculated that it is “not expected that Quebec will put up a fight [against the corporation].”

Therefore, the community is in need of funding to pursue legal action. Since Québec’s Mining Act does not even recognize the presence of First Nations people, it has been called “unconstitutional” by the Assembly of First Nations of Québec and Labrador. This means they may have to take legal action against Québec’s Mining Act.

Carleton’s Graduate Students’ Association (GSA) has recently passed a motion to support the ongoing struggles of the Algonquins of Barriere Lake. In line with their land acknowledgment, the GSA recognizes that supporting communities who oppose extraction on their territory is a tangible, material way in which universities can demonstrate solidarity with Indigenous peoples. The GSA has promised to issue a statement of support as well as a donation to the camp. 

Community members and supporters have been invited to participate in a human rights delegation to Barriere Lake on March 22. Participants from various local human rights campaigns, such as Justice For Abdirahman and the Ontario Committee for Human Rights in the Philippines, have been sought out by Barriere Lake residents. The delegation will be hosted by residents, who will cook a traditional lunch and provide a tour of the community.

The community is seeking short-term and long-term support for their campaign against Copper One and to compel the Québec government to maintain the suspension of Copper One’s mining claims as well as extending the suspension to all mining claims on Barriere Lake’s territories.

On Feb. 16, Québec Solidaire’s Manon Massé, member of the National Assembly of Quebec, submitted a petition containing over 2,000 signatures in support of the Algonquins of Barriere Lake. The petition calls on “the Québec Minister of Energy and Natural Resources to completely ban all mining activity (staking, exploration, development) within the 1991 Trilateral Agreement Territory of the Algonquins of Barriere Lake (La Vérendrye Wildlife Reserve Region).”

A press release issued by the community on the same day expressed gratitude towards Massé and other supporters. “We would like to see everyone working together towards reconciliation with First Nations rights and interests, including the right to self-determination and implementing our own vision for developing and caring for the land,” said Chief Casey Ratt. “It’s the only way to ensure a viable future for our community and our culture.”

This article first appeared in the Leveller Vol. 9, No. 6 (Spring 2017).

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