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Help should have come for man who died in Manitoba RCMP holding cell, inquest hears

One of the top Mounties in Manitoba’s north district testified Tuesday that policies were missed, and a 54-year-old who died in an RCMP holding cell should have gotten help during his final moments.

Insp. Christopher Massart, assistant district officer for Manitoba’s North District, testified at the inquest into John Ettawakapow’s death that intervention was needed when another detainee’s leg fell on Ettawakapow’s neck in a holding cell in 2019.

“It should have been noticed and help should have been asked for,” Massart under questioning by Crown attorney Ben Wickstrom, who is acting as inquest counsel.

Ettawakapow died on Oct. 6, 2019, after being arrested in The Pas, Man., for public intoxication. He was carried into a cell at 7:10 p.m. and left lying on the floor of a holding cell. Two other men were also in the cell, lying on the floor. 

Video played in court Monday showed that at 8:13 p.m., one of the men moved and put his leg over Ettawakapow’s neck, where it stayed for 40 minutes. During that time, no physical checks were made by the guard on duty, the video shows.

That goes against RCMP policy, which requires physical checks every 15 minutes, said Massart.

“Ideally, physical checks would be done as per our policies, every 15 minutes, and that is a physical, visual check at the cell,” he said. “They open the slide and look through the window and check for breathing.”

Instead, the video shows Ettawakapow lifting his arm a few times, grabbing toward his neck before all movement stops. 

It was not until 1:30 a.m. that someone is seen physically checking Ettawakapow. By then, the inquest heard, it was too late.

CBC first told Ettawakapow’s story in 2021, as part of its death in custody project. It found that he was just one of dozens of Canadians who have died in custody after being arrested for public intoxication.

The inquest into Ettawakapow’s death was called in accordance with Manitoba’s Fatalities Inquiries Act, which requires an inquest whenever a person dies in police custody.

The civilian guard on duty when Ettawakapow was brought in testified that she was trained to switch between physically checking on detainees every 15 minutes and monitoring the security cameras.

A portrait of a man in a ball cap and a blue button-up shirt.
John Ettawakapow, 54, was well-known in The Pas, where everyone called him Dot Dot. (Hemauer Funeral Home)

Rebecca MacDonald told court she “didn’t think it was the best way to observe people.”

MacDonald said because of a high-priority call that occupied RCMP officers, she was the only person on duty in the cell area after Ettawakapow was brought in.

She couldn’t recall all the details of the night in 2019 but remembered Ettawakapow, who was known in the community as Dot Dot, for prior public intoxication incidents. 

She said she remembered he was “quite” intoxicated because they had to roll him into the detachment in a wheelchair, when typically he could walk. After he came into the detachment, security video showed officers had to carry Ettawakapow into the cell.

Brenna Dixon, the legal counsel for the federal Department of Justice, asked if taking intoxicated people to the hospital instead of a cell is an option. 

Massart said that comes down to resources, but it typically doesn’t happen because it would take an officer off other duties for too long when a northern detachment has fewer officers, he said.

It would mean spending “a significant time at the hospital,” he said, because the RCMP officer has to remain with them.

The inquest is scheduled to last until Friday in The Pas, with RCMP officers set to testify Wednesday. 

An inquest does not make a finding of criminal responsibility, but determines the circumstances surrounding the death and whether anything can be done to prevent similar deaths in the future. 

The inquest is being presided over by provincial court Judge Brian Colli.

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