A long-awaited public inquest into the death four years ago of Jocelyn George, a young Hequiaht/Ahousaht mother, is scheduled for July 6 at Port Alberni Courthouse.
A coroner’s inquest is a formal court proceeding that allows for public presentation of evidence related to a death.
George, 18, died in a Victoria hospital in June 2016 after she was held overnight in RCMP custody in Port Alberni. The day before, she was arrested for being intoxicated in public, released and then re-arrested after a relative, concerned for her safety, contacted police.
In the weeks and months that followed, George’s family questioned the circumstances of her treatment in custody at the Port Alberni detachment.
An investigation two years later by the civilian-led Independent Investigations Office of B.C. left those questions unanswered. The ILO found there were no grounds on which to bring charges against any of the police officers involved in George’s incarceration.
Although George’s official cause of death was found to be myocarditis (cardiac arrest or inflammation of the heart muscle) due to drug toxicity, the teen’s family and community wondered how her deteriorating condition was not noticed sooner. Family members felt racial discrimination played a role in her treatment while in custody.
The Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council said at the time that it was deeply disappointed by the ILO findings and called for a broad review of police misconduct in the treatment of Indigenous people. The ILO report brought no closure for the family, said NTC President Judith Sayers when it was released in January 2018.
“Police services in Canada are in need of a thorough review of their policies and procedures,” Sayers said at the time. “This is not the first Nuu-chah-nulth or Indigenous person to die in the custody of the RCMP.”
The NTC specifically called on the RCMP to review their internal practices around monitoring people in custody who are intoxicated in order to prevent similar tragedies. George’s family expressed hope that a Coroner’s inquest might lead to similar recommendations. Inquests are mandatory for any death that occurs in detention or in the custody of a peace officer.
Coroner Michael Egilson and a five-to-seven-member jury will hear evidence from witnesses under oath to determine facts surrounding George’s death.
Egilson chairs the Death Review Panel within the Office of the Chief Coroner. The panel released a report two years ago examining 2013-2017 deaths among 127 persons with recent police encounters in B.C. Recommendations included the use of findings from police encounters to inform ongoing police development.
“The actions in the recommendations below are intended to align with the provincial government’s commitment to a renewed relationship with Indigenous peoples,” the report states.
Inquest juries can make recommendations in order to prevent deaths under similar circumstances, however, they rule on legal culpability or “express any conclusion of law,” according to the coroners service.
“The B.C. Coroners Service looks to gather the facts surrounding why a death took place,” the agency stated in a news release on the inquest. “It is not a fault-finding agency. It provides an independent service to the family, community, government agencies and other organizations.”
When the inquest is complete, a written report or “verdict” is prepared. The verdict includes a classification of the death and any jury recommendations for preventing similar fatalities.
Upon conclusion of the inquest, a written report known as a “verdict” is prepared. Verdicts — posted online at https://www2.gov.bc.ca/gov/content/life-events/death/coroners-service/inquest-schedule-jury-findings-verdicts — include classification of the death and any jury recommendations on how to prevent deaths in similar circumstances.