Family frustrated: No answers seven months after unexplained death of loved one

Duncan, BC

It has been seven months since James Williams, 52, was found deceased in his unit at a Duncan shelter and the family is still waiting for answers about how their loved one died.

James Williams was a Tla-o-qui-aht father of five. His mother was a member of Yucluthaht First Nation, so he had many close relatives there, including his cousin Jennifer Touchie.

What the family knows is that Williams had been in the hospital receiving treatment for pancreatitis. Jennifer Touchie told Ha-Shilth-Sa that he had been picked up from the streets of Duncan on July 15, 2020, the afternoon he was released from the hospital.

According to a police statement, Williams was picked up about 4:30 p.m. on Wednesday, July 15 for public intoxication. He was released from cells nine hours later at 1:30 a.m. on Thursday, July 16. At some point afterward, he went to his unit at Warmland House in the city of Duncan. Later that afternoon he was found deceased in his unit.

The investigation into Williams’ death was handed over to the BC Coroner’s Service and the Independent Investigations Office of, a civilian oversight agency that looks into police-related incidents that result in serious harm or death.

According to Touchie, who has been in frequent contact with the agencies investigating the death, the IIO has completed their investigation but cannot move forward with a report until the BC Coroner’s services completes its investigation. And the coroner cannot release its report until it receives the toxicology report.

“We can’t speed up the process – it a waiting game,” said Touchie, adding that the wait is adding to the heartbreak and frustration that the family suffers. Something needs to be done to speed up the process, she said.

NTC Vice President Mariah Charleson is the family spokesperson and has advocated on their behalf, speaking to the various officials.

“I have been in contact with the family as well as the IIO investigators, IIO family liaison, as well as had a meeting with the Chief Civilian Director of the Independent Investigations Office (IIO) Ron MacDonald,” she stated in an email to Ha-Shilth-Sa. “There’s been no progress.”

They need to know how and why their father died, she continued, adding that this process is similar to the one Chantel Moore’s family is going through in New Brunswick.

On June 4, 2020, Moore, age 26, was shot and killed in her Edmundston, NB apartment during a wellness check by an Edmundston Police Force officer. Her family has been waiting eight agonizing months for investigators to complete their reports and find out whether charges will be laid against the police officer.

At a summer rally to raise awareness over these two cases, NTC President Judith Sayers and Charleson spoke to federal NDP leader Jagmeet Singh and MP Gord Johns.

“We spoke to them about having an Indigenous oversight body that would get involved as soon as an IIO investigation is launched involving Indigenous people,” Charleson said.

She said the proposed body would ensure that investigations are done in a culturally sensitive manner and would be in constant communication with both investigators and families.

“When there’s no answers imaginations run wild,” said Charleson.

NTC leadership, she said, is pushing for this so that any time an Indigenous person is injured or killed at the hands of police officers, someone will be there to look after the interests of the victim and their families.

Charleson said that investigators informed the family that they should have answers by September 2020, but they are still waiting and feel forgotten about.

The BC Coroner’s Service said in an email to Ha-Shilth-Sa that the investigation is not complete and there is no information to share.

The IIO issued an information bulletin on their website outlining the RCMP’s interaction with Williams on the day he died.

“The IIO will investigate to determine what role, if any, the officers’ actions or inaction may have played in the death of the man,” stated the bulletin. “The BC Coroners Service is also conducting an independent investigation to determine how, where, when and by what means he came to his death.”

Touchie says the family knows Williams was being treated for pancreatitis. In addition, she said the coroner let it slip that Williams died of a head injury.

“I don’t know if he was supposed to tell us, but we know and we need answers,” she said. “His poor children and grandchildren. We need to be his voice.”

The IIO can file a report to Crown counsel to consider charges. If a report is not referred to Crown, the IIO produces a pubic document explaining their findings.

“We cannot sit silent on this matter and must be provided the answers the family needs and have requested at in-person meetings with the IIO investigators,” said Charleson, vowing to continue the fight on behalf of the people. “Far too many of us know of stories like this…and far too many times we didn’t have it in us to fight for those answers.”

“We will accept whatever they say, we just need to know what happened,” said Touchie.

She went on to say that something needs to change. Maybe it’s a lack of coroners. Keeping families waiting is heartbreaking and frustrating, she said.

“I really believe we need to have that oversight body of workers to advocate on our behalf because we’re always on the backburner,” said Touchie.

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