Monday, September 22, 2014
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Prince Rupert man’s death accidental, coroner rules, but First Nations advocate isn’t buying it

By Frank Luba, The Province

A coroner’s decision that the suspicious death of a Prince Rupert man last year was accidental isn’t good enough for critics of the investigation into the sad case of Justin Allen Thomas Brooks.

Coroner Joy Sundin ruled Brooks, 21, died accidentally from drowning and said acute alcohol intoxication was a factor in his death.

Sundin made no recommendations arising from the March 2013 incident, although Brooks’ death resulted in his family and First Nations groups raising an alarm about a number of suspicious deaths along the waterfront in Prince Rupert.

Christine Martin, executive director of the Vancouver Aboriginal Transformative Justice Service Society, isn’t satisfied with the coroner’s conclusion.

“It was no surprise to us they deemed it a slip and fall,” Martin said Tuesday.

“This isn’t the end,” she vowed. “This is just the beginning.

“From this case, we received many, many calls from across B.C. — families with very similar situations to Justin’s case, saying, ‘We need help.’

“They under-investigate a lot of these cases.”

Martin said her group hopes to form a sort of Justin Justice Team that will collect complaints from families about suspicious deaths and help those families deal with authorities.

For Martin, there is an echo of Vancouver’s missing women situation, in which concerns about disappearances from the Downtown Eastside were dismissed because no bodies were found — until Robert Pickton’s pig farm was excavated.

“We’re going against the same wall,” said Martin. “I live here in Vancouver, so I know first hand what that wall looks like when you’re trying to say, ‘Look, there’s something happening here.’”

Brooks was found dead in the water off Rotary Waterfront Harbour on March 4, 2013. He had reportedly been in an altercation the night before his body was found.

The RCMP investigated but ruled out foul play.

A full post-mortem examination of Brooks was conducted at Vancouver General Hospital, and drowning was determined to be the cause of death.

“Minor blunt force injuries were noted on the head, torso, legs and arms,” Sundin wrote in her report.

“It was determined that these injuries were not contributory to the cause of death, but it could not be determined if these injuries were the result of a physical altercation or from a fall down the steep rocky shore.”

The “significant level” of alcohol intoxication was found in the toxicology examination.

Brooks’ mother Cheryl Ryan was critical of the RCMP conclusion that he had either had an accident or committed suicide.

She said her son, who couldn’t swim and avoided the water, was in a relationship, had a child and a full-time job.

“I have a problem because they (police) know my son was beaten,” said Ryan last year. “They know the people that did it. No one went to jail, even for assault.”

Brooks’ death followed those of Emmalee McLean, 16, whose body was found submerged near a Prince Rupert marina in 2010, and Kayla Rose McKay, 13, who was found on the waterfront in 2004 and whose death was consistent with acute alcohol poisoning.

The deaths were enough to prompt visits to Prince Rupert by Martin’s group, the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs and the B.C. Civil Liberties Association.

“There’s a pattern, a disturbing pattern with respect to the death of young aboriginal people,” UBCIC Grand Chief Stewart Philip said at the time.

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