Indigenous man fatally shot by RCMP was troubled but not violent, says chief

MIRAMICHI, N.B. — The chief of a New Brunswick First Nation says an Indigenous man shot and killed by the RCMP was troubled, but not a violent person.

Chief Bill Ward of the Metepenagiag Mi'kmaq Nation said Rodney Levi shouldn't have become the province's second victim of a fatal police shooting in less than a month on Friday.

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"He had his demons but he was always very friendly, he never tried to harm anybody," Ward said during an emotional Facebook event on Saturday.

Ward says Levi visited his home Friday and talked about wanting to move to Fort McMurray, Alta., for a fresh start.

He said Levi was a slight man who tried to get a mental health assessment at hospital recently, but was refused. Ward said Levi had trouble sleeping in the days before the incident.

"He's not a violent man. He might have poached some salmon but that's it," Ward said from the community about 30 kilometres west of Miramichi.

The RCMP were called after Levi went to a barbecue with the minister's family at his church in a bid for help, wisdom and guidance.

However, Ward said police told him that Levi had two knives in his sweater and threatened officers.

Ward said Levi was shot by a relatively new officer with little experience in the community instead of a veteran officer who would have de-escalated the confrontation.

"He wasn't in the right state of mind at that point of time. He wasn't a violent person, so basically to me what it says is that if you're mentally ill and you have a bad day, the cops can kill you for it," said Ward.

"I just want to preserve his memory and not let people twist the story to justify what they did," he said, taking several breaks to regain his composure. "He wasn't some monster that they're going to try to paint him to be."

Ward said community members were going to remember Levi by lighting a sacred fire and holding an ceremony.

The RCMP said officers responded to a complaint about an "unwanted man" in a home near the community at 7:40 p.m. local time on Friday.

"When police arrived, they were confronted by a man who was carrying knives," said RCMP Cpl. Jullie Rogers-Marsh.

She said officers used a stun gun several times but were unable to subdue the man.

An officer then discharged a firearm. The suspect was declared dead in hospital around 9 p.m.

On June 4, Chantel Moore, 26, died after being shot by an Edmundston Police Department officer. Moore, from a First Nation in British Columbia, had moved to the community to be near her mother and six-year-old daughter.

Police have said an officer performing a wellness check allegedly encountered a woman with a knife.

"It's an international disaster when you talk about racism," Roger Augustine, the regional chief representing New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island, said in an interview.

"Racism is everywhere. It's like a virus, like COVID-19. That's how I see racism. It just seeps through the communities and kills the young people, and the old people."

Quebec's independent police investigation agency, the Bureau des enquetes independantes, is investigating both shootings. New Brunswick does not have a similar agency, explaining why the Quebec organization is involved.

On Saturday, the bureau explained in an unsigned statement that it had accepted a request by New Brunswick authorities to determine the circumstances surrounding the death of a 48-year-old man during an RCMP intervention.

The watchdog said it is responsible for informing for keeping in touch with family and while the information is confidential to the bureau, the family representative can choose to share it as they see fit.

The BEI said it will submit a report to the coroner overseeing the probe and the New Brunswick Public Prosecution Service to determine whether charges will be laid.

"It will be up to these authorities to make the BEI report public or not, depending on the applicable legislation," the Quebec agency said.

Levi's death prompted scores of emotional reactions from members of the community.

My bro Rodney Levi, my childhood friend ... Got tears in my eyes thinking how this happened," wrote Dwayne Everett Ward.

"Shot twice by the police ... I pray for all your family, I know they're hurting right now ... I'm overwhelmed with sadness about all this."

New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs tweeted his condolences on Saturday to families, friends and communities affected.

"I am deeply saddened to learn of an incident last night on the Metepenagiag First Nation that resulted in the death of a man," Higgs said.

There have been calls since for a broader inquiry to examine systemic bias against Indigenous people in the province's policing and criminal justice systems.

Jake Stewart, New Brunswick's minister of Aboriginal affairs, has said he supports the call, saying the province has a problem with systemic racism toward Indigenous people.

On Friday, the commissioner of the RCMP, Brenda Lucki, issued a statement saying it is her responsibility to ensure the RCMP is free of racism, discrimination and bias.

She also said she struggled with the concept of systemic racism when asked about the issue.

"I did acknowledge that we, like others, have racism in our organization, but I did not say definitively that systemic racism exists in the RCMP," she said. "I should have."

"As many have said, I do know that systemic racism is part of every institution, the RCMP included. Throughout our history and today, we have not always treated racialized and Indigenous people fairly."

Augustine said "systemic racism is not owned by the RCMP."

"And it's not owned by any government in any country. Systemic racism is something that has to be addressed by the community itself, and in this case it's New Brunswick. Racism exists in all peoples. Racism is about judging people. When (you) walk down the streets and you see someone you don't like, you judge their clothing, the colour of their skin .... that's racism."

The six chiefs in the Wolastoqey First Nation in New Brunswick also issued a statement on Levi's death.

"As we have said all week, we are not experiencing isolated incidents, this is just further proof that systemic discrimination is pervasive in this province," they wrote. "We need action now, we cannot afford another tragic loss of life."

Meanwhile, marches have been organized for cities across the Maritimes in memory of Moore.

Indigenous groups have planned healing walks to take place simultaneously in Edmundston, Fredericton and Moncton, N.B., as well as Halifax and Membertou, N.S.

About 500 marchers arrived at a Halifax police station to finish their event.

— With files from Ross Marowits in Toronto, Sidhartha Banerjee in Montreal and Michael MacDonald in Halifax.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 13, 2020.

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