‘I don’t want to die’: 5 years on, inquest into Mountie’s suicide to begin
The Taser death of Robert Dziekanski at the hands of the Mounties stationed at Vancouver International Airport resulted in blaring headlines around the world implicating the force more than a decade ago.
Dziekanski, a 40-year-old Polish man who spoke no English and was immigrating to Canada to be with his mother in Kamloops, B.C., was confused and anxious upon arrival at the Vancouver airport. He spent hours trying to navigate the inspection lines and customs. Despite landing around 3 p.m., Dziekanski didn’t reach the public meeting area until after midnight.
He became agitated over time. Per the Braidwood inquiry’s final report, people in the area described his behaviour as “unusual, upset, nervous, angry, distraught, and bizarre.” At one point, Dziekanski was seen smashing a small folding table against a glass wall and breaking a computer on the floor in frustration. After someone called 911, the Mounties came. Dziekanski died within minutes of being Tasered, subdued, and handcuffed.
Since that day in October 2007, the fallout has continued, largely in the form of battles behind courthouse doors. All four Mounties at the scene of Dziekanski’s death were charged with perjury: two were acquitted and two were convicted.
And then, there was Sgt. Pierre Lemaitre.
Lemaitre, the force’s media spokesperson in the tense days after Dziekanski’s death, took his own life on July 29, 2013. A lawsuit filed by his widow alleged the RCMP used him as a scapegoat and disregarded the consequences for his mental health. In her statement of claim, Sheila quotes her husband’s own concerns about his mental health: “I don’t want to die.”
Three days after Sgt. Pierre Lemaitre killed himself, his wife Sheila Lemaitre — who, according the suit’s statement of claim, says the Mounties commandeered control over her husband’s funeral from her — remembers a phone call from a senior Mountie. She says that he told her:
“What was done to Pierre was done for the good of the Force.”
The RCMP did not answer questions from Global about the Lemaitre lawsuit. For three days after Dziekanski’s death, as the story spread and reporters clamored for comment, it was Lemaitre — repeating the information investigators relayed to him — whose face the public saw.
When Sheila filed the lawsuit, an RCMP spokesman said it wouldn’t be appropriate to make any official comment on a matter that is subject to a civil proceeding. Earlier this year, the RCMP settled Sheila’s lawsuit, though her lawyer said the terms are bound by a strict nondisclosure agreement. On Monday, the scheduled culmination of the legal proceedings surrounding Lemaitre’s death is set to begin.
Per numerous media reports from the days after the Tasering, it was Lemaitre who told them only three Mounties were on the scene, when in fact there were four; Lemaitre who said the reason police used Tasers, not pepper spray, was because there were many people nearby, when in reality there were not; Lemaitre who stated the Mounties had only Tasered Dziekanski twice, when in fact they had Tasered him five times.
Lemaitre had told reporters that Dziekanski “could have left the airport any time he wanted,” but soon he learned the truth. Though “anxious to set the public record straight,” reads his wife’s statement of claim, he was forbidden by his superiors to do so.
WATCH: Pierre Lemaitre on the stand at Braidwood Inquiry (April 2009)
Two years later, in 2009, the Mounties did publicly apologize for those inaccuracies — but by then, Lemaitre was a traffic cop. As his wife Sheila — herself a former Mountie — would later contend in court documents, Lemaitre had been demoted, transferred and isolated by his peers. She said it wasn’t the first time he’d been similarly punished.
Sometime after his demotion, but before he was medically discharged in February 2013, Lemaitre was granted a pension through Veterans Affairs for PTSD. Then, he killed himself. Six years of being the Mounties’ scapegoat in the high-profile death had undone not only his lengthy career, his wife contended, but also his mental health.
“I spoke with his wife and had the most heart-wrenching conversation with her about the day it happened,” says Alice Fox, a friend of Lemaitre who also has PTSD and settled her own lawsuit against the Mounties for harassment and bullying.
“I had to say, ‘I’ve been there mentally and try not to take it personally’ because you can’t even express how dark it can get.”
The province’s chief coroner ordered the inquest into the suicide because of the public interest in the case, says Andy Watson, spokesman for the coroner’s office. Typically, he says, the coroner will decide to call an inquest in a case where one is not mandated when they see “a pattern or we see a dangerous practice or circumstance emerging.”
The RCMP did not answer questions from Global about Mountie suicides or members of the force with PTSD.
Lemaitre was a 28-year veteran of the RCMP. Former Mounties, like Fox, who’ve fought their own battles with the force say they will be watching. Watson says he expects the inquest will focus on PTSD, which Lemaitre and other first responders have or do still suffer from. Although Watson says he doesn’t want to speak prematurely on the outcome of the Lemaitre inquest, the goal is death prevention.
“What can be done and what needs to be done still to help change the culture and change the climate?” He says. “There have been changes since the death happened … We need to take a look at what further things need to be done.”
Fox remembers Lemaitre.
“He was a good guy,” she says. “He went above and beyond, if you saw his eyes you could see the kindness in them.”
The inquest is scheduled to start Monday in Burnaby. It’s a fact-finding, not fault-finding process.