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Concerns raised after Inuk woman’s death deemed not suspicious by police

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. File / Global News

An Inuit leader in Labrador is calling for an independent police investigation into the death of a 23-year-old Inuk woman, saying the RCMP made assumptions too early in the investigation.

The police force issued a news release last Friday about a woman who was found dead in a wooded area of Happy Valley-Goose Bay early that morning, saying the death was not considered suspicious.

Johannes Lampe, president of the Nunatsiavut Inuit government, responded this week with a statement questioning the thoroughness of the RCMP’s investigation.

“Would this matter have been handled differently if the victim wasn’t a homeless or transient Indigenous woman living in a tent?” Lampe asked in his statement.

READ MORE: Drug-impaired driver arrested with child in car: N.S. RCMP

The RCMP issued a follow-up statement Tuesday saying the death is still not deemed suspicious based on interviews and evidence, but adding it is still under investigation and asking community members for any information.

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“While police are aware of concerns regarding the cause of her death circulating on social media, the RCMP will continue, as a matter of practice and investigative protocol, to conduct a detailed and thorough investigation giving consideration to all available evidence,” the Mounties’ statement said.

A candlelight vigil for the young woman, identified by community members as Tama Bennett, was held Tuesday night at the Labrador Friendship Centre in Happy Valley-Goose Bay.

Jennifer Hefler-Elson, the friendship centre’s executive director, said organizers estimated at least 50 people attended the “sombre” event honouring the young woman’s life, involving prayer, song and smudging.

Hefler-Elson did not know Bennett personally but said she was shaken by the news of a young woman’s sudden death. She and other community members wanted to send the message that Bennett’s life had value. “To honour her, to let her and her family know that we care, that was the reason why the vigil took place,” Hefler-Elson said by phone.

She said she was also bothered the initial police statement saying the death was not considered suspicious, so soon after the woman was found.

“Just say something to the community so that we know. I know they don’t have to, but there’s a lot of things I do in my job that I don’t have to do,” Hefler-Elson said. “Somebody could have reassured us.”

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Social media users posting with the hashtag #JusticeforTama this week have called for greater scrutiny of the circumstances of Bennett’s death and criticized police for making a definitive statement so soon after her body was found.

Lampe said concerns have been raised in the community about whether police gathered all possible evidence or interviewed all key witnesses.

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He also questioned whether the RCMP has “learned anything” from the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

The inquiry’s final report, released this year, called for reforms to policing services that commissioners determined have been plagued by bias, indifference and racism. It also recommended the creation of a national police task force for survivors and families to contact for reviews of past investigations, writing that “the RCMP have not proven to Canada that they are capable of holding themselves to account.”

In the provincial legislature Wednesday, Premier Dwight Ball, who is also minister of Indigenous affairs, was asked by opposition members about the questions surrounding the death and about issues of homelessness in Labrador. He expressed condolences to the woman’s family and said he would comment further when the investigation is complete.

“I think right now the appropriate thing for me to do is let the investigation unfold,” the premier said.

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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 20, 2019.