At the time, Calgary police said the 54-year-old woman had been taken into RCMP custody in Tuktoyaktuk at around 10:30pm on July 31, 2021 regarding an instance of public intoxication. Police said the woman passed away just after midnight the following morning.
The police service subsequently completed its investigation and sent it in February to be reviewed by the Public Prosecution Service of Canada, which is responsible for prosecuting criminal offences in the territory.
The prosecution service recently told Cabin Radio that review is now complete. Calgary police say they plan to issue more information in the coming weeks.
Details about the results of the review and investigation, including the cause of death, have yet to be publicly released.
While many provinces have independent oversight bodies to investigate deaths involving the police, there are none in the territories. Instead, investigations are led by outside police forces like the Calgary Police Service or other RCMP divisions.
Ron MacDonald is the chief civilian director of BC’s Independent Investigations Office, the oversight agency that investigates police-related incidents in the province involving death or serious harm.
He said the length of time for the Tuktoyaktuk investigation to be completed is not unusual. These kinds of investigations can involve third-party expert evidence on things like toxicology, he said, adding that in this case, travel and distance likely also caused a delay.
“We’ve had cases that last that long. It’s longer than I would like to see it happen, but it does happen,” he said.
In BC, once an investigation is completed, MacDonald said it can take the Crown several months – and sometimes more than a year – to determine whether or not to lay charges.
Reconsider putting intoxicated people in cells
MacDonald has advocated against putting people who are intoxicated by drugs or alcohol in police cells. He says it’s not uncommon for people who are intoxicated to become seriously ill or die in custody.
“This is why I have, on many occasions, publicly stated that it’s time for us to reconsider how we house intoxicated persons,” he said.
“If we pick up people to make sure they’re cared for, they should be in an environment where they can receive appropriate care from trained medical professionals.”
MacDonald said that can include sobering centres or having healthcare staff on site.
A CBC investigation published in late 2021 found that since 2010, 61 people had died after being taken into police custody related to public intoxication across Canada, including three in the NWT.
According to that investigation, half of all cases took place in RCMP detachments and the majority in rural communities, where there are often no sobering or detox centres.
RCMP said they recorded 161 in-custody deaths across Canada from 2009 to 2021. Of those incidents, 24.8 percent were related to drug or alcohol toxicity.
“The death of any person in police custody is a tragedy. The RCMP is committed to ensuring the safety of those it’s charged with protecting while in custody,” RCMP said in a statement.
RCMP estimate they are the primary police service for roughly 22 percent of Canadians, and in many parts of the country are the only service available around the clock. The absence of sobering centres or other social services can result in intoxicated people being lodged in cells, RCMP added.
“The RCMP welcomes working with its partners and stakeholders to develop safe lodging alternatives, when there is no element of criminality, and RCMP cells are not the ideal location for them,” the Mounties stated.
The NWT government first established a temporary sobering centre in Yellowknife, operated by the NWT Disabilities Council, in 2017. It was housed in the Yellowknife Community Arena, then the Salvation Army, before a long-term day and sobering centre was opened on 50 Street with on-site medical support.
The territorial government took control of that sobering centre in April 2022 and ended third-party on-site medical support in October that year.
The NWT Health and Social Services Authority said staff at the centre are now responsible for intake assessments, while outreach community nurses are available to support healthcare needs.
Centre staff perform wellness checks and call ambulances when further assessment or treatment is needed, the authority added.
The territory plans by December 2025 to open a permanent facility, which it calls a wellness and recovery centre, to replace the sobering centre and temporary day shelter. The health authority said it has not yet decided which medical services will be provided at that centre.