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Family of N.W.T. man who died in custody after extended isolation files wrongful death suit

The family of a Gwich’in man who died by suicide after spending 162 days in segregation in federal prison is pursuing a wrongful death lawsuit against the Government of Canada.

Edward Snowshoe, of Fort McPherson, Northwest Territories, died in 2010 at age 24. He had been kept in isolation for 134 days at Manitoba’s Stony Mountain Institution facility just outside Winnipeg, then transferred to the Edmonton Institution where he spent a further 28 days in isolation until he died, says the statement of claim. 

The statement of claim alleges staff and supervisors at the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) “engaged in numerous contraventions of legislation and correctional policies and made numerous oversights and errors in judgment.”

It calls the department’s use of “extended and unlawful segregation as a discipline tool … inhumane, cruel and unnecessarily restrictive,” and accuses the department of negligence, breaches of law and policy, and false imprisonment.

‘Irreparable harm to the family’

“Eddie Snowshoe’s treatment by [Correctional Service of Canada] and his wrongful death resulted from systemic discrimination against him as an Indigenous person present in Canada’s federal institutions,” reads a release from the Gwich’in Tribal Council, which is supporting the family through the lawsuit.

“The pain and suffering unnecessarily inflicted by CSC through their actions and ultimately inaction, upon Eddie’s family, his mother Effie and brothers Herbie, Ian and Peter, has caused irreparable harm to the family,” Gwich’in Grand Chief Ken Kyikavichik is quoted as saying in the release.

The suit seeks $12.5 million in damages.

Correctional Service Canada said in a statement to CBC News on Wednesday that “the loss of life is always a tragedy, and CSC takes the death of an inmate very seriously.”

“We can confirm we have received the claim today and are taking time to review it,” the statement reads. “We are unable to comment further at this time.”

Officers ‘unaware’ of previous suicide attempts

Snowshoe was serving a five-year sentence for shooting and injuring a cab driver in Inuvik during an armed robbery when he died. As the territory has no federal facilities, he was forced to serve his sentence in the South.

At the medium-security Stony Mountain Institution, Snowshoe was placed in segregation — with no access to the general population — after brandishing a knife made from a juice box in March 2010. After his transfer to the maximum-security Edmonton Institution in July 2010, he requested to be released from segregation, but a 2014 inquiry found his request went missing and was not located until after his death.

The statement of claim notes that Snowshoe attempted suicide at least three times before he was placed in segregation in Manitoba. Correctional officers told the inquiry that they were unaware Snowshoe had tried to end his life before and did not know how long he had been in segregation, “even though that information was readily available,” according to the final report.

A file photo of the Edmonton Institution. While in segregation, Snowshoe had only a single observation point, through a mail slot. (Nathan Gross/CBC)

The statement of claim also notes that all decisions to place inmates in segregation are subject to regular reviews, which it says correctional officers failed to perform.

When Snowshoe was transferred to Edmonton, he underwent a mental health assessment where he disclosed his previous suicide attempts. But he was again placed in segregation with no further review, according to the claim.

Civil lawsuits in the wake of Snowshoe’s death have challenged the constitutionality of solitary confinement, which has sometimes met the UN definition of torture.

Several studies have shown that prolonged isolation can lead to depression, deteriorated cognitive skills, hallucinations and suicidal or self-harming thoughts and actions.

The Liberal government announced they would end the practice in 2019, but experts say it continues under a different name.

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Bourbiza Mohamed. Writer and Political Discourse Analysis.

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