Jury declares Ahenakew-Johnstone death accidental, issues four recommendations for RCMP

Jason Kerr/Daily Herald Lisa Johnstone, Brennan Ahenakew-Johnstone’s mother, speaks to reporters in Prince Albert on Thursday.

Shellbrook’s RCMP detachment needs more staff, more vehicles, and more resources.

Those were among four recommendations jurors made as the coroner’s inquest into the 2018 death of Brennan Ahenakew-Johnstone reached its conclusion on Thursday.

Jurors said the Shellbrook detachment needs more funding to make sure staffing and vehicle shortages don’t delay future investigation. They also said RCMP officers and investigators need to be better prepared when called to testify, and recommended they bring notes and review reports before appearing so they can adequately answer any questions.

Many inquest witnesses, including a few non-police witnesses, had trouble recalling the events of May 10, 2018, when Ahenakew-Johnstone’s remains were found in the burned-out ruins of his 2002 Pontiac Grand Am.

Family members said they were glad an inquest was held, but disappointed in the results.

“I never got my hopes up for this process to give me some sort of re-opening of the case or anything like that,” said Lisa Johnstone, Brennan’s mother, following the inquest’s conclusion. “It was more of a closure of a chapter for me in my life—a chapter that I’ve lived for three years. For three long, dark, years I’ve lived in the shadow of my son’s death in trying to find justice and for my voice to be heard in regards to how I feel our people are treated.”

“I’m absolutely not satisfied,” added Glenn Johnstone, Lisa’s uncle and Brennan’s great-uncle. “It was expected it would be minimal, and the restrictions on what (the jury) could recommend were ridiculous…. The recommendations were a joke. Really, they were.”

Jurors agreed with the RCMP’s conclusion that Ahenakew-Johnstone’s death was accidental. A number of expert witnesses, from SGI collision experts to RCMP investigators, said it was highly unlikely the car fire was intentional. Medical experts like Dr. Shaun Ladham, who performed the autopsy, also said the only signs of trauma were likely caused by smoke and fire.

However, non-police witnesses testified to a night of partying at a residence on Ahtahkakoop First Nation, including a fight between Ahenakew-Johnstone and another witness, Diamond Knife, which left both combatants bloodied and bruised.

Glenn said it was evident his great-nephew’s death should have been ruled a homicide, and said the evidence given by RCMP investigators showed they didn’t treat an Indigenous person’s death as a priority.

He wants to see more RCMP investigators receive more oversight in the future, ensuring all investigations are as professional as possible.

“Oversight would make people more accountable and would help prevent stuff like that from happening, but (the jury) can’t recommend so much,” Glenn said. “They can only recommend how (to) prevent a death. It was totally off topic.

“There’s a lot of racism behind this,” he added. “I don’t want to whine and cry about that, but it is what it’s about.”

Lisa echoed those comments, and said RCMP would have treated the incident much more seriously if it had happened off reserve.

“Is it so hard to apologize when you’re wrong? It seems to be that way for the RCMP,” said Lisa Johnstone, Brennan’s mother, following the inquest’s conclusion. “They can’t take responsibility for their wrongs and they can’t give out apologies, because then it would mean they were wrong.”

The Daily Herald attempted to get in touch with an RCMP spokesperson, but unable to do so by press time.

Lisa said she’s not ready to rule foul play out of the equation in her son’s death, but she’s prepared to move on to the next chapter in her life. She said Brennan’s memory will always be with her, and while the inquest didn’t end the way she hoped, she’s happy witnesses and investigators were called on to defend their actions.

“All I’ve wanted since the beginning of this (inquest) was for the public to know the facts, and those were presented this week,” she added. “I appreciate the facts that were presented this week, and I accept the findings that were presented to me in respect to my son’s cause of death…. I’m ready to let it all go. I’m ready to move forward.”

Not all family members are ready to let Brennan’s death go. Glenn said the extended family will consider its legal options, and may pursue further action in the future. However, he said it’s unlikely the immediate family will be involved. 

The first RCMP officer to arrive on scene told the inquest he had no reason to believe there was a body inside the car when he first approached it. Cpl. Shayne Brown said he was told the car was stolen, set on fire, and abandon. During the inquest, he said he would have reacted differently had he known human remains were inside.

Brown said he tried to approach the car, but couldn’t due to the excessive heat. Instead he took photographs, and left to respond to another call. Brown said he planned to return to the scene later, but was prevented from doing so because there weren’t enough cars for all the officers on duty. Instead, he spent the end of his shift at the Shellbrook RCMP detachment, and wasn’t told there was a body inside until after his shift ended.

Wildland firefighters who first arrived on the scene also said they saw nothing suspicious about the car when they first arrived. Tony Williams, one of two Ahtahkakoop firefighters to testify at the inquest, told the jury they assumed the vehicle was abandoned, and were shocked to discover human remains inside. The inquest had a difficult time determining whether firefighters called police right after finding the body.

The family also filed a public complaint with the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission (CRCC) in June 2018. They expect that investigation to wrap up soon.

Jury members began deliberations after hearing the final two witnesses testify before the Brennan Ahenakew-Johnstone Inquest in Prince Albert on Thursday.

Const. Thomas Yu, a former member of the RCMP Major Crimes Unit, and Masqua Masuskapoe, Ahenakew-Johnstone’s best friend, both answered questions during the final session at the Coronet Hotel.

Yu faced questions about why RCMP investigators declined to follow up on a variety of witness statements, or why they did not search the residence where Ahenakew-Johnstone was last seen alive. Those statements included one from a young woman who claimed she saw the driver of a black car interacting with Ahenakew-Johnstone the night he died.

Yu said they reviewed available security footage, which showed few cars passing through the area, many of which were only identifiable by their headlights. He also said officers declined offers from two witnesses to submit to polygraph tests because they aren’t admissible in court.

Yu added that investigators were confident the car fire was not suspicious, so there was no need to follow up with every witness.

When asked why they declined to search the house Ahenakew-Johnstone partied at that night, Yu said they needed permission from the homeowner to enter, and believed no offences were committed inside.

Many family members, including Ahenakew-Johnstone’s mother, Lisa, broke down into tears as Masuskapoe talked about playing basketball with his best friend. Masuskapoe said the two met at the gravel pit in Ahtahkakoop before parting for the last time at 3:30 a.m.

Masuskapoe’s testimony was by far the shortest of any inquest witness. He said he had no idea where Ahenakew-Johnstone was going when he departed that night, although he appeared to be in a good mood.