‘Somebody heard Haven’: Death inquest leaves mother with mixed emotions and unanswered questions

Brandon Harder/Regina Leader-Post Richelle Dubois holds a photo of her sons Haven (left in frame) and James while sitting at the Royal Hotel in Regina on May 30, 2024. Richelle found Haven unresponsive in an east Regina Creek in May 2015. An inquest into his death was held at the hotel in late May 2024.

Richelle Dubois says that despite her frustration with the process, she feels as if she was heard.

Brandon Harder

Regina Leader-Post

The lawyers have left the Royal Hotel.

So have the cops.

And the doctors.

But as cold spring rain pelts the building on Albert Street, Richelle Dubois is still there Thursday.

She’s still confused. She’s still angry. She’s still toting a suitcase filled with photographs of her son Haven, and all of the documents she’s collected over the past nine years. It weighs less in her hand than it does on her heart.

Richelle spent the previous three days at the hotel sitting through an inquest into Haven’s 2015 death. She comes from a family full of women who had boys. Haven was supposed to be the one to take over the farm — he and his younger brother James — she’d testified. Haven was supposed to teach the younger boys. He was supposed to be here a lot longer than he was.

But Richelle found him unresponsive, at age 14, in an east Regina creek. She doesn’t know why she had to be the one to find him. Maybe he was calling to her.

When she became pregnant with him, Richelle said she wasn’t on the best path, but he saved her. He was her safe place, so she named him Haven.

From the suitcase, she pulls a framed photo. Haven stares out at the world. She holds it. She holds him.

She’s a resilient woman, but unsurprisingly she hasn’t slept much in a while. She had to relive all the pain over the course of the week.

“I can tell you, my emotions are running rampant right now,” she says.

Late Wednesday, the inquest jury returned its verdict classifying Haven’s manner of death as “undetermined” rather than “accidental,” which is how the boy’s drowning was labelled by police and the coroner. Richelle felt vindicated by the jury’s finding after questioning the conclusion of authorities for the better part of a decade.

She’s been sitting and talking with her friends Michelle Stewart and Robyn Pitawanakwat. The group raises the issue of systemic racism, and notes that Haven’s case is not the only one in recent memory that has prompted questions about how authorities and institutions have collectively handled an Indigenous person’s death.

“The system doesn’t work. The system is broken,” Richelle says, repeating words she offered following the verdict.

The inquest showed it, she says.

The mother sought answers from early on and communicated with a list of institutions, trying to forward her concerns, she says.

“They all agreed with the way the investigation was conducted, the way the autopsy and the medical procedures were done, they all agreed and said there was nothing there,” she says.

Now, considering the jury’s decision of “undetermined,” Richelle says she questions everything.

“Every system failed my son.”

Haven’s death was being called accidental before the sun set on May 20, 2015, the day she found him in the creek. Police didn’t take a formal statement from her until January 2016 — the same month the Regina Police Services’ Major Crimes Unit became involved.

She and her friends sit in the hotel and rattle off questions about the police investigation that they don’t feel the inquest answered.

The autopsy paperwork had to be changed to correct her son’s name, and Richelle wonders what else might’ve been wrong. She believes things were overlooked by the doctor who conducted it, including marks she testified seeing on her son’s body and she believes may have been crucial in the case.

And her questions extend to the inquest process itself, including who wasn’t there to testify.

Richelle and her friends wonder, where was the chief forensic pathologist who’s said to have reviewed the autopsy findings? Where were the school officials? What about the initial police investigators? And all the kids associated with the case? Only two, now adults, testified. But others did not, including the then-teenage boy who told police he left his friend Haven, with whom he’d smoked marijuana, sitting on a bench “tripping” near the creek in question — a boy whose statements to police contained contradictions.

The coroner’s lawyer, Robin Ritter, said there had been “issues locating witnesses” but he refused an interview, and therefore couldn’t be asked what efforts had been made to locate them.

The Dubois family called for an inquest in 2017, but it would be years before a decision was made by Saskatchewan’s former chief coroner to call the proceeding. Richelle says she wishes members of the jury knew how hard she had to “fight” for the inquest.

Certainly, the jury saw how the proceedings affected the mother, as her emotions ran the gamut from fury to deep sorrow. But there was also some catharsis.

“In a way, there is some happiness in there still, because I feel like somebody actually heard me,” she says. “Somebody heard Haven.”

The jury made no recommendations at the conclusion of the inquest.

When asked what recommendations she would make, Richelle says she doesn’t feel it’s the right time for her to answer the question. However, she says it’s her hope that the story told through the inquest prompts others to “stand up and tell their stories.”

She also hopes police will do the “right thing” following the jury’s verdict at the inquest.

“If all it does is make the next Indigenous child’s death investigated properly, then it would be worth it,” Richelle says. “Any kind of positive change would be worth it.”

What if she never learns anything more about the circumstances around her son’s death — if she never fully understands what happened? Will she ever be able to find peace?

She’s asked herself those kinds of “what if” questions thousands of times. The answers to herself change.

But she and her friends are hopeful that, because of what came to light through the inquest, more information about Haven’s death will be brought forward.

“I definitely haven’t given up hope or faith yet,” Richelle says.

“I just hold on to that, I guess.”

As for what’s next, the mother says she’s going to give herself a few days to think rationally and logistically. Haven’s birthday is coming up next week and she wants to celebrate it, and his life, in a good way.

“I can definitely say it’s not over,” she adds. “Which way it goes, I don’t know.”