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Mother files lawsuit alleging racist treatment led to beating death of Anishinaabe son at Headingley jail

February 13, 2023

Court filing alleges a dozen Manitoba corrections officers beat William Ahmo, shot objects at him

The mother of William Ahmo, who was seriously injured and later died after in an incident with corrections officers at Headingley Correctional Institution on Feb. 7, 2021, has filed a lawsuit against the head of the Serious Response Incident team, the province of Manitoba and others. (Submitted by Darlene Ahmo)

WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

CBC News: A Winnipeg mother is suing the province of Manitoba and corrections officers, claiming racist treatment and excessive force after she says the Anishinaabe father was shot at with objects and beaten by a group of jail guards. He died seven days later.

Darlene Ahmo, the mother of William Ahmo, filed a statement of claim alleging about a dozen members of Headingley Correctional Institution’s Serious Incident Response team shot Ahmo with projectile weapons, then swarmed and beat him on Feb. 7, 2021.  The officers “did not stop their attack until after they caused William to lose consciousness,” said the statement filed with the Manitoba Court of King’s Bench on Feb. 8 of this year.

The allegations in the lawsuit haven’t been tested in court.

Ahmo, a 45-year-old father to a son and member of the Sagkeeng First Nation, was taken to the Health Sciences Centre in Winnipeg on Feb. 7, 2021, and he died on Feb. 14, 2021 without having regained consciousness.

The chief medical examiner conducted an autopsy and ruled Ahmo’s death was a homicide. Corrections officer and SIR team leader Robert Jeffrey Morden was charged in January 2022 with criminal negligence causing death and failing to provide necessaries of life in Ahmo’s death.  Morden has pleaded not guilty. His next court appearance is scheduled for April 6. 

The Ahmo family will not be commenting on the statement of claim, according to a statement emailed Monday from Corey Shefman, an attorney working for the family. “We are committed to allowing the criminal prosecution of correctional officer Robert Morden to run its course, and for the full facts of William’s death to be brought to light. “Our family is committed to seeing justice done for William in both the criminal and civil justice systems.”

‘Racist treatment’ from guards: lawsuit

While incarcerated, Ahmo was dependent on the discretion of correctional officers, the claim stated, and he had no ability to leave a troubling situation in which “he was threatened with physical harm.”

The claim asserts that a correctional officer asked Ahmo and his cellmate if they wanted to hear a racist joke on Feb. 7. But before an answer was given, the guard said, “how do you get an Aboriginal mad? Hide his CERB cheque under his work boot,” the court filing said.  “The correctional officer’s ‘joke’ trafficked in racist caricatures and stereotypes of Indigenous people as being lazy, poor, unemployed and relying on government handouts,” the claim said.

The lawsuit claims on the day he was beaten, William Ahmo yelled that he was ‘sick and tired’ of the racist ways correctional officers were treating the inmates. (Travis Golby/CBC)

The claim outlined events following that exchange that it alleged led to Ahmo’s hospitalization and death.

According to the court filing, Ahmo and other inmates were able to leave their cells for recreational time soon after the exchange. Ahmo then banged on a glass-walled office and yelled that he was “sick and tired” of the racist ways correctional officers were treating the inmates, and being treated like “animals,” the claim said.

The officers didn’t respond so Ahmo continued to yell, tossing furniture in the common area in frustration, the claim said.  All inmates were told to return to their respective cells. They all complied, except for Ahmo.

With just Ahmo in the area, a nearby door was opened and chemical weapons, including pepper spray, were directed at Ahmo whenever he approached the door, the claim said. The claim states Ahmo and a correctional officer supervisor had a brief conversation through the door before the SIR team gathered behind the glass wall. “They were wearing armour and other riot gear, and carrying a variety of weapons, including batons, guns, sensory deprivation weapons such as ‘flash bang grenades,’ and pellet weapons,” according to the court filing.

Some officers fired projectile weapons at Ahmo through a gunport, and about a dozen of them entered the area, deploying multiple weapons at him, according to the court filing.

The claim states the officers surrounded Ahmo and beat him with batons, knees, hands and feet, resulting in Ahmo losing consciousness. He received medical care before being taken to hospital, the claim said.

Officers, province negligent: court filing

The claim states that correctional officers used “excessive force” in handling Ahmo, and in doing so, “acted negligently and in a manner inconsistent with the standard of care which they owed to William.”

The provincial government breached its duty to Ahmo and is “vicariously liable for the negligent conduct” of the correctional officers, the suit said. The claim also alleges Manitoba failed to properly train officers in the use of force, failed to implement policies to ensure the appropriate use of force and had inadequate supervision of Serious Response Incident members.

The province is named as one of the defendants in the lawsuit, but it is not commenting on the matter since it is before the courts, according to a spokesperson’s emailed statement on Monday. The claim states Ahmo would not have died if not for the “extreme levels of violence” used by the guards in their attack on him. 

The plaintiff is seeking non-pecuniary damages, along with damages for breach of fiduciary duty, court costs and covering GST on any amounts awarded. Ahmo’s mother is also suing for damages for the “callous, heavy-handed and racist treatment” of her son by the corrections officers.

A statement of defence has not been filed by any of the defendants.


Nathan Liewicki, Reporter

Nathan Liewicki is an online reporter at CBC Manitoba. He has worked at several newspapers in sports, including the Brandon Sun, the Regina Leader-Post and the Edmonton Journal.