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‘Where was his help?’ Loved ones of man who died in police custody on Sherbrook Street call for answers

November 2, 2023

IIU investigating death of Elias Whitehead, who died in Winnipeg police custody Oct. 15

A woman holding a photo.
Jody Beardy holds a photo of her partner, Elias Whitehead, at a news conference Thursday. Whitehead died in Winnipeg police custody Oct. 15. (Prabhjot Singh Lotey/CBC

CBC Indigenous: The loved ones of a man who died in Winnipeg police custody last month want to know where his help was the night he died. Elias Whitehead died after an encounter with Winnipeg police on Oct. 15 at the intersection of Sherbrook Street and Broadway.

“He was a carpenter, he was a Level 1 heavy duty mechanic, and he would’ve been graduating on Oct. 24 from heavy equipment operating training — that’s why he was here in Winnipeg,” said Jody Beardy, Whitehead’s partner, during a news conference Thursday afternoon. 

“Elias was a good man — he was, he really was,” said Beardy. “He was kind, he would help anyone who needed it, and he would befriend anyone.”

Thursday’s news conference was held to discuss not only Whitehead’s death, but the broader issue of a “recurring pattern of police-related fatalities involving First Nations citizens,” said a news release from the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, which hosted the conference.

A man with dark hair wears a baseball cap with the LA logo. He smiles at the camera
Just nine days after his death, Elias Whitehead was set to graduate from heavy equipment operator training, which is why he was in Winnipeg, according to family members. (Submitted by Jody Beardy)

The Independent Investigation Unit of Manitoba, which investigates serious incidents involving police in the province, said it was notified Oct. 16 of an in-custody death by the Winnipeg Police Service and that it is investigating.

A spokesperson for the Webequie First Nation — almost 550 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, Ont., and the First Nation Whitehead was originally from — previously identified him as the man who died in the incident. 

Winnipeg police told the investigative unit that officers were called to the West Broadway area shortly before 11 p.m. on Oct. 15, with a report of a man “acting erratically” in traffic, the IIU previously said.

The police report to the IIU said the man started to have difficulty breathing during his arrest. He received immediate medical care from Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service members, who were nearby responding to an unrelated incident, police told the investigative unit. 

He was taken to Health Sciences Centre, where he was pronounced dead.

“As kids, we’re taught that police are here to protect us, and that’s something that we teach our children as well — the police are supposed to keep people safe, they’re supposed to help people,” Beardy said Thursday. “But this wasn’t the case for Elias and many other people. Where was his help? Why didn’t they keep him safe?”

Officers will ‘account for their actions’: police chief

Winnipeg police Chief Danny Smyth said Thursday afternoon there won’t be a status update on the investigation from the police service right now, but he can appreciate that the family wants to know what happened. “They want to know the truth of what happened … as does the rest of the community,” he said in an interview with CBC.

The Independent Investigation Unit will work to determine what led to Whitehead’s death, and he expects the Winnipeg Police Service to co-operate with the police watchdog, Smyth said.

Call made for more witnesses to come forward

“I’m confident that our members are well trained,” he said. “We will co-operate with the investigation, and that will mean that the officers come in and account for their actions.” 

Whitehead’s arrest was captured on camera by an eyewitness.  Beardy said when she saw the video, she felt like she couldn’t breathe. She also put out a call for more witnesses to come forward and voice concerns about violence against Indigenous people. “I still see it, I can’t sleep,” said Beardy. 

Grand Chief Garrison Settee of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak echoed Beardy’s concerns.  “Our people no longer feel safe under the system, there’s something deeply wrong and it must be fixed now.” 

Smyth said he’s also aware of a “video that’s circulating around” and that he thinks it will inform part of the investigation, but cautioned it’s a short video and is “very small in its context.” 

WATCH | Bystander footage shows Winnipeg police hit man on ground: 1:011:01

Video shows man pinned to ground by police

(WARNING: This video contains graphic content)

Click on the following link to view the video:

Warning: This video contains graphic content. A video submitted to CBC News shows a man on the ground, with police officers pinning him down, in Winnipeg’s Sherbrook Street and Broadway Avenue intersection. It’s unclear whether this is the same person who later died in hospital after being taken into custody in the same area.

Also during Thursday’s news conference, letters from Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs Grand Chief Cathy Merrick that were sent to Smyth and Winnipeg Mayor Scott Gillingham Oct. 24 were shared. They said AMC’s “concern primarily pertains to the communication gap between the AMC and pertinent authorities regarding such incidents.”

The letters also added that “regardless of the individual’s place of origin, it is imperative that AMC be informed when a First Nations citizen loses their life at the hands of law enforcement in Winnipeg.”

Smyth said he’s “always happy to meet with the Indigenous leaders that expressed their concerns.” 

With files from Josh Crabb