Blue Line

Family of Ojibwe man killed by Ottawa police calls for new mental health strategy

April 8, 2023  By The Canadian Press

Apr. 8, 2023, Ottawa, Ont. – The morning Greg Ritchie died, he was on his way to the grocery store to purchase cake mix in an effort to cheer up his brother and sister-in-law.

Chantel Ritchie, his sister-in-law, said it was a tradition of theirs to bake together. The three, who lived together, had been having financial struggles lately. But her brother-in-law was excited because he had just received funding from the Ontario Disability Support Program.

Before heading to the store that January day, Greg had taken out some of that money to help his brother, Nick. He’d got a parking ticket when the two went to Ottawa’s Wabano Centre together looking to get mental-health support for Greg, who was an Ojibwe member of Saugeen First Nation.

“We just didn’t have the money to pay for it,” Chantel said about the parking ticket.

Greg’s gesture that morning touched her, she said, because it showed how little it takes for someone to make a big difference, even when they are going through their own struggles.

“It was like, ‘We’re supposed to be trying to take care of him.’ And that memory is something that I will hold on to forever.”

Nick and Chantel heard the yelling and gunshots from their apartment, she said. They could see police and paramedics trying to help someone who had been shot.

It was Greg. He was shot and killed in an encounter with two Ottawa police officers on Jan. 31, 2019, at 30 years old.

Four years after Greg’s death, a lawsuit filed by his relatives has been settled out of court for an undisclosed amount, the law firm representing the family’s case announced late last month.

But even though the legal action has formally ended, Chantel says she doesn’t feel any closure.

The family is still advocating publicly for the police to implement a new mental-health strategy. And they are not alone in their pleas, with the case echoing that of Abdirahman Abdi, who also struggled with his mental health and died in July 2016 after an altercation with Ottawa police.

“If what we have done will help to prevent something like this from happening again, and if I could feel like what happened to Greg will help to stop someone else from losing their life in the same way, then I can feel some closure,” Chantel said.

The statement of claim that Greg’s family filed in court says he was at the Elmvale Shopping Centre on the morning of his death getting groceries and picking up his prescription.

Just before 8 a.m., Ottawa police officers Thanh Tran and Daniel Vincelette were deployed to the mall after receiving a call about a man who allegedly had a “knife concealed under his coat,” according to a report from the Special Investigations Unit.

The independent civilian agency investigates incidents in Ontario involving police that result in death, serious injury, allegations of sexual assault or a firearm being discharged at someone.

One of the officers approached Greg in an attempt to engage in conversation, but according to the SIU report, he became frustrated, threatened the officer with an object in his hand and waved it in their direction. The object was a ceremonial item consisting of a rock attached to a foot-long stick, the report says – a cultural artifact of Ritchie’s Indigenous heritage.

One of the officers tasered him, but the report says that lasted for only a moment before Greg “raised the object above his head and swung it at the officer.”

Tran and Vincelette then shot at Greg 11 times, the report says. Three of the bullets hit him. They handcuffed him and administered emergency first aid while awaiting an ambulance. Greg later died in hospital.

Joseph Martino, the director of the SIU, concluded in his February 2020 report there were no reasonable grounds to charge the officers.

Chantel described her brother-in-law as someone who loved his Indigenous community, finding time to volunteer and trade his art at powwows. He was happy, she said, and “knew he was loved before he died.”

Although he was kind and gentle in many ways, his disabilities sometimes made him difficult to approach and it took time for people to understand him, she said. Mental-health practitioners “knew how to work with him,” said Chantel.

“And in a way, he learned to be able to trust them and they’d be able to build a bond,” she said. “After that, he would come and bring them little trinkets and things that he made.”

The family of Abdirahman Abdi launched a similar lawsuit against the Ottawa Police Service. The suit was settled five years after his death, and as part of the settlement, the Ottawa Police Service initiated a mental-health response strategy under former chief Peter Sloly.

Lawrence Greenspon, a lawyer who represented the families of both Ritchie and Abdi in their respective suits, says there has been little progress.

“It’s been more than seven years since Abdi died, and there’s still no change,” he said.

“There’s still a lot of discussion, meetings and panels and all this other stuff. Something’s got to actually change before somebody else with mental-health issues dies at the hands of the police.”

In January 2021, the Ottawa Police Service provided a report to the city’s police services board that outlined its consultation approach for a mental-health response strategy.

The police service said that it would train more officers to be able to handle mental-health calls. It said the training would be designed and administered based on input from the community.

Acting deputy police chief Trish Ferguson says the City of Ottawa is now in charge of implementing the strategy and working in partnership with police.

She said members of the city council met this week to discuss the implementation strategy, but there is no specific timeline attached to it.

Calls to action from the families and community are being heard, Ferguson said, and police have consulted with community groups. Asked why it has taken so long, she said she wants it to be done the right way.

“Every day is too long if somebody passes away in the community from a mental illness where they could have been served,” said Ferguson. “But I want to make sure we get it right.”

Part of the police’s plan includes helping to implement the 988 suicide crisis line that is expected to begin operating this fall.

A city spokesperson didn’t provide any significant updates, but said staff are working toward reporting on a final version of the strategy, and they are trying to revamp the city’s 911 call centre so that calls related to mental health will be rerouted to people who are specifically trained to handle them.

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