OPP apologizes to family of woman
Martha Pedoniquott is still haunted by the thought of her beloved aunt, Lucy Pedoniquott, dressed only in a hospital gown and paper slippers, freezing to death in an icy swamp just metres from the hospital where she was a patient.
What makes it even more difficult to bear, is knowing that the Ontario Provincial Police refused to conduct a full and immediate search for her aunt, who had taught her so much about their Native tradition and language.
After being notified that Lucy was missing on Nov. 11, 2001, officers from the Wiarton OPP searched the Grey Bruce Health Services Wiarton hospital grounds where her abandoned intravenous had been found and made inquiries around town for "a couple of hours," said OPP deputy commissioner Bill Currie.
The search by police was then called off for the night.
"We could have and should have done more," said Currie, who offered a public "heartfelt apology" to the Pedoniquott family and the people of the Chippewas of Nawash Cape Croker reserve on the Bruce Peninsula on April 4.
On previous occasions Lucy, had checked herself out of hospital and had gone to visit friends, but this time it was different as she didn't sign herself out and had no street clothes and none of her friends had seen her.
"She was very weak. She had a severe stomach complaint and had lost a lot of blood, so they were giving her a blood transfusion," said Martha.
After the OPP called off the search, about 12 members of the Pedoniquott family began their own, while Martha, 38, who has three young children, went home to sit by the telephone just in case there was any news of her aunt.
"You could see the rain turning to snow. It was very cold, so we were very worried,'' said her younger sister Nancy, 36.
Fearing for Lucy's life, the family searched ditches, even the graveyard and the open fields through most of long cold night, but found no sign of the woman.
Nancy realized they needed help and went to the OPP office in Wiarton.
"We were crying and begging for help, but they didn't seem willing to help at all," she said.
Even a request for the loan of flashlights was denied, she said.
"The officer was less than co-operative,'' said Currie, who didn't rule out racism as the motive for some of the officers' behavior that night.
"That's deep down inside of them (the officers) if they were biased... could have been."
The sergeant on duty made "false assumptions," including his belief that Lucy had left the hospital to visit a friend and that his officers would continue the search. He left town to set up a RIDE program 30 kilometres to the north on Highway 6.
"I have sat down with the officer in charge, one-on-one. I can pretty well guarantee [racism] had nothing to do with his judgment," said Currie.
While Currie played down racism as a motive, he said he couldn't draw any conclusions about the behavior of the other officers.
"You cannot tell what motivated them," said Currie, who added "we work really hard at trying to run training and have constant supervision so this doesn't happen."
The next morning the families' further pleas for help resulted in the local OPP sending for the Emergency Response Team.
The family was still out searching at around 4 p.m. on Nov. 13 when they spotted a lot of activity around the hospital parking lot.
"They had found her in six inches of water in a swamp just across from the hospital, but they didn't even bother to call us even though they knew our cell phone numbers," said Nancy.
The family heard that Lucy Pedoniquatt's body was found by the OPP helicopter in a swamp 150 metres from the hospital, just five minutes after the helicopter arrived.
Dr. Thomas Wilson, the supervising Coroner for southwestern Ontario, said an autopsy determined Lucy had died from exposure and hypothermia.
When the Pedoniquott family found themselves stonewalled when they tried to make an official complaint about the OPP's behavior, Peter Akiwenzie, acting chairperson for the Ontrio First Nations Police Commission, offered to mediate.
"These are mild-mannered people who could easily be intimidated, so I attended meetings with them," he said.
"It was immediately clear that the OPP failed to carry out its responsibility to conduct a search for a missing person. They could have possibly found her, maybe not while she was still alive, but even that is possible," he said.
The family has not considered taking legal action against the OPP, said Martha Pedoniquatt.
"All we want is to make sure that this doesn't happen to another family. We feel that we could have been helped by a police force that showed a little more compassion to how we felt and a little more understanding of the situation of Native people in this country," she said.
Lucy's two sons were too distraught to attend the public apology-the first such public apology that the OPP has made in at least 12 years-so her niece Martha represented the family.
Fighting back tears Martha told Bill Currie that it had been extremely difficult for the family to talk about what had been a "personal and emotional tragedy."
"We hope the time and effort put forth in identifying the unjust treatment ensures that all people in future are treated with respect and dignity at times of helplessness," she said to the applause of about 100 people including Lucy's four-year-old granddaughter Jessica.
Chippewas of Nawash Chief Ralph Akiwenzie said that Lucy was his cousin.
"We are all human beings and we have needs and wants. When there are problems we expect services such as police service to be sympathetic and respectful," he said.
Currie said that the OPP was in the process of changing its missing persons policy so that other families won't have to go to an OPP detachment "to ask for a flashlight" to search for a missing loved one.
"That's Lucy's legacy," he said.
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