The judge who headed a fatality inquiry into the highway death of a northern Alberta man seven years ago has recommended that all deaths resulting from collisions with RCMP vehicles be subject to a formal evaluation process to determine if new recruits need more driver training.
The Aug. 21, 2016, death of Tracy Janvier should be “the first such death to be so examined,” Justice Stephanie Cleary of the Alberta Court of Justice writes in a fatality inquiry report dated Aug. 9 of this year.
Janvier, 41, had been walking on an unlit section of highway in the early hours of the morning when he was struck by a vehicle. He was lying on the roadway when he was hit a second time — run over by a police pickup truck that was speeding toward the scene of the original collision.
Another man, James Cardinal, sustained a serious injury to his hand when he was clipped by the RCMP truck’s mirror.
The accidents happened on Highway 881, north of the hamlet of Janvier, Alta.
Const. Michelle Phillips, who was driving the RCMP vehicle, was charged with dangerous driving causing death and dangerous driving causing bodily harm.
Phillips was found not guilty on both charges in 2019. In his judgment, Court of King’s Bench Justice John McCarthy wrote that he could not conclude that the second collision significantly contributed to Janvier’s death, and that while the constable had erred, the “penal consequences” were not warranted in her case.
Cleary’s report follows an inquiry into Janvier’s death held in Fort McMurray in April of this year.
The judge found that a series of miscommunications and faulty assumptions led to Phillips not realizing she was speeding through the scene of a pedestrian collision on a darkened highway until it was too late.
Cleary makes six recommendations about the training that RCMP officers and 911 operators receive, and recommends the national police force take steps to improve its relationship with Indigenous communities.
“I recommend that a formal process be developed for evaluating all deaths resulting from collisions with RCMP vehicles to determine whether any change or addition should be made to the existing curriculum for the Police Driving Unit portion of training at Depot Division,” Cleary writes in the report.
During the inquiry, Marina Nohokoo, Tracy Janvier’s sister, said she hoped that RCMP uses her brother’s death as a scenario during training.
Cleary recommends that RCMP could use the fatalities in which private citizens were involved into the training curriculum, with the permission of the deceased’s next of kin.
Periodically reviewing the officer’s driving skills, particularly for the members who respond to emergencies, could also be incorporated into their training and professional development, she recommends in the report.
Cleary recommends that 911 operators direct the citizens to position their vehicle across the driving lane with their hazards on. This would effectively erect a physical barrier across the highway and provide a warning to other vehicles of the collision’s location, Cleary wrote.
She also recommends that RCMP learn lessons from the Nova Scotia Mass Casualty Commission report, especially regarding the officer training. The commission investigated the mass shooting in Nova Scotia in 2020 when a gunman killed 22 people. The RCMP’s response to the mass shooting was widely criticized.
Cleary said the amount of time new police officers spend in training may be “insufficient even for a mature individual.” Recruits spend six months in initial training, followed by two to six months of supervision, she said in the report.
Miscommunication a factor
Cleary also recommends improving the ability of emergency services to pinpoint the locations of calls.
James Cardinal, who was injured when his hand was struck by the police truck’s mirror, had been the person who called 911 for help after Janvier was initially hit by a vehicle.
Cardinal, who was more than 70 years old, spoke Dene as his first language. As a result of miscommunication between Cardinal and the 911 operator, the operator believed that the scene of the first accident was farther north than it actually was.
The emergency services did not have the necessary technology to accurately pinpoint the location of the first collision based on Cardinal’s call. The operator had to rely on his conversation with Cardinal and Phillips’ knowledge of the area to provide her with directions.
“The combination of incorrect information and what turned out to be incorrect assumptions made led to the responding officer failing to realize she was at the scene where Mr. Janvier had been hit,” Cleary writes in her report.
Cleary’s report said it is difficult to conclude how, if at all, Janvier’s death could have been prevented, “except by mere operation of chance.”
Since Janvier’s death, emergency services in Alberta have improved their ability to determine locations of accidents.
They can now accurately pinpoint the 911 phone calls if there are cell towers in the area, even if the accuracy might be lower in rural areas. In her recommendations, Cleary suggested that the provincial government should identify any areas with gaps in cell coverage and rectify them.
The inquiry also revealed a lack of connection between the RCMP and the local Indigenous community.
Ida Stepanowich, an elder at the Chipewyan Prairie First Nation and a former RCMP officer herself, told the inquiry that “the connection between RCMP members and the community has been gone for 10 years or more at this point.”
Nohokoo suggested that RCMP develop “a short practicum, free of formal police work, that would support police officers in developing personal relationships with community members.”