About 80 people showed up for jury selection Monday at a coroner's inquest into the death of a young Indigenous woman in Edmundston that sparked a public outcry over systemic racism and the way police respond to people in mental distress.
Chantel Moore was from Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation in British Columbia. She was 26 when she was fatally shot early on June 4, 2020 outside her apartment on Canada Road by a police officer who'd been dispatched there to check on her well-being.
Outside the conference room, as prospective jurors were being called to another room for questioning, Moore family lawyer T.J. Burke told reporters he intends to file a civil suit Tuesday morning against the Edmundston police and the City of Edmundston.
"It's a suit for negligence," said Burke.
"The police officer, we believe, was held to a higher standard of care. … He was the use-of-force officer who trained other officers at the city of Edmonton's police department on use of force. And he fell below that standard of care. He did not do certain things to preserve the life of Miss Moore."
The submission has already been prepared, said Burke, and that action is separate from the inquest, which is not meant to determine blame, but to uncover relevant facts and provide an opportunity for recommendations to prevent similar deaths in the future.
"Some of those recommendations that we would like to see advanced by the prosecutor through the questions to the jury would be things like why was there only one Taser available to police officers that day? Why does the Edmundston police department not have body worn cameras? Why did the Edmundston police department put more money into carbine rifles instead of less lethal weapons? Or perhaps there could be things such as, you know, more of Aboriginal people in policing or in the justice system."
Burke said he would have appreciated an opportunity to ask questions here.
"If the legislation allowed for that, then I would be at the table pummelling witnesses with questions about what happened that day," he said.
Under provincial legislation, which Burke described as "flawed" and "archaic," he and Moore's family have no official standing during this process.
New Brunswick is one of, if not the only jurisdiction in the country where that's the case, he said.
"The legislation here silences the family and the victim's voice in a way that is more direct," said Burke.
Instead, a prosecutor appointed by the coroner will ask all of the questions, to essentially determine whether Moore's death was a homicide or suicide, said Burke.
Burke was able to provide questions in advance. But "the coroner's office has no obligation to actually use any of those questions," he said.
"I think one thing we'll end up doing at the end of this is petitioning the government to make that change."
Crown prosecutors concluded about a year ago that Moore's death was the result of her actions, combined with being severely impaired by alcohol. No charges were laid against the officer because he was deemed to be reasonably defending himself.
Their report found the wellness check was ordered based on a call from Moore's ex-boyfriend, who received a message from her June 3, suggesting someone had been watching her sleep.
The police officer went up an exterior stairway to her apartment. Moore came out with a knife. He told her in French to drop it. She continued toward him. He fired on her while he was cornered on a third-floor balcony.
A police commission review was held last fall and found "insufficient evidence" that Const. Jeremy Son had done anything wrong.
Moore's mother said after that review that she still didn't understand how the fatal shooting could have happened and was still looking for accountability.
Burke said he hopes the inquest gives her some closure.
"Not only did Martha Martin lose her daughter to a police officer, she lost her son who was in custody in the corrections and corrections facility, helpless. So that's two significant losses that she's had in just a short period of time. You know, it doesn't it doesn't give her a lot of faith in the policing system or the justice system.
"Hopefully at the end of this week, it does provide her a little bit of encouragement and some light," he said.
She is expected to be the first witness at the inquest Monday afternoon.
"Hopefully something more productive can come from this tragedy," said St. Thomas University criminologist Michael Boudreau.
"Obviously, it never should have happened, but it has. And now we need to learn from it, because if not, this will happen again."
One thing that has already been implemented since Moore's death is the creation of a Serious Incident Response Team to independently investigate police actions in cases like this.
Another is an expansion of the use of body cameras by police.
Edmundston police Chief Alain Lang said last month that the force had started testing two models of cameras and planned to use the equipment for evidence gathering and officer accountability.
"That arguably is a step in the right direction," said Boudreau.
"That would have helped us to explain what actually went on that night."
He's interested to see whether the inquest delves into police accountability, training, and the appropriateness of them doing wellness checks.
"There's been a lot of discussion prior to this tragedy and since this tragedy that this is not something that the police are well equipped to do. … And I think some police would admit as much."
"So if they're going to continue to do these wellness checks, they need to bring along other specialists who know how to deal with people who are in mental health crises."
That would require more provincial funding, he said, to hire social workers and other experts.
"They can really help and assist and de-escalate these kinds of situations."
Public inquiry calls
First Nations chiefs called for a public inquiry into systemic racism after Moore's death and the death of Rodney Levi of Metepenagiag about a week later.
When the provincial government instead hired a commissioner to review racism against Indigenous people together with other racialized or minority populations, the Wolastoqey chiefs declined to participate in protest.
Systemic racism commissioner Manju Varma said she and others from her office will attend the inquest.
The commission is also wrapping up meetings with a few people as part of its public consultations, said Varma. So far, she has met with about 50 organizations, done 55 one-on-one interviews and spoken on about 20 panels about her work. She's expected to issue a report in the fall.
Moore's death contributed to galvanizing public opinion that action had to be taken on systemic racism, she acknowledged.
It occurred on the heels of the George Floyd murder in the U.S., which touched off widespread Black Lives Matter demonstrations, and was swiftly followed by the Rodney Levi fatal shooting.
But people have long known about an overrepresentation of Black and Indigenous offenders in the prison system, she noted.
"This issue of systemic racism started way before these shootings."
Varma said she still has questions about how racism may have come into play in Moore's death, but she will try to "put them on the back burner" and just see how the inquest unfolds.
One thing she's interested in is the inquest process.
At the Rodney Levi inquest last fall, she noted, Levi's family had to "push" for indigenous representation on the jury and a smudging ceremony, which they felt were important to the outcome.
The inquest is expected to last four to five days. It's being held at the Delta Fredericton Hotel with acting chief coroner Michael Johnston presiding.