Rose Marie Roper September 15, 1967 Williams Lake, BC

Rose Marie Roper

September 15th 1967

Williams Lake BC

In the province of British Columbia (B.C.) the  legal standard determining public access to governmental records is that the information requested meets the threshold of ‘public interest’.
A simple way to understand  the concept of ‘public interest’ is to ask yourself: if ten people were stopped on the street would  the issue matter to them?  Even if they had nothing to gain and were not personally impacted? Would they care?

For the B.C. Office of Information and Privacy, the Vancouver Police Department, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the B.C. Coroner’s Office when First Nations people die in police custody and investigation into suspicious circumstances is NOT IN THE PUBLIC INTEREST.

First Nations Deaths in Police Custody
British Columbia

In 2003 Jason Lee and I wrote, Police Bias and Videotape, a story about Frank Paul.A homeless alcoholic Mi’kmaq man who froze to death after being dumped, while soaking wet, in an alley by members of the Vancouver Police Department when the temperature was below freezing.  Despite video evidence and expert testimony that the police officers involved may have lied about what happened to Frank Paul, no official hearing or proper investigation was held.

In 2005 the Canadian Broadcast Corporation (CBC) supplied developmental money for an investigative documentary.
I felt it would be necessary to respond to the police if they portrayed the circumstances of Frank Paul’s death as an isolated incident. I chose to look at  all First Nations deaths in British Columbia police custody from 1967 to 2001. It was determined that 25 of the deaths met the threshold for serious further investigation. Freedom of Information requests were submitted to police departments, governmental bodies and the B.C. Coroners Office.

Why 1967? When I was helping to establish Prostitution Alternatives Counselling and Education Society (P.A.C.E) I had become infinitely familiar with the consequences of public bodies deciding what groups do and do not fall within the sphere of ‘public interest’.  Even going to the length of publishing Violence Against Women in Vancouver’s Street Level Sex Trade and the Police Response  a large quantitative study to hammer home the point that we had created a killing field for serial predators. It appears that for the Office of Information  and Privacy, the Coroner’s Office, the Vancouver Police Department and to a surprisingly lesser extent the RCMP some lives are still less important than others.

This also explains why this project starts with the rape and murder of Rose Marie Roper and why I chose to include incidents that are not deaths in custody. Issues like this can only be understood in their broader context. Divorced from that,  any potential benefits and changes risk being diminished.

Frank Paul’s death was not an isolated incident:

  • More people die in police custody in the province of British Columbia (B.C.) than anywhere else in Canada.
  • A study by the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA) found that, “B.C. has more than twice as many jail and police-involved deaths as Ontario, even though Ontario has three times the population. With 267 deaths over the last 15 years, B.C. had the largest number of deaths per year of any of the six provinces and territories for which numbers were available.” (

At that time the police investigated themselves whenever someone died in custody. Our concern was with the adequacy of police lead investigations into these deaths given that:

  • A 2007 randomized forensic audit by Josiah Wood, a retired BC Supreme Court Justice, concluded that one in five (20%) of the internal investigations by the police into accusations of misconduct and abuse failed to meet expected minimal professional standards. The former Justice concluded that as the seriousness of the allegations rose so did the likelihood that the internal investigation was fundamentally flawed and that in several instances the sole purpose of the internal investigation as conducted by police appeared to be to vindicate themselves of any wrongdoing.

Specifically we were concerned with what happens when it is  a First Nations person who dies in police custody considering that:

  • From 1993 to 2003 Using data from the British Columbia Coroner’s Service our research revealed that 60 percent of all First Nations deaths while incarcerated occurred in police custody. For the Non-Aboriginal population, the figure is 25 per-cent. During that decade whenever a First Nations person died in custody the Coroner ruled that the cause of death was undetermined in 20 per-cent of cases, while the undetermined rate for the non-First Nations inmate population was 8 per-cent. Accidents were ruled the cause of death in 40 per-cent of the First Nations cases but only 28 per-cent for non-First Nations.

Race appearing to have a role in the outcome and determination of the cause of death raises obviously troubling questions.

All departments refused to release any relevant information. We requested that these decisions be subject of a quasi-judicial review by the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner (O.I.P.C.).

Despite our request that the cases be bundled together the OIPC made us argue each case individually. I had approached legal advocacy organizations and other non-profits but only the United Native Nations and Union of BC Indians Chiefs stepped forward to help.

While all of this was going on, the BC provincial government decided to hold a Public Inquiry into Frank Paul’s death.
The recommendations that came out of The Davies Commission inquiry into the death of Frank Paul contributed to the establishment of the Independent Investigations Office of BC, a civilian-led police oversight agency responsible for conducting investigations into incidents of death or serious harm that may have been the result of the actions or in-actions of a police officer. As the goal of the documentary was the establishment of civilian oversight of the police and that a formal review of Frank Paul’s death be held, the decision was made to return to working on the issue of Vancouver’s murdered and missing women. A clip from that is included in the Rose Marie Roper segment.

After several years of back and forth legal submissions the OIPC ruled that the documents, necessary for any proper investigation into the First Nations deaths in police custody were not in the public interest.

As Voltaire wrote “To the living we owe respect, but to the dead we owe only the truth.”

While the OIPC might agree with the Vancouver Police Department, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the BC Coroners office that this issue is not important enough to meet the threshold of ‘public interest’, new and old friends from across Canada and around the world have stepped forward and demonstrated it’s important to them.  That they volunteered their time and effort to help bring public attention to these stories. With their help and assistance you can decide for yourself if this is something you care about. Anything of quality is due to their efforts. The errors, omissions, mistakes and failures – of which I am sure there are many – are mine alone.

– Leonard Cler-Cunningham with Mariam Zohra D.

Mother’s Day 2023

Dedicated to my mother Connie Cunningham


“More than a decade ago writer Leonard Cler-Cunningham first sought to raise public awareness about the disturbing subject of aboriginal deaths in custody. His concerns arose from investigating the case of Clayton Willey, who died hours after being brutally beaten by police. But Cler-Cunningham was pretty much ignored then, and there was an institutional failure – by the justice system, by government, by the mainstream media – to adequately follow up on his concerns. Now he is back with a renewed demand for a public inquiry – not into the death of one person, but into the deaths of more than 40. “He cannot be ignored again. Too many questions remain unanswered, about too many deaths.”
Mark Hume, author and former National Correspondent for The Globe and Mail

“When a person is taken into custody by the police or other government institutions, the institutions become legally responsible for that person’s safety and well being. Investigative journalist Leonard Cler-Cunningham has painstakingly researched numerous First Nations deaths in custody on behalf of the families still waiting for answers to questions surrounding the deaths of their loved ones.  Without exception, the mission statements or guiding principles of our Canadian Institutions and Police Services state that they must operate with integrity, and in the best interest of the public. A reasonable person would expect that full and timely access to all information related to a death in custody be provided to the decedent’s family and their advocates. Many wonder why doors have closed and years have passed for these families and their advocates who only search for the truth on these deaths in custody. First Nations deaths in custody are a matter of Public Interest. In my opinion to suggest otherwise is wrong. Leonard Cler-Cunningham’s call for a Public Inquiry into this matter is a step in the right direction.”
Doug Fell, Retired Detective, Vancouver Police Department


Thomas Prince
Fort St. James, BC
August 20, 1977

Peter Paul
Penticton, BC
May 24, 1977

Ita Elkins
Williams Lake, BC

Clarence George Jack
Ladysmith, BC
August 02, 1982

Joanne Leah Totus
Duncan, BC
May 24, 1988

Katie Ross
Williams Lake, BC
July, 1988

Alfred Richard Mountain
Vancouver, BC
November 1983

Harvey Jack
Nanaimo, BC
October 28, 1983


Rocky Allan Pearson
Vancouver, BC
May 16, 1988

Harold Joseph Prince
Vancouver, BC
July 09, 1988

Sylvester Thomas Plasway
Smithers, BC
April 01, 1989

Darrel Steve Wilson
Duncan, BC
March 28, 1990

Christopher Stephen Bell
Victoria, BC
September 26, 1990

Randy Monk
Pinchi Lake, BC
February 19th, 1991

Kevin Jason Skin
Prince George, BC
February 21, 1991

Robert Satiacum
Vancouver, BC
March 25, 1991

Victor Michael Vincent George
Port Alberni, BC
April 5, 1991

Darrell Horace Yeltazie
Old Masset, BC
June 22, 1991

Frank George Bell
Vancouver, BC
March 3, 1992

Russel John Abraham
Vancouver, BC
July 03, 1992

Martin Russel Mather
Prince Rupert, BC
September 27, 1993

Larry Horace Jack
Kelowna, BC
December 22, 1993

Benjamin Neil Dixon
Bella Bella, BC
December 26, 1993

Joseph Williams Peters
Courtenay, BC
August 3, 1994

Adeline Catherine Wilson
Duncan, BC
October 24, 1994

Eddie Munro Basil  
Fort St. James, BC
June 08, 1996

Eliza Wokely  
Fort St. John, BC
May 07, 1998

Stanley George Paul 
Campbell River, BC
May 24, 1997

Frank Watts
Prince Rupert, BC
January 08, 1999

Anthany James Dawson
Victoria, BC
August 13, 1999

Paul Alphonse  
Williams Lake, BC
April 08, 2000

Adam Wayne Beadle
Campbell River, BC
March 02, 2001

Richard William Allen
Terrace, BC
July 04, 2001

Mark Ned Francis
Port Alberni, BC
October 26, 2001

Peter Benoit Prince
Prince George, BC
November 09, 2001

George David Patters
Coquitlam, BC
July 22, 2002

Darrell Paquette
Prince George, BC
September 27, 2002

Lorraine Jacobsen/Moon
Alert Bay, BC
February 28, 2003

Merle Albert Nicholas
Smithers, BC
June 14, 2003

Clayton Alvin Willey
Prince George, BC
July 22, 2003

Gerald Chenery
Vancouver, BC
December 26, 2004

Kyle Tait
New Westminster, BC
August 23, 2005

Christopher Tom
Tofino, BC
August 05, 2007

Harriet Nahannee
Vancouver, BC
February 04, 2007