“This is What Happens When an Indian Dies"
“This is What Happens When an Indian Dies"
“This is What Happens When an Indian Dies"
At six o’clock in the evening on the last Sunday of November, 1971, Leslie Roberts, a public health nurse, narrowly avoided hitting a pick-up that was stopped in the middle of the road on Highway 20 just outside of Williams Lake. 55-year-old Fred Quilt had drunk two bottles of vanilla extract with his adopted son Robin, sister-in-law Agnes, and wife Christine while driving home after attending a funeral at the nearby Anihim reserve when their truck stalled.
After getting out of her car and talking with Fred, Leslie placed a blinking flashlight down on the road and drove five miles to nearby Alexis Creek to report the situation to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police put Fred, Agnes, Robin and Christine in the cruiser and dropped them off at the Anihim reserve — almost a full 15 miles away from their home on the Stone Lake reserve. When the RCMP returned to attend to the abandoned automobile, a bloodied Fred Quilt staggered to a house where two daughters of a friend lived. The constables later testified that they placed flares 10 feet in front and behind of the vehicle on the highway and that, when they returned with the proper equipment, they found the Quilts’ truck had been pushed over an embankment and set on fire.
While Fred moaned in pain next to the fireplace, Christine Quilt and Raymond Stump went to retrieve the truck, which they found engulfed in flames at the bottom of the embankment far from the highway. They later testified that they found the wrappers from flares laying next to the truck. They reported this to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police who promised to look into it. A subsequent Royal Canadian Mounted Police investigation was unable to recover any wrappers or flares from the scene.
Fred’s suffering was getting worse.
Mary Billy, a neighbour, went to get Sister Jeanita Cormier, a Roman Catholic nun and nurse who was on the reserve. While Sister Cormier bandaged his ribs, Fred told her that a policeman had kicked him. Worried that his ribs were broken, she called the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, telling them that Fred needed to go the hospital. The call was received by the same constable who had left Fred Quilt 15 miles away from his home.
He later testified that the sister told him that a “Patrick Quilt has some broken ribs.” Unable to connect the phone call to the fiery automobile or the injured Fred Quilt he had just left behind, no ambulance was dispatched.
Fred’s pain was so bad now that his wife Christine twice went to Sister Cormier to beg for help. She later walked a mile through the snow to ask for help from Father O’Brien. The Oblate priest made repeated failed attempts to contact a local provincial judge he knew in order to get someone to make sure an ambulance was sent to the reserve.
The next morning Leslie Roberts, the public health nurse who first found Quilt and made the original call to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, stopped by to see what had happened to Fred and his family. Discovering him in unendurable pain, she made a phone call demanding that an ambulance be immediately sent to pick him up. While they waited for it to arrive, Fred told her the same thing he had said to Sister Cormier. That his injuries were the result of being beaten by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
An ambulance, transporting a dead child back to town, finally came for Fred Quilt. He refused to enter the vehicle. According to his Chilcotin religious beliefs, if someone travels with a corpse, they are the next to die.
Lawrence Stump drove Fred the 15 miles back to his home and at one in the afternoon, two days after he was originally injured, an ambulance arrived and took him to the hospital in Williams Lake.
Fred Quilt died a little over an hour later.
According to the doctor who performed the autopsy, Fred Quilt’s life would have been saved if he had received surgery within 12 hours of being injured.
The Quilt family was represented at the Coroner’s Inquest by Henry Castillou. The lawyer was still angry about what happened just six months earlier when the Royal Canadian Mounted Police had shot and killed an Aboriginal man, Douglas Higginbottom. Fred’s wife Christine, one of the main witnesses at the inquest, only spoke Chilcotin. She testified to the all-white jury through a interpreter that she had witnessed one of the constables jumping up and down on Fred after dumping him on the ground while yelling, “Get up you son of a bitch.”
After three hours of deliberation, the jury concluded:
“That Frederick Quilt of Stone Reserve, aged 55 years, died on the 30th of November, A.D., 1972, as a result of peritonitis. We find this death was unnatural and that it was accidental. We attach no blame to any person in connection with the death. We recommend that assistance be provided to minority ethnic groups as to their rights pertaining to the law and obligations in giving testimony.”
The coroner, Sid Leith, was a former Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer. He allowed the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to organize the inquest. Among the jury members was a Royal Canadian Mounted Police auxiliary officer who lived with two other Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers.
The Aboriginal community was outraged.
The Native Council of Canada, the British Columbia Association of Non-Status Indians, and the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs organized and the inquest was eventually quashed by the BC Supreme Court who ruled “that a coroner’s jury selected by a police officer and of which was composed of persons who were sympathetic to or might be sympathetic to the police was an improperly constituted jury.”
The second inquest lasted three weeks.
“We find that the death was caused by general peritonitis of the abdomen over a 48-hour period, caused by a perforation of the small bowel. The perforation was the result of an injury by way of an unknown blunt force applied by an unknown object to the lower right abdomen. The injury was sustained between the time Quilt was removed from the Quilts’ vehicle and assisted to the police vehicle on the Chilcotin Road on November 28. Due to unwillingness of Quilt to avail himself of ambulance service and medical attention that was made available to him, Quilt’s activities during this period of time, the modes of transportation, the conditions of the road and the lapse of time were contributing factors.”
Harry Rankin, a lawyer from Vancouver, represented the Quilt family at the second inquest.
Years later, he wrote about his experience:
“The death of Fred Quilt, a Chilcotin Indian from Williams Lake, sets in clear relief the racism rampant in British Columbia. Out of all the fallacies which many people labour under is that Canadian society is above such unjust practices. We become indignant about the lynching of a Negro in Georgia, or the brutality of a police officer in Alabama, but are unaware or overlook or ignore the racism that flourishes right here. Haven’t many people formed the conclusion that the native Indians are drunken, dissolute and don’t want to work, etc? That is racism. That is what happened to many of us. This is what happens when an Indian dies. If that is not injustice and racism, then these words have lost their meaning.”
The circumstances surrounding Fred Quilt’s death, and the two Coroner’s Inquests, made it almost iconic for many in Canada’s western most province.
Seven years later when his wife Christine died of cancer, demands for a third Coroner’s Inquest arose.
This time, it was the RCMP claiming that a major injustice had occurred.
According to the headline from a 1977 Vancouver newspaper cover story: “Quilt ‘confession’ may reopen inquest, bring slaying pardon”.
It was alleged at a press conference convened by the RCMP Chief Superintendent that:
“Christine Quilt, widow of Chilcotin Indian Fred Quilt, confessed before her death that she backed their truck into him the night he was fatally injured in 1971.”
According to the RCMP’s confidential source, not only did Christine recant the testimony she had given at two Coroner’s Inquests, she also “confessed to the fatal shooting of Rose Setah on the Stone Lake Indian reserve near Williams Lake in 1968.”
This was a crime which the RCMP had considered solved when they arrested Stephen Hink. The First Nations man served a three-year-term “in the B.C. Penitentiary after pleading guilty to manslaughter following a psychiatric examination at Riverview Hospital.”
The consulting pathologist at the inquest is quoted as saying:
“I’ve always known that there was something about that injury that didn’t fit the autopsy.” “I testified at the time that Quilt’s injuries were not consistent with a kick or a series of kicks.” “If he were run over by a vehicle it could compress the small bowel against the spinal cord and sever it.”
A third inquest was never held, nor is it known if Stephen Hink was pardoned for the murder of Rose Setah.
It’s no surprise that we will never know what happened to Fred Quilt.
Among Canada’s provinces, British Columbia has always been a place where the rule of law is haphazardly applied according to the political whim of the day. A rough-and-tumble cartoonish political landscape that stumbles from political scandal to political scandal. The most egregious of which, like Railgate, are never fully investigated and where the most titillating, like the rumour that a recent former premier had impregnated a female officer from his bodyguard detail while in office, are never reported.
Much of the synopsis is from Lorne and Caroline Brown’s “An Unauthorized History of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police”.
Written by Lorne & Caroline Brown with Leonard Cler-Cunningham
Edited by Liz Otton
Illustrations by Francis Selal
Voice Over by Gary Hutton
Editing by Neil Hunt