On June 24, 2009, Levi Schaeffer, 30 years old, was fatally shot by an Ontario Provincial Police officer. Since then, Levi’s mother, Ruth has been fighting for justice. Four and a half years of being bounced around from court to court finally paid off for the Schaeffer family as Canada’s highest court ruled in their favour last Thursday.
What gave notoriety to this case was that after Schaeffer was fatally shot, the officers involved, were given two days, by their Superior, to write up their notes with the help of a lawyer.
Levi Schaeffer of Peterborough was diagnosed with schizophrenia in his early 20’s. In late Spring of 2009, he decided to travel by foot and bike, into Ontario’s northern wilderness. On June 24, Schaeffer had his camp set up at the edge of Osnaburgh Lake near Pickle Lake. Pickle Lake is approximately 540 kilometres north of Thunder Bay. As he was cooking lunch, two police officers pulled up to Schaeffer’s camp in an unmarked boat. The officers were searching for a green motorized canoe that was reported missing by a local man.
What happened after that is questionable. What is known, is that the officers believed that Schaeffer stole the missing boat. After the shooting, a member of the OPP advised both officers to contact a police union lawyer who was also a former officer. They were also informed to write their notes at the direction of the lawyer. Both officers had the same lawyer.
Whenever police officers are involved in incidents where a person has been seriously injured or dies, the province’s Special Investigations Unit (SIU) is brought in to investigate. The SIU is an independent body and is made up of civilian members. They have the power to investigate and charge police officers.
Ian Scott, recent director of the SIU, cleared both officers of any wrongdoing. However, in his final report he stated that the way the notes were handled prevented him from determining what really happened during the events leading up to the shooting.
Neither officer was disciplined and the SIU concluded that the officer had no choice but to shoot Schaeffer. Furthermore, Scott’s decision was based solely on the ‘tainted’ notes of the only surviving witnesses: the two Ontario Provincial Police officer’s of the Pickle Lake Detachment.
The Schaeffer family took the OPP and SIU to court asking the judge to interpret the note-taking rules. Scott also submitted a factum that backed the family. The court ruled that the issue is a matter for the Legislatures, not the courts. The application was struck down.
The Schaeffer family then appealed the decision, which went all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada. In a landmark decision Thursday, the court ruled in favour of the Schaeffer family. This means that police officers who kill civilians will no longer be able to have their notes written under the discretion of a lawyer before submitting them to the SIU and any other agency that is civilian-run which investigates when police are suspected of wrongdoing.
This historic Supreme Court ruling will set a new precedent for future incidents where police kill civilians. Although families will not be able to directly read police notes, they can now rest assured that the notes will be accurate and accountable. Furthermore, future investigations conducted by civilian agencies of police wrongdoing, will be legitimate. And lastly, police can no longer assign the same police association lawyer to all police officers.
According to the Coalition for Justice for Levi Schaeffer, although this is a win for the Schaeffer family, ‘we still have police killing mentally ill people.” The unofficial modus operandi of police officers when dealing with mentally ill persons is to draw their weapon. According to the coalition, “we still have a reality were certain people – people of colour, Indigenous folk, queers, the poor, people with disabilities, vulnerable women – are disproportionately targeted, intimidated and violated by police in our communities.” Levi’s mom, Ruth, who has been at the heart of this whole ordeal, feels a great sense of relief with Thursday’s court ruling.
First Nations people are not strangers to police shootings. In 1988, J.J. Harper was shot and killed by Winnipeg Police. In June 2008, Chase McKay of the White Bear First Nation in Saskatchewan was shot and killed by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP). In March 2011, Kinling Fire was shot to death near his home in Edmonton. In January 2013, Ryan Jacob was shot dead by Burnaby police. In August 2013, a man from the Cold Lake First Nation in Alberta, was gunned down by RCMP. And, in August of 2013, Lance Cutarm was shot to death by RCMP during a routine traffic stop southwest of Edmonton.