With no answers from Quebec watchdog on son's death, a mother wants to take police to court on her own
Two years after her son was fatally shot by police, an Eastern Townships mother has decided to seek accountability all on her own.
Tracy Wing is trying to pursue a private criminal prosecution—a rarely used legal option—against the officer who fired the shot that killed her 17-year-old son, Riley Fairholm, in July 2018 in Lac Brome. A judge will need to approve the prosecution.
To start, she’s asking Quebec provincial police to release the names of, and other details about, the officers who were involved.
“They say ‘It’s none of my business, it’s confidential,’” she said in an interview Monday.
“They keep telling me it’s none of my business why all this happened.”
The public accountability process concluded months ago, without providing Wing with much information, including which officers responded.
Quebec’s police watchdog agency, called the BEI, investigated and turned over a report to the Crown prosecutors’ office. Authorities announced last October that no charges would be laid and that the report would stay confidential.
Wing still has lots of questions. Police were called that night because Fairholm was in crisis. He was brandishing what turned out to be an air pistol.
One fact that has lodged deeply in his mother’s mind is that it took just one minute from when police arrived until the moment an officer shot him in the head.
“When I found out it was 61 seconds, it blew me away,” she said.
“Because it’s not a long time. I don’t believe there was any negotiation—you can’t negotiate in 61 seconds.”
What she does know is a few bits and pieces garnered from the BEI, including the 911 call and the officers’ statements in the case.
“I know they met at the four corners [an intersection in Lac Brome near where Fairholm was] and talked about how they were going to intervene, and that conversation is something they haven’t related to me, and I’d be very interested to know what they discussed,” she said.
Quebec provincial police told CTV News they couldn't comment on the case.
MORE TRANSPARENCY IN OTHER PROVINCES
Wing believes there’s a particular lack of information in cases where people are killed by Quebec police.
“The police have no accountability, as far as I’m concerned,” she said.
Public Security Minister Genevieve Guilbault admits the BEI is not perfect.
“We are working to improve the situation as much as we can, but you have to understand that the information contained in the BEI reports is confidential for [most] of it,” she said.
Many human rights groups have said the BEI lacks impartiality, since the investigators themselves have a background in police work, and that it should make its findings public—as is the case in many other provinces.
“How come there is much more transparency in those other provinces and that we don’t have that in Quebec?” asks Alexandre Popovic, who works at an organization focusing on police accountability called the Coalition contre la repression et les abus policiers.
“If you look at Ontario, B.C., Manitoba, Nova Scotia,” he said, “when the equivalent of the BEI is conducting and terminating an investigation, they release…summaries of the version of events, witnesses and the police witnesses. You have reports that can be five, 10, 20 pages long.”
The BEI’s track record is striking. The agency, which was created four years ago, confirms it has launched 177 investigations into cases where someone died or was seriously injured in police custody or in a police intervention.
Of those, 120 investigations have concluded. None has resulted in charges.
There have been officers charged following other types of investigations, for example, for police sexual misconduct.
Wing hopes that pursuing a private prosecution will add what she says is much-needed pressure.
A RARE LEGAL ROUTE
Private prosecutions, which are rare in Quebec and across Canada, involve a private citizen acting as a prosecutor rather than one working on behalf of the Crown or public prosecution service, says Marie Manikis, a professor at McGill’s law school.
“Private prosecutions are considered constitutional safeguards against inertia or partiality on the part of the state,” she said in an email to CTV News.
“People have taken this route when they sense that state institutions have failed to act in a given case,” she said. They’re often seen as “mechanisms to hold state institutions and individuals accountable.”
They’re not common because they’re expensive and because the public prosecutors’ office still retains near-total power over the process. For example, the Crown “has the authority to stay proceedings very early on in the process,” Manikis said.
If a private prosecution does go forward, the public prosecution can decide to take over the prosecution and end it, to take it over and continue it, or, in “very rare” instances, to allow it to go forward privately, she explained.
Wing isn’t daunted yet. She has started the process with an official letter sent to police on Monday asking for the names of the officers involved.
“My son died and there was one police officer is responsible for that, and I think I’m owed an explanation of exactly how he came to that conclusion that it was necessary to shoot him,” she said.
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