N.B. coroner's inquest told about lack of adequate mental health and addictions help

Steven Ward, a native addictions worker who was a life-long friend of Rodney Levi, arrives at a coroner's inquest into Levi's death in Miramichi, N.B., Thursday, Sept.30, 2021. Ward says there was a lack of mental health services for the Indigenous man on the day he was shot dead by police in northern New Brunswick last year. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Kevin Bissett

Rodney Levi didn't get the mental health help he needed before he was shot dead by police last year in northern New Brunswick, an addictions counsellor and lifelong friend to the Indigenous man testified Thursday.

Steven Ward told the coroner's inquest in Miramichi, N.B., that he had spoken with Levi a number of times the day he died.

Levi, who was from the Metepenagiag First Nation, was killed by the RCMP on the evening of June 12, 2020, after police responded to a complaint of a disturbance in a home in nearby Sunny Corner, N.B.

Ward had been working as a fisheries officer at the time because the treatment centre in nearby Eel Ground, N.B., where he was also employed, was closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

He said Levi seemed upbeat about plans to move to Western Canada for work and to get away from the influence of drugs. An autopsy confirmed Levi, 48, had amphetamine and methamphetamine in his body at the time of the shooting.

Ward told the five-member coroner's jury he is a former addict, and he said there is a need for community-based services to help people with mental health and addiction issues.

"It's got to start with the community healing itself," he told the inquest. He said Levi was reaching out for help but had not been able to get it.

Ward said he had gone home for a nap and woke to the news Levi had been shot.

The incident was investigated by Quebec's police watchdog, the Bureau des enquetes independantes, which submitted a report to New Brunswick prosecutors in December. It determined the officers on the scene believed Levi was using force against them. Levi had been wielding two knives, and officers shot him to protect themselves and others, the probe concluded.

Ward said he believes Levi's death could have been avoided.

"I don't believe Rodney should be dead," he said. "I believe those officers should be taught in de-escalating."

Ward said he currently works as an addictions counsellor in Metepenagiag; he said the success rate in getting people to quit their addictions is extremely low. The three-day programs that are offered are not effective, he said, adding that longer, months-long programs are needed to help people quit.

Earlier Thursday, an emergency room doctor said all efforts failed to save Levi's life.

Dr. Syed Ahmed testified that paramedics reported no signs of life for 41 minutes, adding that advanced CPR was done for another 30 minutes before Levi was declared dead. He had been shot twice in the chest.

Coroner John Evans started the day recognizing it was the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. Everyone attending the inquest, located in a hotel conference room, stood and lowered their heads as Indigenous elder Kenneth Francis said a prayer to mark the day.

Levi's family requested to have the inquest sit Thursday but to skip Friday, which is recognized as Treaty Day.

A coroner's inquest does not assign blame but issues recommendations intended to help prevent a death under similar circumstances in the future.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 30, 2021.