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RCMP’s investigation into Kaylee Gunanoot’s death questioned by First Nations leaders

Persistent pleas for clarity, as community demands answers and action in tragic case
Supporters gathered at Hagwilget Canyon Bridge on July 28 to demand justice for Kaylee Gunanoot, holding up protest signs bearing her name and seeking answers regarding her tragic death on the Hagwilget First Nation reserve. (Viktor Elias/Terrace Standard)

The RCMP needs to do more when it comes to investigating First Nations deaths in the Hazeltons, says an official with the Gitxsan Treaty Society.

It’s the latest call for more police transparency by Indigenous leaders and this time arises from the June death of a young woman on the Hagwilget reserve that her mother deems suspicious.

Jennifer Gunanoot has already held one demonstration in a call for more police action concerning the death of her daughter Kaylie Gunanoot, 29. She was found dead June 17 in a house on the Hagwilget reserve.

In a letter to RCMP North District Chief Superintendent Warren Brown, Gitxsan Treaty Society Executive Director Gordon Sebastian on behalf of the hereditary Gitxsan Huwilp Government called for a “thorough and proper investigation” into Gunanoot’s death while evidence remains fresh.

The Village of Hagwilget has also extended its unconditional support to Gunanoot’s family in a letter signed, “Families of the Village of Hagwilget and Gitxsan people.” It called for “credible, regular updates” on the RCMP and coroner’s investigation.

“Following the letter to the RCMP requesting urgency be placed on this investigation, the Village of Hagwilget publicly request[s] that timely updates and an interim report from the BC Coroner’s office be forthcoming to your family.”

The letter also warned that the village be prepared for any outcomes of any investigation.

“It is impossible to know what the investigation will turn up,” the letter stated.

In an interview, Sebastian reiterated his belief there had been a lack of proper investigation into Kaylee’s death.

“Policing is a community matter,” he said, expressing concern about the perceived lack of effective law enforcement both on and off the reserves.

Sebastian recounted numerous incidents in which First Nations individuals went missing or were found dead under mysterious circumstances, only to be met, he said, with silence or indifference from the RCMP.

Jennifer has claimed that her daughter’s body was bruised and there was a lump on her forehead, leaving Sebastian to wonder why that wasn’t enough to trigger a homicide investigation.

In a statement to The Terrace Standard, RCMP Media Relations Officer Cpl. Madonna Saunderson responded to the perception of RCMP investigative apathy.

READ MORE: Mother calls for justice in daughter’s death on Hagwilget First Nation reserve

“Generally speaking, regardless of race or gender, the direction of any investigation is led by the evidence,” she said.

Sebastian further painted a picture of homelessness, rampant drug use and the associated violence on the Hagwilget reserve, often leaving residents feeling unprotected by police.

Sebastian stressed the importance of a collaborative relationship with the RCMP, one where the community’s concerns are genuinely taken into account in shaping policies and procedures.

“People take advantage when the police don’t bother to show up to homes where there are homeless people living in them and known to get carried away in terms of alcohol and drugs and screaming and yelling.”

Despite a meeting in mid-August with police, Jennifer said she was left without essential details such as the exact time of her daughter’s death and who was handling the investigation.

The RCMP wouldn’t comment directly on Kaylee’s case, but said in any death investigation, it would “establish a family liaison and maintain contact with them throughout the investigation.

“This is to ensure the proper flow of information when possible and also to ensure that supports are in place,” said Saunderson.

“The RCMP has been in contact with the family since the outset and it has been made clear that the RCMP continue to support the BC Coroner’s Service with the investigation.”

While a liaison was appointed, Jennifer said they haven’t been much help. She also expressed her frustration with the RCMP’s unwillingness to reclassify her daughter’s death as one of a suspicious nature or even murder.

“The death was suspicious,” Jennifer reiterated, emphasizing her belief that the RCMP needs to fulfill its duties. “It’s their job to get to the truth.”

Saunderson said “not all details can be shared with the public or the family” during any investigation and that “in many coroner’s cases, those details can’t be known until the coroner has reviewed all of the available evidence and can make determinations such as time of death.”

She added that those details may lead to a coroner’s inquest “depending on the circumstances of the death.”

Viktor Elias joined the Terrace Standard in April 2023.

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