The coroner’s inquest into the death of Brennan Ahenakew-Johnstone wrapped up Thursday with a number of recommendations from the six-person jury.
The 20-year-old Ahenakew-Johnstone’s remains were found in a burnt-out vehicle on the Ahtahkakoop Cree Nation in May 2018.
The jury recommendations include more funding to the Shellbrook RCMP for staff and vehicles, provision of fire protection clothing and equipment for officers, timelier follow up by the RCMP when they receive calls and the review of pertinent files and statements by officers and witnesses prior to testifying at inquests.
The jury also determined the cause of death as smoke inhalation and burns and means of death as accidental.
Ahenakew-Johnstone’s mother Lisa Johnstone said she accepts the findings of the jury and is ready to move on.
However, at the same time, she said the inquest exposed a double standard when it comes to RCMP investigations in Indigenous compared to non-Indigenous communities.
“Had my son been a white kid in Canwood, in that community in a car and a bush, there would have been a totally different response than what was done for my son on the reserve,” Johnstone said.
Earlier in the week, the inquest heard the fire that consumed Ahenakew-Johnstone’s 2002 Pontiac Grand Am in the early morning hours of May 10, 2018 and ultimately caused his death originated in the engine compartment of the vehicle.
Jeff Keyes, who was a vehicle inspector with Saskatchewan Government Insurance at the time, testified the loss of oil caused by damage to the undercarriage of the vehicle combined with the fact the car was still in gear and not moving would have created enough friction to cause the fire.
Keyes also said it would be highly unlikely a fire of this nature could be deliberately set.
An RCMP re-constructionist testified the car had left the road and travelled close to 300 metres damaging trees, dislodging a rock and going through a barbed wire fence before coming to rest in a field.
Cpl. Bob Topping said it was his conclusion that Ahenakew-Johnstone would not have sustained serious injuries as a result of the collision.
In spite of the fact both a 2019 coroner’s report and the inquest jury found the means of death to be accidental, Johnstone said she remains convinced her son was the victim of a serious crime.
“Something did happen to him prior to him ending up in that field. That’s evident and I’m sure the public, whoever was here yesterday (Wednesday) during the testimony also feels that way as well.”
The inquest heard Wednesday Ahenakew-Johnstone was in a physical confrontation and threatened with a knife by then 17-year-old Diamond Sasakamoose a mere few hours before he died.
Johnstone has filed a grievance with the RCMP’s civilian review and complaints commission over the force’s handling of the investigation.
Earlier on Thursday, the inquest heard from Cst. Tommy Yu who was in charge of the RCMP major crimes unit investigation into Ahenakew-Johnstone’s death.
Yu was grilled by coroner’s counsel Robin Ritter as to why he didn’t seek warrants to search the Sasakamoose home or the cell phone records of the individuals who last saw Ahenakew-Johnstone alive, including Diamond Sasakamoose.
Most cell phone companies provide a reasonably accurate log of an individual’s place and time during texts and phone calls if the phone is turned on.
“You have taken the search warrant course,” Ritter said. “It would have been very easy to get those cell phone records.”
Ahenakew-Johnstone family lawyer Evan Strelioff asked Yu why he didn’t follow up on allegations there had been a significant amount of blood in the Sasakamoose home on the morning of the day Brennan died.
He also asked the RCMP officer why he didn’t bring Diamond Sasakamoose in for further questioning after he told police Ahenakew-Johnstone’s last words to him were, “I’m going to burn myself.”
“That’s a pretty big coincidence if Diamond said Brennan said ‘I am going to burn myself’ and Brennan died in an accidental fire,” Strelioff said.
“I don’t know, I’m not a statement expert,” Yu replied.
The last witness the inquest heard from was 26-year-old Maskwa Masuskapoe who described Ahenakew-Johnstone as his best friend.
When asked what kind of person Brennan was, he simply replied, “the best.”