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'He was my only supporter:' Mother testifies at inquest into Nunavut RCMP shooting

GJOA HAVEN, Nunavut — When he was about eight years old, Charles Qirngnirq took an interest in fixing things like snowmobiles and enjoyed hunting around his Nunavut community — skills he learned from his grandfather.
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GJOA HAVEN, Nunavut — When he was about eight years old, Charles Qirngnirq took an interest in fixing things like snowmobiles and enjoyed hunting around his Nunavut community — skills he learned from his grandfather.

When he grew up, Leona Qirngnirq said, her son became the one she leaned on.

“He was my only supporter. He was my hunter. He was my mechanic," she told the first day of a coroner's inquest Monday.

"Losing a child after ... raising them, it’s really difficult," she said through tears, sometimes covering her face with a tissue.

Five years ago, Charles Qirngnirq, 21, was shot and killed by an RCMP officer outside the airport in the remote Nunavut hamlet of Gjoa Haven.

The inquest into his death is being held this week to determine where, when and how he died and to make recommendations to prevent similar deaths. 

A six-person jury, coroner's officer and counsel gathered in a gymnasium-like room in Gjoa Haven's community hall, where an Inukshuk figure made of black panels scales a back wall. The roar of all-terrain vehicles often made it difficult to hear some of the testimony.

Leona Qirngnirq told the jury that her son's girlfriend came to her house the morning of Dec. 19, 2016, and asked for the couple's son, who was about two years old at the time. Qirngnirq said she reluctantly handed over the child.

She said her son later showed up and was upset.

"He was pretty angry. He told me that I should have never handed his son to his mom.”

Witnesses testified that Qirngnirq then went to the airport on his snowmobile. His girlfriend was planning to fly out with their child. Qirngnirq shouted at them to stay. He was told to leave.

Witnesses said he returned to the airport carrying a rifle.

"I thought he was going to shoot us," said George Sallerina, who was working at the airport that day. Sallerina is also a cousin of Qirngnirq.

Sallerina said he did not see Qirngnirq raise the rifle and that he was holding it down at his side "like when going hunting."

Two RCMP officers stationed in the community drove down the dirt road to the airport and confronted Qirngnirq as he walked over the tundra and away from the airport toward the hamlet. 

The inquest heard that Qirngnirq was shot by one of the officers and fell to the ground. Six people carried him to a vehicle.

He was taken to the community's health centre and a medevac plane was called. He died from his injuries before takeoff.

In opening statements, both the coroner’s lawyer, Sheldon Toner, and the Qirngnirq family’s lawyer, Nikolai Sittmann, said they will argue that the death was a homicide.

Magnolia Unka-Wool, the RCMP’s lawyer, said she will ask jurors to declare the death a suicide.

The inquest is set to run until Thursday or Friday.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 4, 2021.

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This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

Emma Tranter, The Canadian Press

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