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Police urged to consider homicide investigation in Inuit woman's death

Police urged to consider homicide investigation in Inuit woman's death
Police urged to consider homicide investigation in Inuit woman's death

The Native Women's Shelter of Montreal held a vigil for Siasi Tullaugak and Sharon Barron in Cabot Square on Sept. 8. Christinne Muschi / MONTREAL GAZETTE

One of the last people seen with Siasi Tullaugak before she died last month was a man with a reputation in the community for coercing Inuit women into the sex trade, the Montreal Gazette has learned.

After police found Tullaugak dead in her downtown apartment on Aug. 28, investigators said she took her own life.

But a police report that surfaced last week revealed Tullaugak spoke to officers just hours before her death about an unidentified man trying to force her into a downtown alley.

The contents of the report — first uncovered by Vice News — have been confirmed by the Montreal Gazette and are fuelling calls, from Tullaugak’s loved ones, for detectives to investigate her death as a possible homicide.

Now nine sources tell the Montreal Gazette that a man who was with Tullaugak on the morning she died has turned several homeless women toward sex work. They say the man, whom they refer to as a pimp, targets vulnerable Inuit women and has been known to control, threaten and intimidate them.

“There’s a lot of fear on the streets right now,” said Jessica Quijano, the project coordinator for Iskweu — a program designed to address the high levels of violence against Indigenous women in Montreal.

“Police need to look at all of (Tullaugak’s) close relationships. … Historically, with missing and murdered Indigenous women, people know who the suspect is, but don’t believe that police will follow up on the information they provide.”

Quijano, who knew Tullaugak, says homeless Indigenous women rarely report crimes to the police.

“If women are criminalized for being addicts and if they’re involved in sex work, it makes it a lot harder to go to the police,” she said. “And that leaves them in a vulnerable position.”

Some men steal the women’s medicare cards and their shoes to exert control over them, according to Marina Boulos-Winton, executive director of the Chez Doris shelter. She added that some threaten the women or their loved ones with violence if they go to police.

A police source told the Montreal Gazette the alleged pimp isn’t a suspect, and Tullaugak’s death is considered a suicide. The source, who did not want his name used, added that investigators may try to locate and interview the man in the coming days.

Court documents show that the man was charged with assault and armed assault last year. Those court cases are pending.

“I can tell you the investigators have done the legwork on this,” Carlo De Angelis, the Montreal police’s Aboriginal liaison officer, said in an earlier interview with the Montreal Gazette. “If new evidence comes to light, they’ll pursue it.”

In the wake of questions surrounding Tullaugak’s death, police have called a Sept. 26 meeting with the city’s Indigenous community groups.

Police did not respond to the Montreal Gazette’s interview request Wednesday. While it’s unclear if they are re-opening Tullaugak’s file, it is department protocol not to comment on active investigations.

Before learning of his involvement in the sex trade, the Montreal Gazette interviewed the alleged pimp. He said he was drinking with Tullaugak in the early hours of Aug. 28.

After 3 a.m., they moved from a bar near Towers and Ste-Catherine Sts. to the lobby of an apartment building on St-Marc St. The man told the Montreal Gazette he saw Tullaugak leave the lobby with an unidentified man around 4 a.m.

Tullaugak was found hanged to death from the balcony of her apartment roughly two hours later.

The man’s account was corroborated by two people who also saw Tullaugak leave the apartment building with a man in his mid-to-late 30s.

When he spoke to the Montreal Gazette, the man said he was asleep in a stairwell just a few blocks east of Tullaugak’s place around the time of her death.

“Around 5:30 a.m., I went to lay down but something told me to get up,” he said. “I heard a really deep scream coming from Chomedy St. … About two minutes later, police started flying down the road. I guess that’s when they found the body.

“I really cared about (Tullaugak). She had a laugh, I can almost hear it right now. I wish I could describe it to you.”

Tullaugak, 27, came to Montreal after a difficult childhood in Puvirnituq — an Inuit fishing village on Quebec’s Hudson Bay coast. Friends say her father died when she was a child and she lost her older sister Laina to cancer a few years ago.

They say she came to Montreal to get a fresh start.

But over time, Tullaugak drifted in and out of a life on the streets. Until her final days, she spoke to friends of getting sober and finding her way back home.

The people who knew Tullaugak say she was not suicidal.

“There are people, you hear about them taking their own lives, and it isn’t that surprising,” said John Tessier, an outreach worker at a shelter Tullaugak frequented. “It’s sad, when that happens, but there are always signs. We didn’t see any of those signs with (Tullaugak).

“She was feisty, she was a fighter but there was a soft side to her. There was one elderly homeless woman that the others sort of bullied, but (Tullaugak) always cared for her.”

The day after Tullaugak died, another Inuit woman — Sharon Barron — was found dead in her Dorval apartment. Barron, 27, was an acquaintance of Tullaugak’s. Police consider her death a suicide.

The Native Women’s Shelter of Montreal held a vigil for both women last Friday in Cabot Square — a downtown park frequented by the city’s Indigenous community.

Dozens showed up to pay their last respects.

“We’re tired of having to hold these vigils,” said Nakuset, the director of Native Women’s Shelter. “These women’s lives matter. And the city needs to do more to create a safer space for them.”

Since Tullaugak’s death, police have increased patrols in and around Cabot Square. The police department also runs a program that helps women find a way out of sex work.

The program, called Les Survivantes, works closely with the city’s network of homeless and women’s shelters.

The Quebec coroner’s office is still investigating the cause of Tullaugak’s death.

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