March 13, 2023

‘Truth and reconciliation did not find Curtis McKenzie’

Keynote presentation by Caroline Tait speaks frankly about the state’s responsibility in the death of incarcerated Indigenous man
Saskatchewan Penitentiary in Prince Albert, Sask. Zoltan Varadi, Faculty of Social Work

Editor’s note: The following article contains some content that readers may find disturbing.

Dr. Caroline Tait’s upcoming keynote address at the Faculty of Social Work’s annual research symposium, Truth, Reconciliation, and the State’s Involvement in Curtis McKenzie’s Life and Death, originally bore a very different, far starker title.

“I used the term f*** up, as in, ‘How did the state f*** up his life?’ I don’t like to use this kind of language in a professional, academic context, but the reason I used a term like this is because this is how vulgar what happened to Curtis McKenzie is,” says Tait, PhD, who joined the Faculty of Social Work and the Cumming School of Medicine this past January.

“You could have predicted in his grandparent’s generation the type of life Curtis would have,” she says.

Curtis McKenzie was a 27-year-old First Nations man from Lac LaRonge Indian Band, a Cree nation north of Saskatoon, who took his life while incarcerated at the Saskatchewan Penitentiary in Prince Albert in February 2020.

Dr. Caroline Tait

Caroline Tait

For Tait, who is Métis and has spent her career focusing on Indigenous health research and social justice, McKenzie’s death is much more than a tragic, isolated incident.

In her keynote address on March 15, as part of the Faculty of Social Work’s Research Symposium, Tait will discuss how McKenzie’s death was the result of a complete failure across multiple systems.

Tait, who has a home near Prince Albert, Sask., says the case for her is also a personal issue. She met McKenzie through her involvement with STR8 UP, a Saskatoon-based initiative that helps individuals extricate themselves from gangs and criminal activity.

In this interview, Tait answers a few questions about her upcoming keynote presentation, including what she means by “collective witnessing,” and why anger is a necessary component of bringing about social change.

And make no mistake, she’s still very angry about what happened in this case.

“Truth and reconciliation did not find Curtis McKenzie,” she says.

Q. How did the Curtis McKenzie case come to your attention?

Curtis McKenzie was a young man that I knew. I didn't know him well, but I first met him when he came to my acreage; I needed some landscaping done. I've been involved with an incredible organization called STR8 UP that was founded by Father Andre [Poilievre] and a group of men who had been incarcerated and were gang-involved. Father Andre is a national treasure — he has an Order of Canada — and he loves these men and women, and he sees in them all the good things that they are, and Curtis McKenzie was one of those individuals.

Now, Curtis, when I met him, I asked him a question that all Indigenous people ask one another, ‘Where are you from?’ He said to me, ‘I'm from nowhere.’ So, as I talked to him, I learned that he had grown up in the foster care system. He showed me his music, which was incredible.

Curtis was complex. He had spent time, as had many of the men and women in STR8 UP, in the federal penitentiary. While in solitary confinement — he was in there for quite an extensive period of time — he cut off his nose with the razor blade. I believe his mental illness was brought on by the abuse he experienced in foster care.

When I met him, he had a bandage on his nose, and even after he had had reconstructive surgery, I never saw him without that bandage on his nose. And he was a beautiful young man. To look at him you would think he should have had all the opportunity in the world. We're in Canada, right? He should have had the world by the tail. But yet…

So, in my presentation, I will talk about the policies, the actions of the state, that influenced what happened to him.

Q. What do you mean by ‘collective witnessing,’ and how does that relate to supporting truth and reconciliation?

In many Indigenous cultures, witnessing is an important role that comes with large responsibility. And that’s what I felt. So, I went to the inquest in October of last year, 2022. It was a public inquest, which they often have for anyone who dies in custody. There was one other man from STR8 UP there, so it was myself and this man, we were the public at the public inquiry. The coroner asked me, ‘Why are you here?’ And I said ‘I'm here because there's nobody else here. I'm here as a witness for Curtis.’

So being a witness means that I was there to watch the process, and to be there because Curtis wasn't. Part of what this presentation is about is the importance of having witnesses for our people. I don't want to make it sound bigger than what it was… I am nothing in this context, just a person who feels this affinity for this young man. There’s this part of me that hurts for him still because he was never a threat to anybody but himself. He was someone living with severe mental illness. He should have been in a psychiatric hospital, not a federal penitentiary.

So, I'm unsure if anything that I say, end up writing, or do around Curtis's life and death will make a difference; but to be a witness, and to be able to articulate something meaningful around what happened to him is something I can try to do. One thing is to counter the narrative that came through at the inquest, that Curtis was at fault for own death. There was suggestions from witnesses that there was nothing that could have been done for him; he was the one who was diverting his medication; he was the one who got himself into prison… There was no conversation about all of the things that happened to his family, and all of the historical reasons that could predict Curtis was likely to end up where he ended up. Yes, he died at his own hands, but it could have been prevented — you know it could have been prevented.

Something I’d like to do is to go to more inquests and to see how they work, because in my mind it's a flawed process that wastes money. For example, it was barely mentioned that Curtis was First Nations and how the impacts of colonization hurt his family and eventually hurt Curtis. How could recommendations be appropriate if this wasn’t considered? 

Bearing witness in my opinion is important. I believe there is utility in people being at the inquest to bear witness and report to the Indigenous community — not back to the government, not back to Correction Services Canada, but to the Indigenous leaders. This is what I’m hoping to do with my analysis of what happened to Curtis.

Q. What are you hoping that social workers, students, faculty and anyone who attends your presentation will walk away with?

This isn't a clever talk. This isn't a talk that is about showing academic prowess. It’s about something that is really wrong in our society. It’s about a young man who should not have lost his life. When there was a public inquiry, nobody came. There was nobody there, and why is this so?

It's quite easy to blame lots of people for what happened, but this talk is about looking at the ways in which systems are so entrenched with certain processes and the lack of accountability. In my opinion, there was a complete lack of accountability to Curtis and his family.

My job is to make people think, to make people feel uncomfortable, upset and angry that people like Curtis are being treated this way. What I hope to do is to challenge people and to hopefully have people understand that if we want transformative change, if we want something to happen for people like Curtis, we need to keep talking about what is wrong. And we need to be angry about it. Our society acts as If anger is the worst thing someone can feel — the worst thing you can be is an angry person in our society — and I don't agree with this. I think anger, constructive anger, is one of the best avenues for transformational change.

Caroline Tait is a professor in the Faculty of Social Work and the Cumming School of Medicine. She will deliver her virtual keynote address on March 15 at 11 a.m. during the Faculty of Social Work Research Symposium: Transformative Social Work: Addressing Critical Issues of Our Time.

The free, annual symposium is open to everyone March 14-15 and provides opportunities for learning and connection. The symposium is mostly online; there are limited spaces to attend in-person research presentations at our Calgary and Edmonton campuses. Learn more and register

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