MEMBERTOU, N.S. - Canada's legal system fails to attach enough value to the loss of an Indigenous woman's life, according to an advocate for the family of a Nova Scotia Mi'kmaq woman who died after being held in a police cell in 2009.
Cheryl Maloney testified Tuesday that legal changes need to be made to help families sue for punitive damages in cases of wrongful death like that of Victoria Rose Paul of Indian Brook First Nation.
"We are worth less, over and over again, because of government's laws, policies and inactions," she said during testimony before the National Inquiry into Murdered and Missing Women and Girls in Membertou First Nation in Cape Breton.
An independent report concluded five years ago that police did not properly monitor the 44-year-old woman's health after she was arrested Aug. 28, 2009, outside a Truro bar for public drunkenness and was taken the following day to a Halifax hospital, where she died on Sept. 5, 2009.
The report said she was incoherent and left lying on the cement floor of the lockup in her own urine.
Maloney told commissioner Michele Audette that the province's Fatal Injuries Act should be reformed to allow higher damages to be awarded to families of Aboriginal women.
She argued that colonialism played a role in impoverishing many Mi'kmaq families, and this results in lower legal settlements when courts determine damages based on lost earnings.
The long-time advocate also said that existing legal settlements often do not attach sufficient value of the loss of women to grandmothers and other elders who helped to nurture them.
The 2012 report on Paul's death by police complaints commissioner Nadine Cooper Mont said she wasn't treated with respect, and medical attention was slow.
Paul and her son Deveron were locked up at 3:30 on the morning of her arrest, says the report.
It says a commissionaire found Paul on the floor crying and asked her if she was all right. She said "No."
Video showed Paul's pants and underwear had come down, but it took several hours for a female officer to help her get them back up.
Paul was on the floor instead of in her bunk so she wouldn't roll off and hurt herself, but wasn't given a blanket or mattress. By the time the next commissionaire came on duty at 8:45 a.m. that day, it was noted she had urinated in her pants and was lying in it.
The report says the commissionaire became more concerned about her condition through the morning, but couldn't convince the sergeants that she needed medical help.
It also cited the medical examiner as saying the stroke likely happened while Paul was in custody and that it was "unsurvivable," regardless of how quickly medical help was provided.
Deveron Paul told the inquiry he still struggles to cope with the loss of his mother.
"All I ever wanted was just the answers. ... It still hurts me," he said.
Truro Police Chief Dave MacNeil said in an email that his force "acted on and put into effect" all the report's recommendations pertaining to the service.
"We take the safety and security of all people in our lock up seriously, and strive to treat people with dignity and respect," he wrote.
Brian Hebert, the lawyer for Deveron and Paul's grandson Dominic Paul, said a lawsuit was started in 2014 against the Town of Truro, the Truro police, the sergeant in charge of the lock-up at the time, and the Commissionaires of Nova Scotia.
He said in an email that punitive damages could allow courts to go beyond compensation and "to punish the wrongdoer where the wrongdoer's conduct is particularly egregious, for example where it was motivated by racism."
Similar statutes in New Brunswick and other provinces explicitly state that families can be awarded punitive damages, but Nova Scotia legislation is silent on the matter and courts have interpreted that to mean it is not applicable, he said.
The inquiry is expected to produce an interim report for the federal government on Wednesday, but it is also asking for an extension to hear from the growing number of families registering to tell the stories of murdered and missing women and girls.
Over 900 people have now registered to speak. This week, the number of people who registered to speak in Membertou has grown from 40 to over 60.
Maloney told the commission she's relying on it to produce a strong report.
"I want the inquiry to work. I want you to do a good job," she said during her testimony.
Commissioner Michele Audette said that the inquiry will produce a report with recommendations for all provinces and territories, as well as the federal government.
"It will force governments, society and us to do things differently. This is the expectation everywhere I go," she said.