‘It was hard to breathe the next day’: An 11-year-old’s homicide stirs memories of trauma in Rankin Inlet’s Inuit community


RANKIN INLET, NUNAVUT — Almost everyone here remembers OJ’s laugh. The 11-year-old was a jokester at home and school.

“I demanded he call me uncle, but he never would. He was a little bugger that way,” his uncle Louis Taparti said last year, laughing from his living room couch. The sounds of passing all-terrain vehicles and kids on bikes filtered through the window with the summer sun. “I hated when he called me Louis.”

Ray Taparti, OJ’s father for whom Ray Okpik Jr. (a.k.a. OJ) was named, lived on the other side of a wall he shared with Louis, in a semi-detached house that OJ lived in until his death.

“He was a happy boy … I just miss his big smile. His laughter,” Ray said from his kitchen, staring off, his face lined with deep folds.

Louis and Ray have lost other family members prematurely: one brother froze to death in the middle of this town of about 3,000. Another brother ended his own life.

Tragedies like the Taparti family have experienced are not uncommon in Rankin Inlet or Nunavut.

But the killing of OJ shocked the community.

Louis Taparti with his guitar in his living room.

At school, OJ was sharp and witty and had lots of energy. He would often run around the gym in his Air Jordans. Some days, OJ didn’t get enough sleep or food. At school, he would have a nap in the cosy Corner and a snack. And then he was back to himself.

He liked to tease Nelson Kablalik, a teaching assistant who was slightly hard of hearing. OJ would sidle up beside Nelson and whisper, “tiktik,” — earwax in Inuktitut. OJ and his friends would laugh.

Nelson looked out for OJ, afraid the kid was slipping between the cracks.

“It was hard to breathe the next day,” Nelson said a year after OJ’s mangled body was found on July 7, 2017.

OJ at school during the 2016-17 school year.

For many here in Rankin Inlet, traumatic events began piling up with the Canadian government’s colonial efforts in the mid 1900s. Authorities scooped children from their families and placed them in residential and day schools during a campaign of cultural deprivation. Government health officials tore families apart by sending some far away for mandatory health treatment. Some never returned and lie in graves unknown to their families. And with colonization began the waves of sexual abuse, substance abuse and violence — trends that remain high today. OJ’s murder was the latest in an onslaught of traumatic events that overwhelm the heart and mind.

But despite the burden, people also find measures of closure, healing and forgiveness. Many draw strength from their culture, family, community and the land around them. The Star spoke to more than 30 locals about OJ’s death. Many remembered a kid with a big personality and endless energy. But many also told their own traumatic stories, as though triggered by OJ’s death. Neighbours in this tight-knit community grapple with how other young people may have been responsible for OJ’s violent end.

OJ’s family doesn’t know where or when, exactly, he died. But they do know where his lifeless body was found: in the middle of a garage junkyard, hidden in a row of truck trailers.

If you face the front of M & T garage, about 12 metres to the right sit three parallel rows of truck trailers, backhoes and cube trucks. The rows, which stretch to the shore of the inlet, create dimmed alleys. Backhoe tires, spare parts and other debris sit atop the trailers and spill from the cube trucks. OJ was found in a trailer in the middle row. This trailer has been removed. The spot sits empty, like a gaping hole in a row of teeth.

An empty slot marks where the trailer stood in which OJ Taparti's body was found.

OJ was about to enter Grade 6 at Simon Alaittuq Elementary School, where slogans hang from oversized Inuit drums strung from rafters. “We’ve Only Just Begun,” one says. “What Dreams May Come,” says another.

OJ had been missing for about five days before a community-wide search-and-rescue effort was called. Two young men discovered OJ’s body just hours into the search.

“They came back asking for help, screaming, yelling, crying — they were really terrified [of] what they had discovered,” said Wesley Inukshuk, manager of the search-and-rescue team.

The story around town is that the two young men saw a light shoot in the air when they were on top of a hill by the gas station. The light came from across Johnston Cove, near the garage. They followed the light and found OJ’s corpse, wrapped in plastic, hidden beneath junk.

“They couldn’t identify OJ by his features, like he was tortured,” a local shop-owner overheard police say.

Police finally arrested two suspects last October — one young man and one youth. At the time of the arrests, the RCMP said it was one of the biggest investigations in Nunavut’s history, involving more than 100 officers, 15 agencies or departments and 75 interviews. The RCMP provided little information or updates to the community, family and friends of OJ said. When asked how and when police kept the community informed, the RCMP said it “does not release information on a criminal investigation until it becomes a matter of public record or is in the public interest.” The Star visited Rankin Inlet before and after the arrests.

“Did he get raped? Did he get stabbed?” Lena Siutinuar, OJ’s mom asked repeatedly just months before the arrests. Lena has never been allowed to see her son’s body. OJ’s parents, who split up before OJ’s death, said the lack of communication from police was like an open wound and made them feel hopeless.

Louis Taparti said rumours put the entire community on edge while parents worried for the safety of their kids.

“It makes you look at people that you trust most of your life and you look at them and wonder, is that the person? Is that the person? Is that the person? … It just makes you think that everybody’s a suspect until they find the person who did it, or the persons responsible,” he said.

Now, the family awaits criminal court proceedings to find out about OJ’s final moments and days.

“I just came here to love you, mom, and hug you,” OJ told his mom the last time she saw him.

OJ at school during the 2016-17 school year.

In summer months along Rankin Inlet’s rocky coastline on the western shore of Hudson Bay, sunlight sparkles on water as far as the eye can see. Chatter over the local CB radio talks of wildlife sightings and travel to neighbouring but also far-flung communities. On the tundra side, low-lying ridges frame a vista of winding rivers and small lakes. Cabins and tents line many of the waterways, where thousands of caribou pass every year on their migration across the barrenlands. OJ would sometimes go fishing with friends out here. Louis and Ray used to hunt out here.

“Nuna” means “land” in Inuktitut, but also includes the sea, ice, animals and even souls and memories of those who lived before. It’s the Nuna that many Inuit live for — to hunt, fish and sustain themselves, and to connect with the supernatural and the spirits of their ancestors.

In town, the strength of Inuit culture is obvious. Most of the mainly Inuit residents speak Inuktitut. Some southern Canadians may question how anyone could live this far north of the treeline. But for many Inuit, the Nuna easily answers those questions. So do the sprawling family connections that go far beyond the nuclear family, and include adoptions and naming babies for recently deceased relatives, regardless of gender. Anaanatsiaq (grandmothers) and anaana (mothers) sew with traditional and modern materials. During the school year, almost every student wears a homemade one-of-a-kind parka trimmed with fur.

The dirt streets are lined with mostly single-storey houses. There are no sidewalks. Snowmobile and ATV parts lie scattered in grassless yards. It’s not uncommon to find caribou antlers or animal bones picked bare by dogs and ravens and bleached white by the sun.

A caribou head found in the grass and the outskirts of Rankin Inlet in August 2018, a stone's throw from the inlet shore dotted with cabins.

Kids hang out at places like the Red Top or the Northern, stores where they can buy junk food. Some youth smoke in small huddled groups by the entrances. OJ would frequent the local playgrounds, a soccer pitch and baseball diamond during summer months. The diamond is a stone’s throw from M & T’s junkyard.

The town was created in 1957 with the opening of a nickel mine. The federal government’s efforts to lure Inuit away from their nomadic lifestyle and into permanent communities had begun to ramp up earlier that decade. The government promised education, jobs, health care and other services that failed to materialize. The widespread killing of sled dogs by colonial officials early in Rankin Inlet’s history robbed hunters of their transportation.

The crumbling remnants of the nickel mine, now covered in graffiti, sit atop a small hill up the street from the M & T garage. The mine closed in 1963, but new mining activity outside of town has spurred the economy. Arts and crafts, like sewing, beading and pottery, have a long, celebrated history. Sports clubs flourish, hockey especially. Jordin Tootoo, the first Inuk hockey player to make the NHL, is a hometown hero.

But many parents worry there’s not enough for kids and youth to do, leading to substance abuse and trouble early in life. In his autobiography, Tootoo told of the alcoholism and violence that ran in his family and community.

“Up in Rankin, you drink until the last drop’s gone, and then you find someone else with booze. You figure out the consequences later,” Tootoo wrote. Rankin Inlet is a semidry community with an active black market for hard liquor and various drugs. RCMP frequently seize 40-ounce hard-liquor bottles and illicit drugs. When the criminal circuit court comes to town, the docket is bloated with alcohol-fuelled offences.

Jordin Tootoo's jersey hangs at Singiituk Complex in Rankin Inlet.

Between 1999 and 2017, the Violent Crime Severity Index, which shows the relative seriousness of individual offences, was nearly five times higher in Nunavut than the national average, according to Statistics Canada. The homicide rate in that same time period was almost seven times higher. That’s in line with the homicide rate of other Indigenous populations in Canada, who make up nearly one-quarter of all homicide victims yet only account for roughly five per cent of the national population.

Suicide rates have been about seven times higher than the national average for years. Rates of reported sexual abuse are nine times higher than the national average, according to federal data from 2009 to 2014.

One Rankin Inlet citizen remembered an autumn when five suicides left the community breathless.

“You just get your breath and somebody would punch you in the gut again. And you know everybody, you feel for their family,” Mike Shouldice, a town councillor and longtime resident, said.

High rates of crime, abuse and death are often found in communities affected by what academics call structural inequality. Canada’s opportunities and public resources are not equally distributed to all groups. Some groups face barriers to housing, jobs, food, justice, education and health care. Racially skewed carding in Toronto is an example of a structural inequality.

In Nunavut, 40 per cent of the population lives in overcrowded homes. The territory has no university and its high school graduation rate in the last school year was 41.2 per cent. Unemployment among Inuit is far higher than the national average. Food insecurity affects seven out of 10 homes. And the lack of health-care services forced the Nunavut government to pay for 32,000 round trip flights for its 40,000 residents to receive services in southern Canada in 2016-17.

These barriers mean that victims of violence often do not get the support they need, said Tanya Sharpe, a professor at the University of Toronto. That untreated pain can lead to more violence because of “this idea that hurt people hurt people,” she said.

Sharpe has spent three decades working on trauma support programs for families who have experienced a homicide. Although she is new to Canada and has spent most of her career working with African-American communities in the U.S., many of her observations would be familiar to Indigenous groups in Canada. According to Sharpe’s research, African Americans in the U.S. experience on average at least 2.5 homicides of loved ones in their life times.

“You begin to see individuals not even being able to breathe. They can’t catch their breath because next week or the week after there’s someone that’s been murdered,” she said of communities disproportionately impacted by homicide rates.

A few months after OJ’s body was discovered, Lena said one of his best friends was heard talking and playing with OJ.

“I believe in spirits,” Lena said.

Almost everyone in Rankin Inlet who spoke to the Star told stories of experiencing or witnessing traumatic events.

When that happens, a part of us wants to avoid or forget the horrible event. But another part refuses to forget. That tension can lead to a traumatic stress disorder, like PTSD, where those affected can be torn between reliving the trauma and, in extreme cases, amnesia. PTSD is understood to affect consciousness through four categories of symptoms: re-experiencing the event through nightmares or flashbacks; feeling jumpy, irritable or sleepless; emotional and cognitive symptoms, like depression; and avoidance.

“PTSD is a normal reaction to abnormal events, ” said Allison Crawford, a psychiatrist at the University of Toronto who has had a practice in the Baffin region of Nunavut for more than 10 years. “It’s the way we’d all respond if we were exposed to so many difficult and scary and overwhelming and horrifying things.”

The symptoms of PTSD can overwhelm an individual’s life. While struggling with short-term memory, focus and regulating emotions, holding down a steady job can seem impossible. So too can having meaningful relationships. Or feeling joy. Any of these symptoms, especially avoidance, can lead to further, compounding symptoms, such as substance misuse.

Before the arrests and in the absence of regular updates from the police, OJ’s family saw no end to their pain and trauma.

“Like a lost person out on the land who’s never been found again, there’s no closure, no way to say goodbye properly,” OJ’s uncle Louis said last summer.

Ray’s grief, Louis said, compounded by the day, his anger shattering some of Louis’ living-room furniture.

“Like my brother says, [OJ is] not going to smile again, he’s not going to breathe, he’s not going to have another birthday, he’s not going to graduate school, he’s not going to start a family — while this other person is still out there.”

Rumours rotted the community’s morale.

“Close friends of mine are even being accused. It’s rabid speculation. Nobody feels safe,” said Louis.

For some, OJ’s death triggered memories of their own trauma.

Like John and Lucy Manilak, who live a short bike ride away in OJ’s old neighbourhood, called Area 6. The Manilaks’ son, David, was killed five years ago when he was 30. The police ruled it a homicide, but no charges have been laid. The Manilaks said they believe the police have stopped investigating. The RCMP did not respond to a request for an update on the investigation.

“It would ease our pain … if we finally knew what’s going on. That would be a big relief instead of thinking, I wonder what happened?” Lucy said from her living room couch, a double mattress on the floor in front. On the wall above her head hung family pictures, including one of David’s high school graduation, a crucifix and a decal that says “God Bless This Home.” Seven people live in this two-bedroom home.

Both Lucy and John related their own stories of trauma from before David’s death: physical abuse, sexual abuse, tuberculosis quarantine in the south and suicides.

John Manilak and his mother Veronica Manilak in Veronica's home in Rankin Inlet.

John’s mother Veronica is an elder and artist whose wall-hangings are found throughout government offices in Nunavut. She made a parka and quilt for Queen Elizabeth in the 1970s.

“I can’t forgive who [killed David.] It’s in me and I won’t let it go,” said Veronica, who also told of a brother lost to suicide.

The Manilaks said their church community helped them grieve and heal. And when another family went through something similar, the Manilaks reached out to comfort and support them.

“This is the way we started healing,” John said.

Trauma is known as a disorder of memory because it changes the way our brains store memories and respond to stress.

“I have so much short-term memory loss since I lost my son,” said OJ’s mom Lena, who has also experienced abuse and suicidal thoughts.

“OJ used to work out with me. He used to do chin-ups with one arm. I used to work out a lot, but after I lost him, I lost everything. I was a zombie. I wouldn’t shower for days, I didn’t eat,” Lena said.

Like many others in Nunavut, Lena has survived multiple traumas that began early in life.

This kind of repeated and chronic trauma over a lifetime, especially if it begins in childhood, is what some experts call developmental trauma. A regular pattern of horrific events can result in “complex PTSD. Although not an official diagnosis, the idea of complex PTSD has been around since at least the 1990s and continues to gain traction in the scientific community. It aims to capture post-traumatic symptoms that go far beyond PTSD, which usually refers to a single event.

“[Developmental trauma] really changes the way people can regulate their emotions … Their identity and sense of self, their self-worth … and maybe most profoundly their … ability to see meaning in the world and experience hope and a sense of joy and connectedness to others,” said Allison Crawford, the U of T psychiatrist.

“It’s the accumulation within the individual over a lifetime, but also within their family history over a lifetime, and within their community history, and that also has impact on the way an individual and a family and a community are able to respond to future traumatic events,” she said.

“You get a kind of collective distress or suffering, and impact on community-level memory. I think that our models of medicine, western medicine … really don’t capture or understand that accumulation.”

There is growing biological evidence that intergenerational trauma impacts brain structure and gene expression, said Crawford.

“There are all kinds of animal studies now looking at the offspring of animals several generations down the line where an animal is exposed to a stressful event, and it’s led to changes not only in their own brain but also changes that were seen two or three generations down the line.”

Collective, untreated trauma over generations can lead to a breakdown in community cohesion, Crawford said, with citizens “either participating in hurting other people or feeling hurt by people.”

But there’s a flip side to intergenerational trauma. It’s what Crawford refers to as intergenerational strength. Connecting to your culture, language, community and family can heal people from trauma in ways that medical professionals cannot, said Crawford.

Helen Iguptak is a slight Inuk elder with a calm, quiet voice who laughs often. She has been making art and crafts since she made her first doll in residential school in Chesterfield Inlet as a child. That first doll, out of cloth, yarn and human hair, started Helen on a creative and healing path. Today she’s known around the world for her dolls dressed in intricate and miniature traditional clothing. Her laugh is soft, tumbling — almost a giggle — followed by a sharp intake of breath.

Helen Iguptak shows her beaded wall-hangings from her bedroom in Rankin Inlet.

In her small bedroom, the blue walls lined with shelves of books and craft supplies, she works on a pair of beaded wall hangings. Eight people live in this two-bedroom bungalow.

Helen remembered when, growing up out on the land, people were dying of hunger and sickness. The government transferred her family to Baker Lake. From there, she remembered the boat coming and taking her and other kids away to residential school.

“I could see my mom standing right in front of the tent, my father close to the beach. I think when I couldn’t see them anymore I finally stopped crying,” she said.

Helen remembered joy in surprising places. Like her first breakfast after being taken from her parents. “One of the kids dipped their crackers in the hot tea and it expanded. We were amazed — oh, how did it grow?” Helen laughed. Or like when she was reunited with her parents after her year away at residential school. “I went crazy. I went on top of the bed with my boots on. Jumped on it, jumped to the floor. Just nuts.”

Sewing, beading, drawing, pottery — any art or craft helps Helen cope.

“It keeps your mind busy so that you don’t think about the bad stuff that happened in the past.”

Helen Iguptak sews in her bedroom in Rankin Inlet.

And Helen firmly believes in forgiving those who have caused her pain.

“If you don’t forgive, it’s an ongoing hurt … Forget it, we’re not going to turn the clocks back and correct everything. You just have to keep moving. There’s still other people who love you and you love them so, why bother to worry about it?”

If she had her way, Helen said, she’d live out on the land again, without any clocks or money.

Forgiveness and healing often do not come easily.

On Oct. 8, 2018, police made their first arrest in the case of OJ Taparti’s death: Glen Kadlak Jr., a local 21-year-old, was charged with murder. Four days later, police arrested a second suspect, a youth who cannot be identified. Neither case has been tried in court. Legal aid lawyers for the suspects declined a request for comment.

OJ’s dad says the arrests brought some relief, but he and OJ’s siblings still miss “the little guy.”

“It’s hard. I cry just missing him,” Ray said.

“The thing is, the story didn’t end there,” said Harry Towtongie, the town’s deputy mayor. “I think they’re expecting to do more arrests.”

The RCMP would not confirm whether they are still investigating.

“I forgive them,” Lena said of those arrested. She’s unsure if she can continue living in Rankin Inlet.

After his final interview about OJ in August 2018, Louis Taparti — well-known throughout Nunavut as a radio personality, interpreter, advocate for Inuit rights and lover of music — reached for his guitar and sang, Where do the Children Play? by Cat Stevens.

I know we’ve come a long way

We’re changing day to day

But tell me, where do the children play?

Louis put the guitar down beside the couch and reached for a pack of cigarettes.

“I don’t know if the kids are still out there playing, without a care in the world, without having to look past their shoulder,” Louis said. “I don’t know.”

Just a couple days after the first arrest, Louis died of cancer. Days before his death, a video circulated Nunavut Facebook pages of Louis singing, lying in a hospital bed in a gown, a guitar on his belly.

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