A young man, depressed, desperate. In the North, it's too common. But the death of Julian Tologanak-Labrie was anything but. By Eva Holland.
The verdict of the coroner’s jury is just three pages long. It’s a standardized government form, filled in by hand in shaky block letters. In its first, spare section, it reads: The jurors have considered the evidence and make the following determinations:
Identity of Deceased: Julian Tologanak-Labrie
Date and Time of Death: 15 Apr 2009 16:35
Place of Death: 114 NM SW of Cambridge Bay
Manner of Death: Suicide
Circumstances Under Which Death Occurred: Fall from aircraft
Below the words “fall from aircraft,” someone has written in “suicide” a second time, and underlined it. In dry, sterile prose, the second and third pages outline the jury’s recommendations; their suggestions hint at the horrific narrative they’re charged with investigating. They recommend “clarification of rules/regulations governing patient returns to community by air” and better information-sharing between the RCMP and hospital officials in Yellowknife. And they recommend a “panic door-lock button … to emergency lock doors from the cockpit in the event of a cabin emergency; i.e. an out of control passenger.”
When 20-year-old Julian Tologanak-Labrie jumped to his death from a plane in mid-flight over Nunavut three years ago, it made national news. In his final days, as he drifted from a Yellowknife hotel room to RCMP custody to the hospital and, finally, to the airport where he boarded a King Air 200 bound for his home in Cambridge Bay, he passed through concentric circles of bureaucracy. By the time the coroner’s inquest was completed, a year to the day after his death, he’d become a case study for all the ways the North fails its most vulnerable. In some ways, his story was too familiar: a young person ending his own life in the Arctic. But in other ways, his was an extraordinary tale, the raw details of which have only recently come to light.
Julian Tologanak-Labrie was born on July 13, 1988, in the maternity ward at Yellowknife’s Stanton Territorial Hospital. His mother, Navalik Helen Tologanak, like most pregnant women in the small, roadless communities of the North, had flown south from Cambridge Bay a month before her due date, and then waited in a boarding house to give birth. When Julian was a week old, she left the hospital and the city behind, and took her son to the airport to board a flight for home.
Tologanak remembers Julian as a cheerful, happy child. He grew up with his mother and his older sister, Kim, playing hockey and riding his skidoo. When a reporter with Nunavut’s Nunatsiaq News visited the Tologanak home six months after Julian’s suicide, she found a living room wall laden with framed photos, the boy – and, later, the young man – smiling in each one.
What changed? That’s the unanswerable question that hangs over Julian’s death. He grew up; he had a young son, Felix, whom he spent a lot of time with, though he and the baby’s mother were no longer romantically involved. In early 2009, he began spending more and more time in Kuglugtuk, another Nunavut community just west of Cambridge Bay, and in April, when he flew to Yellowknife for a hockey tournament, he went as a member of Kuglugtuk’s team. He was a winger; he scored a goal in the tournament.
Things began to unravel the day after the tournament ended. Julian was scheduled to fly back to Kuglugtuk on April 12, but at the last minute he pulled his bags from the flight. Teammate Tony Demerah, who shared a Yellowknife hotel room with Julian from April 9 to 12, told the coroner’s inquest that his friend had been planning to bring bootleg vodka back with him. Demerah, who was in charge of liquor permitting for the community, told Julian he could arrange retroactive permits to cover the bottles, but Julian was concerned about the RCMP searching his bags at the airport. According to Nunatsiaq News, Demerah told the inquest that Julian was “definitely worried.”
Julian had just broken up with a girlfriend in Kugluktuk, Demerah told the inquest. His behavior over their final days together in Yellowknife had been “a bit strange.”
The next day, April 13, family friends James and Darlene Aknavigak found Julian in the lobby of the Nova Court hotel. He was crying, distraught. James Aknavigak was worried, and spent the night in Julian’s hotel room to keep an eye on him.
On the morning of April 14, Julian moved into the Aknavigaks’ suite. Meanwhile, his mother, Helen, made arrangements for him to hitch a ride home to Cambridge Bay. Another family friend, Paul Laserich, the owner of Adlair Aviation, said Julian could snag an empty seat on an upcoming medevac flight. But that night, James Aknavigak told the inquest, Julian “flipped.”
He’d been playing on the Aknavigaks’ laptop computer when the couple told him they were headed to bed – it was time to shut down for the night. Julian yelled at James; James yelled back. Julian wandered around the suite, restless, arguing when the couple tried to reason with him. Finally, at around one in the morning, he pulled a knife from a drawer in the suite’s kitchenette and stood there, holding it tight. Darlene Aknavigak, fearing that Julian planned to hurt himself, dialed 9-1-1.
The North lays claim to a vast geography, but its residents, scattered across the land, share the intimacy of a small community nonetheless. So perhaps it’s not strange that one of the two RCMP constables who responded to the Aknavigaks’ call was Vivian Pokiak, a friend of the Tologanak family who’d known Julian since he was a child. She remembered the cheerful boy; she found a tall, blank-faced young man, clutching a steak knife in his hand.
The officers told Julian to drop the knife. He didn’t move. Constable Warren Hudym drew his sidearm and asked him, again and then again, to drop the knife. Eventually Julian put the knife down, and, following Hudym’s directions, lay on the floor.
The officers ran through the ritual questions: “Are you going to hurt yourself?”
“I don’t know,” Julian said.
“Are you going to hurt someone else?”
“I don’t know,” he said.
“Why were you holding that knife?”
“It’s a long story,” he answered.
At the inquest, Constable Hudym testified that Julian had a glazed, hollow-eyed look. He was “expressionless, emotionless,” Hudym said. Constable Pokiak testified she believed Julian was suicidal. “Something was not right,” she told the jury.
Julian hadn’t committed any crime; he didn’t seem drunk or high. But neither officer felt comfortable leaving him in the hotel room, nor kicking him out onto the street. So the pair decided to arrest him under the Mental Health Act, and to bring him to the hospital for psychiatric care.
By 2 a.m., Julian had arrived in the emergency room at Stanton Territorial Hospital: fluorescent lights, plastic seats, sterile surfaces. It was early, early on a Wednesday morning; there weren’t many people around. He was assessed by the attending physician working emerg that night – Dr. David Pontin. Before leaving, Constable Pokiak told Dr. Pontin she had reason to believe Julian was suicidal.
After an initial examination, Julian was sent to wait in a designated mental-health room – but, crucially, he was not formally admitted as a mental-health patient. According to Steven Cooper, the lawyer who represented the Tologanak family at the coroner’s inquest, Julian was “just treated as an emergency outpatient.” He spent the night snoozing and waiting; the resident psychiatrist’s shift didn’t begin until morning.
The night’s events are hazy: At some point, Julian placed a call to his mother in Cambridge Bay. Helen Tologanak remembers the call coming in around 2 a.m., which would mean he’d called from the hospital; he could also have called earlier, from the hotel room, before the RCMP arrived. “He just wanted to say ‘Hi mum, how are you, what are you doing?’” she remembers. “He just wanted to hear my voice, I think.” Julian didn’t say where he was calling from, and he didn’t tell her anything was wrong.
Later, Darlene and James Aknavigak called Helen, too, to let her know that her son was at the hospital. It was a long night.
Seven a.m.: Shift change. The emergency room staff who’d seen Julian arrive in handcuffs went home to get some sleep, and a fresh crew arrived for the day. Says Cooper: “That shift change was the pivotal moment that really led inexorably to Julian’s death.” As in a game of broken telephone, the message that had been clear at 2 a.m. – Julian was believed, by both law enforcement and his friends the Aknavigaks, to be suicidal – broke down as it was passed along.
At about 11 a.m., psychiatrist Dr. Thomas Ripley examined Julian. He found the young man to be “depressed” but with “normal” thought processes, he told the inquest. According to Cooper, Dr. Ripley seemed dismissive of the warnings from Constable Pokiak and others; he “basically took Julian’s word for it that he was fine.” Julian, Cooper says, was “allowed to make a self-assessment, which ultimately was the method by which he was released to get on that aircraft.”
A social worker at the hospital called Helen Tologanak to finalize Julian’s flight arrangements; Tologanak remembers pleading with her to keep him at the hospital instead. “I said, ‘Something’s wrong, just wait, I’m going to get on the plane this afternoon.’ ‘Keep him there!’ I said. I begged them on the phone.”
But the social worker, Carole Barriault, told the inquest that she had “no concerns” about Julian’s safety as she arranged for a cab to get him to his Adlair flight. Sometime in the early afternoon, he left the hospital and the city behind, and took a taxi to the airport to board the flight for home.
At the airport, another unlikely Northern coincidence was waiting. There was only one other passenger on the Adlair Aviation flight to Cambridge Bay: a 19-year-old woman on her way home after spending a month in Yellowknife receiving psychiatric treatment. The young woman, dubbed “C.L.” by media at the inquest, has variously been described as a “lover” and “ex-girlfriend” of Julian’s. She’d also filed a sexual-assault complaint against him two years earlier, though the charges had eventually been dropped.
C.L. told the inquest Julian had seemed sad and nervous as they waited together to board the plane in Yellowknife, and he remained that way through the first part of the flight.
The King Air is a Northern workhorse, a small twin-engine aircraft most often put into service as an air ambulance. The two sat opposite each other, with an empty stretcher lying across the aisle from them and the two pilots, captain Craig George and co-pilot Anthony Hanlon, up front in the open cockpit.
Julian borrowed her cellphone and flicked through her photos; when he came to a shot of her son, a toddler, he became agitated, she said. “Whose child is he?” he asked her.
He undid his seatbelt, stood up and began pacing the plane’s narrow aisle. It was just a few strides each way, back and forth past the passenger seats on the one side and the empty, waiting stretcher on the other. Then he turned, grabbed the aircraft’s rear door, and started shaking it.
“What are you doing?” the pilots shouted. George was at the controls; Hanlon, in preparation for landing in Cambridge Bay, was halfway into his winter gear, sitting in his stocking feet.
They yelled at Julian to sit down, and for a few minutes, he did. He folded himself back into his seat and buckled his seatbelt, staring silently. But soon he was up again, and now he pounded and kicked the aircraft door.
Hanlon and George assessed their options. Julian was a large man – at six feet tall and maybe 200 pounds, he outweighed either one of them. Neither was confident they could tackle him to the ground or physically restrain him in his seat. Together, they might have taken him – but somebody had to fly the plane.
Julian kept banging on the door. George, an experienced pilot, banked the plane, making one sharp turn after another, hoping to knock Julian off his feet. But the assault on the door continued, the pilots realizing that if it came open, the force of the sudden depressurization could tear the King Air apart. To prevent that, George released the pressure in the plane. Oxygen masks dropped from the ceiling, a pre-departure safety video came to life. Julian kept kicking the door. Finally, it opened.
Frozen winter air filled the cabin, far, far below zero, brittle and thin. The four people in the plane shared an endless, silent moment. C.L. saw Julian take one last look around. He paused in the doorway to gather himself, and then jumped.
Julian’s body was never found. The Office of the Medical Examiner of Alberta offered the coroner’s inquest a grim hypothetical analysis: Julian likely survived the length of the seven-kilometre fall, despite the lack of oxygen and the frigid air. It was this assessment that provided the jury with its vague, stomach-turning language to describe the cause of death: “multiple blunt injuries,” received upon impact with the ground.
Numbers are the cold, hard tangibles we use to make sense of the impossible. We know the King Air 200 was flying at an altitude of roughly 7,000 metres. We know it was travelling at just under 500 kilometres per hour, and that it was just 250 kilometres from its destination, somewhere over the Nunavut mainland, south of Coronation Gulf. We know that Julian Tologanak-Labrie was 89 days from his 21st birthday when he opened the door and jumped.
When I first called Helen Tologanak to ask about her son’s death, her voice was flat, weary. It was 10 a.m. on a Friday morning, at the tail end of the Cambridge Bay summer. “There was another suicide last night,” she told me. “Whenever there’s a suicide it really affects me.” We postponed the interview.
A few days later, we spoke again. She told me about Felix, Julian’s son, who she sees often – he started kindergarten this fall. She told me about the counsellor she sees in Yellowknife, the traditional healer she visits in B.C. And she told me everything she could remember about the last 48 hours of Julian’s life.
Reliving the details was hard for her, but she was eager to share her son’s story. “He was such a beautiful boy,” she told me. “Make sure people know that he was loved.”