WARNING: This story contains references to suicide.
Selina McIntyre only learned daughter Delilah Blair was in a Windsor, Ont., jail when staff called to let her know the 30-year-old Indigenous woman had died, a coroner’s inquest was told Tuesday.
A correctional officer found Blair without vital signs in her cell at the South West Detention Centre (SWDC) on May 21, 2017, and later died in hospital. Roughly 30 minutes before she was found unconscious, Blair was seen on security footage skipping and dancing in the common area of the women’s mental health unit.
McIntyre testified on the second day of the inquest, which got underway after two years of pandemic delays.
She said she hadn’t heard from her daughter in four or five weeks, so attempted to file a missing persons report with the police service in Windsor, where she believed her daughter was living.
“I started getting worried. I had a bad feeling something was wrong,” said McIntyre, a woman of Cree ancestry who lives in Hay River, N.W.T.
She travelled over 4,000 kilometres by plane to attend the inquest, hoping it will lead to changes that would prevent similar deaths.
Blair’s inmate request form not filled out right
Blair was a mother of four who was in the Northwest Territories and Winnipeg for years before arriving in Windsor.
An inquest is automatically called for under the Coroners Act after someone dies in custody. Officials say Blair died by suicide.
A coroner’s jury can’t assign blame or fault, but is tasked with determining the circumstances of a death and developing recommendations to prevent similar deaths.
On Tuesday, the five jurors were shown inmate request forms Blair had filled out in the days and weeks leading up to her death. On two separate occasions, she requested to speak with her mom, but McIntyre said she never received any phone calls.
“Can I please phone my mother because I need someone to talk to. Please and thank you,” Blair wrote on a form dated May 7, 2017.
It’s unclear how jail staff handled that request because some parts of the form were not filled out, including if the request was ever addressed.
James Cope, a correctional officer at the SWDC, testified staff “help facilitate the phone calls in a timely manner, even if they aren’t urgent.”
How long Blair, who had been charged with robbery, was in custody isn’t clear. Court documents indicate she was linked to a robbery where an imitation weapon was used on March 3, 2017. Her first court date was April 4, 2017. She was awaiting sentencing at the time of her death.
Cope told the coroner’s jury there are a number of reasons an inmate can be denied access to a phone, including aggressive, unstable or concerning behaviour.
Blair a ‘mostly happy person’: corrections officer
On inmate observation sheets, Cope wrote Blair was “unstable” on several occasions, but he also testified she was a “mostly happy person.”
“When she was happy, she was very happy. Joking. Laughing. Smiling,” Cope recalled. “There were some times where she was very unstable. Upset.”
Cope was asked if he had any knowledge about how Indigenous women display mental health issues or how female inmates act when being far away from family.
“I don’t have any knowledge,” he testified.
McIntyre remembers her daughter as a beautiful, energetic woman with a love for creating art.
The jury was shown photos of her jail cell, where there were drawings and carved bars of soap.
While recalling her daughter during the inquest, McIntyre remembered all the phone calls she received from Blair, and about the good times and the bad.
“I was always there to save her. I was always there to protect her,” McIntyre said.
But as Blair’s addiction to crack cocaine became worse, McIntyre said, it became more difficult.
Mom says daughter found ‘safety’ in jail
Still, McIntyre said, her daughter never gave up on seeking treatment and wanted to one day be a mom to her children.
Sometimes Blair would intentionally commit a crime to end up in jail, her mother said.
“She found safety in there. She trusted the system. She knew she had friends in there. She wasn’t scared of the system.”
After McIntyre received a call about her daughter’s death, she jumped on a plane to see her one final time.
“The kids had written letters to their mom … saying their goodbyes to her,” McIntyre told the jury through tears.
McIntyre is among some 17 witnesses set to be called during the inquest, which was originally set for April 2020.
If you or someone you know is struggling, here’s where to get help:
This guide from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health outlines how to talk about suicide with someone you’re worried about.