News
5 min

Long road for Ottawa police, gays

In wake of drag queen beating, police struggle to allay fears

Police tried to calm down the gay community in the wake of the May 26 beating of Michael Marcil; but a “community meeting” left the 80-plus crowd frustrated, as the police dodged questions.

Representatives from the Ottawa Police Service and the paramedics were on hand to answer questions from the packed room. But because small, ground-floor room of the Jack Purcell Community Centre was only booked from 5:30pm-6:45pm, there was only about 20 minutes of time — at the end — for questions.

The community sat through long descriptions about the general procedures of the police and paramedics and short vague descriptions of the Centretown Pub bar fight that put Marcil in a coma for seven days.

When the floor was opened up, it quickly became clear that the police were not going to be forthcoming.

“There must be some other information you can give us,” said activist and Capital Xtra columnist Ariel Troster.

Friends of Marcil asked why the meeting was even held, given that no new information was presented.

“We are a community of activists,” said Marion Steele of the Pride Committee. “We’re not hearing what we need to know in order to do what you want us to do, to lay low and be quiet.”

“We’re in the middle of an investigation,” said the Ottawa Police Services’ Dan Dunlop over and over again in response to questions.

* * *

The audience at the meeting asked a series of hard questions: was Marcil treated as a victim of a head injury immediately?; why hasn’t more information been released?; when can we expect more information?; is someone in custody?; are there charges pending?

The police, citing the ongoing investigation and their obligation to respect the privacy of those involved, would not give straight answers.

As the crowded room became stuffier and more anxious, Marcil’s mother, Iris Hofmann, stood up to address the audience.

“I’m really happy to see that everyone is so concerned,” she said.

“I’m totally convinced that the police did everything they could.”

She praised the investigative team for keeping her in the loop of developments in the case. She also took the time to thank Marcil’s friends before briefly touching on the elephant in the room: who started the fight that put her son in a coma.

“He’s never done anything wrong before. If he’s done something wrong, I want him held responsible. If something wrong was done to him, I want that person held responsible.”

The room gave Hofmann a big round of applause, but her comments did not stop those present from continuing to hammer the police.

“With respect, I don’t share the same confidence you have in how this has been handled,” said Elliott Youden, a friend of Marcil.

* * *

Tensions between the police force and the gay community spiked in the wake of the beating, aggravated by comments made by friends shortly after the incident.

Some of that tension had seemed to dissipate as representatives for the family soft-pedaled allegations they made earlier that the police had bungled the case.

Michael Marcil, well known for his drag alter-ego Dixie Landers, was beaten just after last call outside of Centretown Pub in the early hours of May 26.

On May 29, Doug Muir, a close friend of Marcil and a representative from the family, told Capital Xtra that he believed the incident had been treated as a “second-class” case.

“If this had been anyone else, or any place else, the [assailant] would be in jail right now,” said Doug Muir after meeting with Iris Hofmann, Dixie’s mother.

At the time, Muir also railed against the paramedics, claiming that Marcil was the last one attended to.

John Medeiros, the officer in charge of the police’s diversity and race relations department, has been taking the community’s temperature.

“It’s a little warm. I’ve read the comments on the Xtra website, we got a number of e-mails internally expressing concern,” said Medeiros in advance of the Jun 5 meeting.

Capital Xtra has learned that the day after Muir went public, the police, under the instigation of their citizen-led queer liaison committee, went into damage control. Co-chair Darryl Lim heard about the Marcil case Wed, May 30 in the morning. By 5pm that day, Lim, committee member Christopher Luesby, and members of the police were meeting to deal with the fallout of Muir’s accusations.

At that point, a protest in front of the police station was planned for Friday Jun 1. It was to be hosted by fellow drag star Vicki Lawsuit and was to commence at 1pm as a “rally” — it would have been the first spontaneous demonstration our community had staged in years and was guaranteed to garner significant media attention.

Lim apparently argued that the police needed to host an information session instead. Police have been in contact with Muir since then.

“I don’t feel a protest is the most constructive way of dealing with this. I think that having a community meeting is going to be more productive,” says Lim.

But the police’s directory of community relations,  David Pepper, who is also a former gay activist, is quick to say that it was neither the police nor the police liaison that cancelled the meeting. He says that Ottawa’s queers deserved to have a meeting because there had been significant interest and “wild rumours” about the case.

“When the Jennifer Teague investigation was underway, we had numerous meetings out in Nepean, relaying information,” says Pepper.

He also defends the speed at which the case has progressed.

“Investigations can be painstakingly slow, and the importance of them is that they are comprehensive. People should not judge the speed of an investigation other than that the investigation continues.”

“Since Wednesday, I’ve seen a lot of resources being thrown into this. The suggestions about homophobia, about the police not giving a damn — on my part, watching the way they moved on this, that’s not been what I’ve been seeing.”

The tone of Muir’s message has softened and he’s now trying to quiet the anger unleashed by the accusations he made a week earlier. He now says he believes the investigation in its early days was hampered by a lack of witnesses.

“Once people realized that it was imperative that they come forward, people did and they were able to make progress,” Muir says.

Because witnesses did not immediately come forward and because Marcil was in a coma, the police’s primary source were his adversaries in the altercation. That meant that some of the first reports only told their side of the story.

* * *

The paramedics, for their part, did the best they could to allay the community’s fears. People had complained that Marcil was the last person taken off-site and that another person’s superficial injuries were treated before Marcil.

Pierre Poirier of the Ottawa Paramedic Service shared new information at the Jun 5 meeting which could shed light on the paramedics behavior May 26.

He said that a paramedic arrived in an Impala before the ambulance. That paramedic quickly “triaged” an injured woman on the street before heading inside to begin treating Marcil.

So when the ambulance arrived, “we already had a paramedic inside” Centretown Pub looking after Marcil, said Poirier.

It took them longer to get Marcil to an ambulance because “it took us some extra minutes to mobilize the patient indoors” — in other words, it took more time to get Marcil to the hospital because they feared making any head or spinal injuries worse.