Walking Softly: A family's struggle to move forward from their New West son's premature death

Charles Oudie died in September 2015, and the family still struggles with the Vancouver Police Department's conclusion that it was an accident, feeling like they weren't taken seriously by police

A soft breeze wanders through a small corner of Queen’s Park, hugging those it passes with a cool reprieve from the late summer sun.

That breeze is Charles Oudie letting his friends and family know he’s still around, even if they can no longer see him, says Gabriel George, a member of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation who has come to help Charles’ family bid him farewell.

It’s been four years since Charles died, and on one of the final days of summer this year, his family held their fourth and final sendoff for the 26-year-old New Westminster man.

On Sept. 6, 2015, Charles was found upside-down in a storm drain near the PNE lands in East Vancouver, early in the morning after a night hanging out with friends.

On Sept. 6, 2019, as they gathered in Queen’s Park, family members said they’re still having trouble moving on, feeling like they’ve been left without closure in Charles’ death.

For four years, the family has been left to find their own ways of moving forward. “I kind of lost my mind,” Eugenia Oudie says of the months following her son’s death.

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Eugenia Oudie (centre) listens quietly as Gabriel George sings a song and blesses the food at a feast prepared by the Oudie family for the fourth and final memorial for 26-year-old Charles Oudie, on Sept. 6, 2019, the fourth anniversary of Charles' death. - Dustin Godfrey

When Charles was young, an elder from the family’s community at Waywayseecappo First Nation – an Ojibwe community about halfway between Brandon, Man. and Yorkton, Sask. – gave him a story to name him.

When Charles was sick as a boy, due to a chest problem he was born with, he was taken to a sweat lodge, where Eugenia sang him a healing song, and an elder told her a story of a deer that steps carefully before finally leaping, gliding through the air.

“There was no title to it before. It was just a story given to him,” Eugenia said.

After Eugenia told the story to Charles as he grew up, he eventually took the name “Walking Softly Upon Mother Earth.”

It seems like a fitting name, too. Charles is remembered as being thoughtful and a hard worker – someone who got along with everyone.

“He was a good player, a good teammate, good friend,” said Jordan Catton, a former teammate with the New West Royals hockey team, which held a memorial game for Charles a year after he died. “[He was] always inclusive, always wanting to talk – just a good talker, listening to your life story, basically.”

Catton described his former teammate as a “hard grinder” on the ice.

That work ethic applied beyond the rink, too, according to his older sister, Elisha Williams, who said Charles went on to study in “a bunch of programs” to do construction and other work after high school and garnered high grades in all of those programs.

“He was just super smart. I was just so proud of him,” she said.

And when she got the job she wanted in cosmetology, it was Charles’ turn to be the proud sibling.

Missy Oudie, another sister, said Charles was adventurous, often taking the family out on hiking trails in the forest.

“He’d go off the path and lead us to different places. … He would like to just have an adventure, have a fun day with the family and take his nieces and nephews out,” Missy said.

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Eugenia Oudie poses for a photo with her son, Charles Oudie, at a Canucks game in this undated photo. Charles, who died in September 2015, was described by a former teammate as a "hard grinder" when playing hockey. - Contributed

The loss of Charles left a hole bigger than himself, with an impact so enduring for his family and friends. But the family’s experience with police after his death, they say, only makes healing that much more challenging.

In a Province article from the time, Vancouver police initially called the death suspicious, but it was quickly deemed to be an accident, according to later reports.

The official line from the coroner’s report is Charles’ phone, found at the bottom of the storm drain, fell into the drain and he died trying to retrieve it. The report said toxicology results were “consistent with a heavy intoxication with alcohol,” which was believed to be a contributing factor.

To this day, his family still struggles with that conclusion, and they feel like they weren’t taken seriously by the police.

In large part, it stems from a feeling by the family that they were ignored by police, starting almost immediately after Charles’ death.

The family still has questions and concerns about Charles’ death, and they alleged racial profiling in a 2015 complaint to the Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner. They feel like police didn’t seriously question the people Charles interacted with that night or contact everyone in his phone’s call logs from the night. They’re also wary of markings on his body, which authorities said were caused by pulling his body from the drain.

In the family’s OPCC complaint, they said they believe the investigation was not thorough and that repeated calls to a Vancouver Police Department officer who performed next-of-kin duties were never returned.

The OPCC report did not find any violations in the conduct, but said it “might have been a good idea to return the calls.”

The first investigation determined Charles’ death to be an accident, but when the Oudies complained, the VPD’s homicide team opened another investigation. But the Oudies don’t feel like that investigation was taken seriously either.

“They’re telling us to go meet them, and they’re only questioning about the [OPCC] complaint,” said Williams, her grief shifting to audible frustration as she recounted the experience. “We thought we were preparing ourselves to sit down and talk about the case, but it was never about the case.”

What’s more, Williams said the family never heard from police that the second case was closed – instead, the family had to hear it from a CBC reporter in the fall of 2016.

The VPD’s conclusion has only cemented in the eyes of authorities with the coroner’s report that determined Charles’ death to be an accident.

But the Oudies couldn’t even see that report until this April, more than a year after it was completed, after they sought help from the Vancouver Aboriginal Transformative Justice Services Society.

In a statement, VPD spokesperson Const. Steve Addison said he was “sad that Charles’ family and friends are having a hard time.”

“It’s unfortunate that Eugenia wasn’t satisfied with the level of communication we provided. Our investigators worked hard to find out what happened in this case and to communicate our findings to the family,” Addison said.

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Gabriel George, a member of the Tsleil-Waututh First Nation, speaks at the fourth and final memorial for 26-year-old Charles Oudie on Sept. 6, 2019, the fourth anniversary of his death. - Dustin Godfrey

“I feel like we’ll never know what actually happened until I die, until I see my brother and ask him,” Williams said. “But you just have to accept it and move on because I know he wouldn’t want me to be hurt about it.”

For Williams, she’s tried to move on by continuing to do what made Charles proud – her cosmetology work. For Missy, it was travelling, tapping into her brother’s adventurous spirit.

“I did what my brother wanted to do,” she said. “Just to be out and experience something different, and taking that time just being by myself really helped my heart.”

If feeling ignored by police has left the family struggling to move on since Charles’ death, it’s been regaining a sense of connection with her culture and putting words to her pain that’s brought healing for Eugenia.

“In the beginning, I couldn’t even talk about him without breaking down. I still do a little bit, but it was way worse before,” she said.

She’s found tremendous healing through a variety of outlets, including through writing. That includes a video, titled Walking Softly Upon Mother Earth, which she produced for a Langara College course, in which she explores her son’s death, as well as in a book she’s writing by the same name.

She’s also been working on a First Nations studies master’s thesis at the University of Northern B.C. In the thesis, she’s focusing on missing and murdered Indigenous men and boys, drawing inspiration from the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls inquiry.

Eugenia isn’t the only one who’s seen the change in herself. Judy Thompson, who also goes by her Tahltan name, Edōsdi, is supervising Eugenia’s thesis. Edōsdi’s research expertise is in language revitalization, and she pushed Eugenia to focus her thesis on what might have been Eugenia’s greatest remedy so far – reconnecting with her own culture.

“She’s grown,” Edōsdi said. “She’s just come a long way. … Knowing that she went back home in the summer – that was huge.”

Eugenia describes her family in the Waywayseecappo First Nation as being tight, but she has almost always lived off reserve, in urban centres, since she was a teenager.

In recent months, however, she’s returned home, where her sister has been a guide to rediscovering some of her culture and language. (Although she has a strong understanding of the Ojibwe language, Eugenia can’t speak it fluently.)

That includes jingle dancing, something Eugenia performed in her youth. In recent months, Eugenia’s taken it up again, including performing at a graduation ceremony in Manitoba and another performance in her home community.

“It was really healing. When I came home, I felt really good. I felt kind of light,” Eugenia said, adding that she has other traditional ways of healing, including smudging with sweet grass and sage, using a medicine wheel and meditating in a sauna.

That, she said, has had longer-lasting effects of improving her mental health than the 10 sessions of therapy she received shortly after Charles died.

Eugenia even has an Ojibwe translation for her son’s name, with help from her sister and a friend – Wawashkaysi-wiidosem-oma-akiing translates directly to “deer walking on earth.”

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A couple of family members play old country songs in the bandshell in Queen's Park at Charles Oudie's memorial on Sept. 6, 2019. - Dustin Godfrey

Over the years, as the family has struggled to find healing, the memorials for Charles have dwindled in size, but a core of his family and friends remain to remember the charismatic young man.

Laughter and music permeate the Oudies’ corner of Queen’s Park on this warm September day as a couple of family members play old country songs in the bandshell. The family gives out gifts to attendees – particularly children, to honour Charles’ talent for entertaining his nieces and nephews.

As the event moves from the feast at the picnic tables to the bandshell down the hill, the mood shifts from one of sombre reflection to something more jovial.

And in that corner of the park, the breeze continues to walk softly.

© New West Record

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