Angela Squirrel says when she saw her older sister on the streets of Saskatoon on the same day as her release from Pine Grove Correctional Centre, the 34-year-old mother of six wasn’t prepared for the city’s well-known winter weather.
Kimberly Squirrel, from the Yellow Quill First Nation, had just been released from Pine Grove, the province’s only correctional facility for adult women, and while Saskatchewan’s winter had been warmer than usual, it was on that day temperatures began to fall.
“It was starting to get cold,” said Angela. “It didn’t click with me until a little later, but when I seen her, she just had a fall coat … She didn’t have the proper winter wear.”
With the windchill, conditions in Saskatoon would hover between what felt like – 9 and – 17 on the day of Kimberly’s release, and over the next few days, they’d continue to fluctuate until falling to a dangerously cold – 33 C on Jan. 23, at around 8 p.m. That’s when Kimberly was found dead and frozen in the area of Avenue Q South and 18th Street West.
Speaking to CBC News at her home in Saskatoon over the weekend, Angela, who goes by Angie, says the meeting she had with her sister in Pleasant Hill on the day of her release was quick and lasted less than an hour.
She said while Kimberly was pleased to see her, she said overall her older sister was quiet and seemed “lost,” noting she’s thought about the meeting a lot, which ended in the two going their separate ways.
“So many things have crossed my mind,” she said, fighting back tears.
“Whether I could have stopped her from leaving when she took off on me that night.”
CBC News reached out to the Ministry of Corrections, Policing and Public Safety with an interview request for Minister Christine Tell about the family’s concerns, including whether or not Kimberly was supplied with any winter clothes upon her release and where Kimberly was dropped off specifically after being escorted to a bus from Prince Albert to Saskatoon by correctional staff, but a response was not received by deadline.
Family trying to support one another
Angie, who was quiet and emotional during the interview, says like for her sister, life has not always been easy.
She’s had a hard time finding housing in the past, sometimes going without a home for months. Now, she says she’s lucky to have the support of her older brother, Kelly, as the two are now living together with roommates in Saskatoon and helping each other cope.
Speaking with tears in her eyes as she talks about her older sister, Angela says Kimberly was also just looking for some stability in her life.
“I tried to be there as much as I could,” she said.
Adding later: “She was just lost. She was just trying to find her way home, but she didn’t know where home was.”
She says while her sister struggled with crystal methamphetamine addiction, she should not be defined by her addictions, as she says the mother of six, cared dearly for her children, her siblings and her family.
I tried to be there as much as I could.– Angela Squirrel, Sister of Kimberly Squirrel
Asked if she would say anything to the officials responsible for Saskatchewan’s correctional facilities, she said people shouldn’t be falling through the cracks just because they’re struggling.
“I think it would have to be to try not to overlook one individual’s situation, regardless of what their addiction is, or what they’re struggling with,” she said. “Because In the end, it’s like everyday all of us are struggling with something — all of us.
“And if someone would actually take the time to understand, or to even listen to what we need, or what to prepare us for, it’d make that much of a difference.”
Court documents show that Kimberly had originally been charged in August of 2020 with starting a fire that threatened the property of another person and weapons offences in September involving a knife. The arrest that would result in her remand up until January was a result of violating curfew and not complying with court orders.
Court documents also indicated Kimberly had been diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and depression, detailing how she was supposed to go and live with her sister Kara Squirrel upon her release, as well as participate in an addictions assessment and programming, alongside programming and counselling for her mental health concerns.
She was set to be back in court on Feb. 8, 2021.
Minister Tell ‘deeply saddened’ by death
Squirrel says her family would be open to meeting with representatives from the Ministry of Corrections to ensure the family can contribute and have insight into the process.
While it’s prohibited for the province to notify family members about the release of an inmate, and it’s up to an inmate to determine how much involvement family has with their release, her sister Kara feels had family been notified about Kimberly’s release, she may be alive today.
“I should have been the first person to get notified, because I was the person taking care of her,” she said in a previous interview with CBC.
Last week, the province announced it would be launching a formal review into Kimberly’s release under the Correctional Services Act and in a statement, Minister Tell offered her condolences to Kimberly’s family.
“I was deeply saddened to hear of the death of Kimberly Squirrel,” said Tell in the statement.
“As a result of the concerns around Ms. Squirrel’s death, Minister (of Justice and Attorney General Gord) Wyant and I have requested a review into the circumstances surrounding her release. This is in addition to the investigations being conducted by the Saskatoon Police Service and the Coroners Service.”
In the statement, Tell said the health and safety of the men, women, and youth in government care is of “paramount concern.”
“Ministry officials work diligently to ensure these individuals have access to the supports and programming they may need. This can at times be a challenge, but we are committed to working with our sector partners to address these issues and improve the outcomes for those who come into contact with the justice system,” she said.
“Our deepest sympathies and condolences go to Kimberly’s family during this difficult time.”
For Angela, she said while she and her siblings have their challenges, there were days when the majority of them were able to gather as a family, even capturing the moment in a photo, and she says it’s moments she remembers fondly.
“All of us are smiling and it was a good day that day,” she said. “I still remember that day.”
While family members say it’s their understanding that Kimberly “froze to death” the death is still with the Saskatchewan Coroner Services. An autopsy has been completed, but officials can’t confirm Kimberly’s cause of death until the results are available, which can sometimes take up to six months.
Saskatoon police say foul play was not a factor in the death.