Chris Bird, known as “Jimmy” on the streets of Prince Albert, Sask., had spent the night in police holding cells.
He’d sobered up and was about to be released when he heard piercing screams coming from the women’s detention area down the hall.
“My baby! Help my baby! My baby!”
Bird said loud noises are common in the holding cells, but that these repeated calls were particularly urgent and clear.
“Boy, that girl is yelling. She wanted her baby,” Bird recalled in a recent interview.
Bird believes the woman was Kyla Frenchman, pleading with officers to check on her 13-month-old son, Tanner.
Police didn’t make the five-minute drive back to check on Tanner until it was too late. Tanner’s father, Kaij Brass, was arrested on site and charged with second-degree murder.
Frenchman has said she pleaded with officers in the cells to rescue Tanner, but Bird is now the first person to state publicly that he heard those cries for help.
Bird said he’s speaking out despite any “problems” it may cause him. He said he consulted an elder, who told him it’s important for the truth to come out.
CBC News accompanied Bird to the police station and obtained a written record of his incarceration. The document confirms Bird and Frenchman were both in the cells on the morning of Feb. 10.
“It’s good there’s a witness that can validate what she said. It’s important for the public to know what went on,” said Frenchman’s lawyer, Eleanore Sunchild.
“She just wanted her baby to be safe, like any mother would, and now we have a witness to verify that,” said Bobby Cameron, Chief of the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FSIN), which represents Saskatchewan’s First Nations.
CBC News also interviewed nearly a dozen current and former Prince Albert police officers, members of the board of police commissioners and other officials over the past month. Most agreed to speak anonymously, as they were not authorized to discuss ongoing investigations or private meetings.
They raise new questions about the Baby Tanner case and, more generally, about the Prince Albert Police Service and its leadership. They echoed earlier calls that the changes need to start at the top, starting with the removal of Chief Jon Bergen.
“This woman was treated differently because she was First Nations. She wasn’t believed,” Cameron said in early March. “We demand change, and we demand it today.”
Bergen declined an interview request for this story. But speaking to media earlier this year following Tanner’s death, Bergen said he values his relationships with the Indigenous community and all residents.
“The message is received loud and clear, and we’re acknowledging we have much work to do to build back the trust and confidence in the community,” Bergen said. “We are committed to do that.”
Prince Albert Police Service deputy chief Farica Prince was made available for an interview instead of Bergen. Prince said she’s not aware of anything that would cast doubt on Bergen’s ability to be chief.
“I have not witnessed, experienced or received any concerns that would negatively impact my confidence in police chief Jonathan Bergen to lead our organization,” she said.
Prince declined to comment on any elements of the Baby Tanner case or specific criticisms of Bergen, citing the ongoing Saskatchewan Public Complaints Commission (PCC) investigation.
She also said she’s concerned about officers sharing information with the media.
“I do hope that everyone understands that interfering with an investigation is not only contrary to the Police Act, it’s potentially criminal,” Prince said.
She said now is the time for the police force to work together as a team to focus on community safety and wellbeing.
Mother pleaded with officers
In an interview back in March, Frenchman said she and Tanner lived like prisoners in their 23rd Street home. Frenchman said she wasn’t allowed to use a phone or computer, leave the house alone, or take Tanner to the doctor.
“He said if I leave, me and the baby are gone, dead,” she said. “It forced me to stay. I had to put up with it.”
But Frenchman said that on the evening of Feb. 9, with Tanner just over one year old, she told Brass she wanted to leave.
“I decided to pack my things. I put on my jacket and hat,” she said.
She said he threw her out of the building and “told me to get off the property and to go die.”
Frenchman wandered the streets in the bitter cold and darkness, knocking on doors until someone let her use the phone to call police.
She said two officers arrived and she told them the baby inside was in danger.
Frenchman, a member of Thunderchild First Nation, said the officers accused her of being drunk, handcuffed her and drove her to the police holding cells without entering the suite to check on Tanner.
Frenchman said that, once at the holding cells, she pleaded with officers and staff to check on her baby.
She was released hours later and arrived home to see police tape throughout the yard. Police told her Tanner was dead. She collapsed, weeping.
‘Why didn’t the cops come sooner?’: Bird
An officer involved in the case and two other people told CBC News that it wasn’t Frenchman’s repeated pleas that brought police back to the basement suite later that day — it was Brass himself who called them.
Brass’s mother, Rubin Charles, said Brass called her in the minutes before police arrived. Charles initially thought her son wanted to wish her a happy birthday, but her mood changed quickly.
“He said, ‘The cops are coming and I have to deal with what I’ve done,'” Charles said in an interview.
After the call from her son, Charles immediately called Jody Ehlert, the property manager for the home.
“[Brass] called her and said he’d done something,” Ehlert said. “He told her he called police and they were on their way. She was very concerned. She felt like there might be something wrong with the baby.”
Ehlert drove to the house and said it “wasn’t at all shocking” to see police, but that she never imagined how serious the situation was.
In the two years or so since Brass and Frenchman moved there, Ehlert fielded more than half a dozen complaints about Brass from neighbours or those living in the home’s other suites.
“I felt he was very controlling. I almost never saw Kyla. He almost always answered the door. She was very quiet, she never made eye contact,” Ehlert said. “He was always right in his own mind.”
Neighbours said Brass would often swear at them or turn toward them and scowl while lifting weights in the yard. Those neighbours include Chris “Jimmy” Bird, who lives next door to the multi-unit rental house.
Bird had been released from the police cells on the morning of Feb. 10. He said he walked home in time to see Brass, wearing only pyjama bottoms, being handcuffed in the yard by police. An officer confirmed the physical description and clothing described by Bird.
“He looked right at me and spit,” Bird said.
Bird kept watching as more police cars, an ambulance and other emergency services vehicles lined the street.
When Frenchman later arrived at the scene, but before police broke the news to her, she saw Bird in the yard. Bird said Frenchman asked him what was happening and where her baby was.
Bird said that’s when he realized it was Frenchman’s voice he’d heard in the cells. Bird had just seen emergency services workers wheel a stretcher out of the home, but he told Frenchman to go ask police.
“Why didn’t the cops come sooner? Why’d they leave the baby in there? They made a mistake arresting that lady [Frenchman] instead,” Bird said.
Several days later, with the crime scene cleared, Ehlert opened the suite for officials from the FSIN. They cleaned it out and brought an elder to perform a ceremony for Tanner’s spirit. The FSIN has been assisting Frenchman, who now lives in Saskatoon.
Charles, Brass’ mother, said she would often drop off money, diapers or food for Tanner. She said there was no indication Frenchman was unhappy.
Charles recently had a pendant made bearing Tanner’s fingerprint on one side and his name on the other. She said things might have ended up better for everyone if Prince Albert police had entered the suite when Frenchman was pleading with them.
“I’ve been having a difficult time dealing with the loss of my grandson and losing my son to the system,” Charles said. “I miss them so much.”
Brass’s lawyer Rebecca Crookshanks said she has no comment on the case at this time as it is still before the courts.
Critics call for police chief to be fired
In early March, the FSIN, Prince Albert Grand Council and others demanded the immediate firing of Bergen and any officers who ignored Frenchman’s pleas.
“This mother was held against her will and her baby paid the ultimate price for their negligence,” Thunderchild First Nation Chief James Snakeskin said. “Baby Tanner didn’t even have a chance to grow and live a beautiful life. The death of this baby affected not only Thunderchild, but many other First Nations. This is plain racism.”
Bergen initially said he would wait for the results of the investigation from the Public Complaints Commission before taking any action. But soon after that he suspended the two junior officers who first arrested Frenchman, saying he’d seen preliminary PCC findings.
One day after that, the union representing the officers publicly released an earlier vote showing 95 per cent of officers had lost confidence in Bergen.
Officers interviewed agree police must be held accountable if they do something wrong, but they’re furious about what they call “arbitrary” and “unfair” actions by Bergen.
The two rookie officers at the scene were suspended, but the sergeant on duty at the time was not. Officers say that sergeant was most responsible for detaining Frenchman and declining to send officers back to the house.
They say that sergeant has been promoted to the rank of inspector and will oversee reforms to the patrol division.
Officers also say they’re unhappy that shortly after the non-confidence vote against Bergen, conducted by secret ballot, Prince Albert Police Association President Josh Peterson was told he is considered a “suspect” in the Baby Tanner case. They say Peterson was not at the scene and his shift had ended before Frenchman was brought into the holding cells.
They say Bergen, who also lost a non-confidence vote in 2020, is targeting his critics while rewarding his supporters.
“It’s so bizarre. How is any of this right?” said one officer.
Peterson declined an interview request about his personal situation or the Baby Tanner case, but did outline some frustrations.
For years, the police association and Indigenous leaders have been calling for 24-hour paramedic coverage in the cell block. Paramedics are only there from 7:30 p.m. to 7:30 a.m. CST.
Three people died in the cells in a 30-day period last fall alone. In two of those cases, they were found unresponsive just before the paramedic’s shift began.
Peterson said it’s unclear whether 24-hour paramedic coverage would have prevented any of those deaths, but that police should not be left to care for people with complex medical needs. Saskatoon and Regina cell blocks have 24-hour coverage.
He said all of this has left officers completely demoralized.
“We don’t have any confidence. We really don’t see any situation where there’s any change at the top. So our members are kind of just plodding onward and showing up to work and doing the job the best as they can, given the circumstances.”
He said the city’s growing drug and homelessness problem, in addition to two murders in the last weekend of May, is taking a toll on officers and the entire community.
Officers said other agencies and levels of government have to do much more, but a fresh start at the top of the police service is required. Peterson said the vast majority of officers don’t want to work for Bergen.
“I don’t know if that relationship can be rebuilt,” he said. “It’s almost like a marriage where at a certain point, the two sides need to decide that maybe divorce is the answer. So unfortunately, we may have reached that point.”
Officers have repeatedly asked the board of police commissioners to act, but they “were not alive to our concerns,” Peterson said.
Officers interviewed, First Nations leaders and two former members of the Prince Albert Board of Police Commissioners said this frustration is long standing.
They note that in less than four years at the helm, Bergen has faced two non-confidence votes from officers and resignation calls from Indigenous groups, as well as questions over in-custody deaths, escalating violent crime rates and the Baby Tanner case.
None of the current member of the board of police commissioners, including Mayor Greg Dionne, would agree to an interview.
Although Bergen declined an interview request, a Prince Albert police media relations official said Bergen remains deeply committed to residents and his fellow officers.
She said Bergen fields constant requests to speak to community groups. He mentors Indigenous police recruits and has established partnerships with the Prince Albert Grand Council.
Bergen also named Prince his deputy chief last November, making her the first Indigenous woman to hold that ranking in a Saskatchewan municipal police service.
And last month, the PA Police Service was awarded first prize in the Versaterm Public Safety Innovation Awards for its use of a certain software system to produce shift briefing reports and internal communication.
‘It’s a death that could have been prevented’: lawyer
The province’s Public Complaints Commission continues to investigate the Baby Tanner case, but it’s unclear when or if the results will be released publicly.
Some critics say major changes need to happen immediately, regardless of what the PCC does or doesn’t disclose.
Sunchild is seeking justice for Tanner and Frenchman, and said it “definitely, definitely” needs to start with the firing of Bergen and others who failed Tanner that day.
Sunchild, who also represents the family of Colten Boushie, said it’s also about preventing future tragedies.
“Nothing surprises me anymore in this province, and that’s a sad thing, I have heard so many horror stories of injustice and mistreatment,” Sunchild said.
“Kyla lost her child. He can’t be brought back. It’s a death that could have been prevented.”