In a low, light blue house on the Tsulquate reserve, home to many of the Gwa’sala-‘Nakwaxda’xw Nation, several generations of family members are spread throughout the living room enjoying a hearty dinner and celebrating a birthday. Small children run around, light green balloons dot the ceiling, and savoury elk meat is eaten. Two men eat have their dinner in chairs on the wooden porch, facing the ocean visible between two homes across the street. Link, with big brown eyes, is the youngest family member present, and he gurgles and laughs in his stroller, making everyone smile. Blanche Walkus, a grandmother of forty, sits in a chair by the front door of her house and explains that she had hoped to bake a black forest cake, her daughter’s favourite, but the weekend ended up being quite busy so they instead prepared a large jello cake, covered in decadent white icing.
Despite the warm, family-oriented atmosphere, this is not a normal birthday party. The birthday girl in question, Cindy Scow, died nearly three years ago after being severely beaten in a vacant home just a short walk down the street from her mother’s house. Tonight her family is celebrating her life.
On the evening of Sep 9, 2012, Scow was beaten with a wooden dowling at reserve home #155 on Tsulquate Road by Dakota Johnny, a then 19-year-old. She was taken to hospital where she later died, with the cause of death as blunt force trauma. The two had been drinking together and and entered the vacant home late in the evening. Johnny left the scene after attacking Scow, and was arrested shortly after.
In May 2014, Johnny was found guilty of manslaughter instead of second-degree murder in B.C. Supreme Court in Campbell River by Justice Miriam Maisonville, on the basis that he was too drunk to know what he was doing. Justice Maisonville did not accept defence arguments that Johnny had acted in self-defence. Johnny was given an 8-year sentence and a lifetime ban on firearms. Scow left behind seven children who range in age from toddler to teenager.
The time leading up to the birthday of a dead child or family member would understandably be emotionally fraught, but the week became even more so for Blanche and her family when she was informed just days before Cindy’s June 7 birthday that Johnny has filed to appeal his sentence.
Douglas J. Marion of Marion & Company, the law firm that represented Johnny during his trial, confirmed that an appeal has been filed. Marion declined to comment further as the appeal is ongoing.
Gordon S. Comer, Legal Counsel to the Assistant Depurty Attorney General, said that the appeal itself will take place in the Court of Appeal in Vancouver. Comer also explained that the process to appeal including filing paperwork could take several months, and a date for a hearing is set after that. Comer said that it could take six months to get a hearing, but that it depends and he cannot estimate for this case specifically.
Inside the Port Hardy Salvation Army a week after Cindy’s birthday, Blanche sits at a table with a small cup of coffee in front of her. Small children play and a few teenagers sit at computers. She remembers the last time that she saw Cindy was the Thursday before she died, when the two had lunch at A&W. When they parted ways they hugged and told each other ‘I love you.’ Cindy texted her mother several times that weekend, including to apologize and let her mother know that she had started drinking, but Blanche never saw her fifth-born child again.
The news of the appeal has deeply shaken Blanche, with her biggest concern being the possibility of Johnny eventually returning to the reserve. For some time in between the Sep 9, 2012 incident and the trial, Johnny was out on bail and lived on the reserve. “My grandchildren were terrified of seeing him,” Blanche says, adding that Cindy’s teenage daughter would send her scared text messages when she would catch sight of Johnny during her school lunch breaks. The idea of him returning is anxiety-provoking for the family, and Blanche would ideally like some sanctions to keep him away from the area.
Back at the birthday party, Cindy’s family passes markers around the living room and everyone writes a message to her on the green balloons. The family moves outside onto the quiet street, as two young men working on a car in the house across the street watch. Everyone gathers and they release the balloons into the early evening sky. Necks are craned as the balloons float up, and everyone is laughing at one that strays away from the rest.