VANCOUVER, B.C. – Robert Dziekanski was coming to Canada to join his mother, emigrating to a new land and a new life.
But after stepping off the plane from Poland, tired, confused and unable to speak English, Dziekanski had a fateful, and fatal, encounter with RCMP at Vancouver’s airport.
As details of those final hours of Dziekanski’s life emerge at a public inquiry into his death, people in his native country and Polish immigrants in Canada say they’re angry and wondering if anyone will be held accountable.
A witness video of the four RCMP officers stunning Dziekanski with a Taser in October 2007 received considerable attention in Poland, where the image of Dziekanski’s final moments is still a common fixture in newspapers and websites.
“There is a lot of coverage I think and a lot of information in the Polish press,” Piotr Koscinski, a reporter with the newspaper Rzeczpospolita, says in an interview from Warsaw.
“You can see it everywhere.”
That coverage has intensified in recent weeks as the officers appeared at the public inquiry. Three of them have already testified, saying they felt threatened by Dziekanski.
They were summoned to the scene after Dziekanski began throwing furniture and after they approached he picked up a stapler, which all three officers said they felt posed a threat.
Dziekanski – often written in Polish as Roberta Dziekanskiego – had left Poland to live with his mother in Kamloops, B.C.
Koscinski says the coverage in Poland hasn’t matched the daily barrage of stories Canada, but he said readers in the country are still following the testimony.
Reporters like Koscinski are keeping tabs on the inquiry from Poland, and news outlets are also running stories from international wire services.
A television crew from the Polish network TVN attended the hearings last week as the officer who fired the Taser, Const. Kwesi Millington, recounted his version of what happened.
Koscinski says readers are more confused than anything else, especially as they read that four armed police officers were scared of a man holding a stapler.
“The whole thing looks very strange for us,” says Koscinski, adding that many in Poland have already reached their own conclusions.
“I think here in Poland, a policeman after such an incident would face charges that he killed a man, even not willingly or by mistake.”
Crown prosecutors announced in December that the four officers wouldn’t face charges, saying the use of force was justifiable under the circumstances.
TVN reporter Marcin Wrona says his network has been following the story since Dziekanski’s death, but the officers’ testimony has offered new details that he have astonished viewers in Poland.
The headline for a story broadcast last week declared: “He was shot five times!”
While police initially said Dziekanski was shocked only twice, the Taser was in fact deployed five times. However, the officer told the inquiry he only remember four.
Wrona says another issue he has focused on in his reports is the discrepancies between what the officers initially said happened and what’s on a bystander’s video.
“We have the videotape on one hand, and then we heard what that guy (Millington) was saying,” says Wrona. “I had this feeling we’re talking about two different stories.”
The story also has the attention of Polish-Canadians.
Wladyslaw Lizon, president of the Canadian Polish Congress, says Poles feel the same as many others in this country.
“I don’t think many people in the community look at it as a Polish issue, we are all Canadian and I think we are equally stunned by what happened,” says Lizon.
“Of course, the fact that Mr. Dziekanski came from Poland adds to the emotion.”
The Gazeta newspaper, based in Toronto and printed in several cities across Canada, has been offering Polish-Canadians updates in their native language.
Gazeta reporter Malgorzata Bonikowska says Polish immigrants, many who lived in Poland during decades of Communist rule, are particularly sensitive to images involving police.
“Polish people come from the ex-Communist reality, where the police were our enemy and they were brutal and horrible,” she says.
“When you saw these police officers jumping on him and doing what they did, that rings the bell, it immediately brings back horrible memories from the past.”
The inquiry is currently on a two-week break, but it is far from over.
The supervising officer, Cpl. Benjamin Monty Robinson, will begin testimony when hearings resume March 23.
After that, the inquiry will hear from more witnesses, explore medical evidence related to Dziekanski’s death and examine RCMP training and policies.
Retired judge Thomas Braidwood will issue a report with recommendations to avoid similar deaths in the future. He could also make findings of misconduct against the police officers or anyone else involved.