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A year after police killed Fergus man, family fights for reform

'There isn't a moment that he doesn't cross your mind,' says sister
From left: Sisters Alysha Bunyan, Kimberley Feather, Rachel Labrie and mother Sandra Bunyan hold photos of Mathias Bunyan who was killed by police in August 2021. The family says they still seek justice for Mathias and others killed by police while advocating for reform.

FERGUS – It's been nearly a year since police shot and killed Mathias Bunyan inside his Fergus apartment – something the man's family thinks about regularly as they continue to deal with grief and have lingering questions about a situation they believe didn't need to unfold.

It was Aug. 15, 2021 when the 31-year-old was confronted by OPP officers and shot in his Belsyde Avenue apartment. A Special Investigations Unit (SIU) report later cleared police of any crimminal wrongdoing in the death.

The Bunyan family has maintained Mathias was going through a mental health crisis and was unjustly killed, becoming a victim of a systemic problem in policing.

It might as well have been yesterday, Mathias’ sisters Rachel Labrie, Kimberley Feather and Alysha Bunyan, and mother Sandra Bunyan said in an interview. 

“It feels strange to say that a year is coming upon in two weeks, it doesn’t feel like a year of time has passed,” said Labrie, Mathias' eldest sister. “There isn’t a moment that he doesn’t cross your mind.”

Alysha, the youngest and closest in age to Mathias, described him as her best friend, adding he visited her almost every day. She still pours him a cup of coffee each morning. 

“I expect him to come through but he never will,” Alysha said. 

Sandra said she's at peace with having other lost people in her life, but her son's death is harder to accept because the situation and circumstances.

It wasn’t from police that the family heard there was an incident going on at Mathias’ apartment but through Facebook.

This spurred Labrie to call 911 to ask for a wellness check because Mathias had been hospitalized a week before due to his declining mental health. Although she was told she’d receive a call back, she said did not and ended up driving to the scene where her brother would have already been dead.

“I think the responsible thing would have been to send a cruiser to my house to tell me that my brother was not alive,” Labrie said. 

“And drive us there,” Sandra added, but the family went there due to word of mouth without knowing what had happened.

But what happened to Mathias could have been avoided, the family said, if the IMPACT team — a program where mental health workers accompany officers on mental health related calls — had been called in sooner or if responding officers waited for the team to arrive.

The SIU report noted an “emergency response team” had been called in but would have taken 30 to 60 minutes to arrive. 

“Things would have been totally different, he would still be with us today,” Labrie said. 

But it was police who were there dealing with Mathias, who was noted in the SIU report as yelling and screaming in his apartment and when officers arrived he hid in a closet not believing they were actually the police.

Police pepper sprayed Mathias multiple times while he hid and tased him which the family believes escalated the situation to the point where he was shot and killed.

“It shows to us all the failures in the system, did that cop wake up that morning wanting to shoot somebody? No, we don’t believe he did but is he properly trained to know what to do in situations like that?” Feather asked. “That’s where the fail is, it’s not just Mathias’ case.”

Alysha said she was the one who identified her brother by herself and has since been diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder.

There’s little support available for the family from a mental health perspective after going through this. 

“I’m currently on a year-and-a-half waitlist for therapy. That’s my best option,” Alysha said. 

Feather also said she has a program through work but it is only four sessions with one therapist. Further sessions would require her to go back into the system and re-explain her story each time. 

“I only had to go back to work because I had to, like I didn’t have a choice,” Feather said, referring to the six months she took off. “There was no support, I have a family to support.”

The family has retained a lawyer which Feather said is to get justice not just for Mathias but for others who are killed by police. They plan to never stop advocating for reform on how police are trained. 

For the time being, there are still unanswered questions about the incident, reports they haven’t seen and a full pathology report isn’t completed yet. However, Sandra believes this case will be going further. 

“It feels, up to this point in time, for what information he does have, yes we are heading that way (court) it’s just those other pieces have to be there,” Sandra said. 

Alysha said it is hard to grieve when going through this process that she described as a “purgatory” but there are occasional light moments.

For example, Alysha recalled her brother finger painting and watching Paw Patrol with her daughter when he declared Marshall to be his favourite pup.

Mathias’ older sisters recalled his contagious laughter they couldn’t even imitate, joked about his lanky figure and how he was miles smarter than anyone else they knew.

“They took our brother but they can’t take our memories too,” Alysha said.