A Smithers man whose death in custody is being investigated by B.C.’s police watchdog has been remembered as a rugby-lover who helped establish the sport in Smithers.
Jacobus Jonker died in a Victoria hospital on Feb. 21, five days after he lost consciousness after a physical struggle with officers at the Smithers RCMP detachment.
The 53-year-old had been arrested at a Smithers residence at about 10:30 p.m. on Valentine’s Day.
Friends and rugby enthusiasts last week paid tribute to Jonker, a South African ex-pat known as Cobus, who lived with his family in Smithers.
An avid rugby-lover, Jonker and fellow South African Alan Slate helped introduce the sport to Smithers Secondary School in 2011.
By 2013 there were 35 boys and 30 girls enrolled in the sport at SSS, making it one of the most popular sports at the school.
As head coach, Jonker led SSS teams to the B.C. Summer Games, provincial matches and regional tournaments.
With Jonker and Slate leading the sport, Smithers also hosted a regional rugby “sevens” tournament.
In Oct. 2013, he spoke of his dedication to the growth of the sport in Smithers.
“We can only go forward,” said Jonker.
“As coaches we see it as a challenge to grow the sport.”
Bulkley Valley School District superintendent Chris van der Mark said the volunteer coach would be missed by the school’s students.
“Our thoughts are with the family,” said van der Mark.
“He’s provided years of service to our kids, to our program and he captured the hearts of a lot of kids and he’ll be missed.”
Smithers Rugby Club spokesperson Kala Hooker spoke highly of Jonker’s contribution to the sport.
“Cobus was a dedicated community coach who loved rugby and wanted to take rugby to a new level of excellence in northern B.C.,” said Hooker.
“He had been working with others to develop a rugby dedicated field.
“He brought his passion for rugby to the community at a time where there was a transition and it was truly needed.”
Jonker’s death is being investigated by the B.C. Coroner’s Service and the Independent Investigations Office of B.C.
According to IIOBC, which investigates police-related deaths or serious injuries, Jonker was in emotional distress when officers arrived at a Smithers residence on Feb. 14.
He was pepper-sprayed for resisting arrest and shortly after reported having difficulty breathing.
After being cleared by ambulance workers who were called to the scene, Jonker was cleared for travel to police cells.
It was there that IIOBC said a struggle took place after he became uncooperative.
Jonker lost consciousness and was transported to the Bulkley Valley District Hospital before being transferred to Victoria for a higher level of care.
He died in hospital on Feb. 21.