09/27/2016 12:42 EDT | Updated 09/28/2016 04:17 EDT

Annie Pootoogook Death: Ottawa Police Probe Cop's Racist Comments Posted Online

A local student found the comments and complained to police, the mayor.

OTTAWA — The Ottawa police are now treating the death of award-winning Inuit artist as suspicious.

The body of Ottawa resident Annie Pootoogook, 46, was discovered last week in the Rideau River, off a park about two kilometres away from Parliament Hill.

Police said at the time that they did not suspect foul play, but the major crimes unit has now taken over the investigation.

"There were certain elements of the situation that were suspicious,'' Staff Sgt. Bruce Pirt said Tuesday.

Annie Pootoogook is framed by her artwork on display at the Power Plant in Toronto on June 22, 2006. (Photo: Bernard Weil/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

"This by no means suggests that the whole thing is suspicious. We just want to clear up a few things, because some of it is just not sitting right with us.''

Pirt refused to divulge any specifics about what changed for investigators for fear of tainting the pool of potential witnesses.

News of the death of Pootoogook, an influential artist whose drawings are on display at the National Gallery of Canada, came as a shock to many and garnered national attention when it was first disclosed last week.

Officer under investigation for racist online comments

Not all of the responses were sympathetic.

APTN National News reported Tuesday that derogatory comments posted online — apparently in response to comments linking the death to the broader issue of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls — have been linked to an Ottawa police officer.

"Of course this has nothing to do with missing or murdered Aboriginal’s not a murder case….it’s could be a suicide, accidental, she got drunk and fell in the river and drowned who knows…..typically many Aboriginals have very short lifespans, talent or not," the first comment read, according to screenshots published by APTN.

A second comment posted by the same person said that indigenous Canadians are "satisfied being alcohol or drug abusers."

Ottawa police Chief Charles Bordeleau is investigating, spokeswoman Carol Macpherson wrote in an emailed statement Tuesday.

"We are aware of the complaint regarding the comments posted online by an (Ottawa Police Service) member,'' Macpherson said.

"A chief's complaint has been initiated and an investigation is underway. We won't have any further comment at this time.''

Local student complained to police, mayor

Veldon Coburn, a PhD student in political science who is studying indigenous issues, alerted Bordeleau and Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson to the comments when he saw they appeared to have been posted by a police officer.

"It's troubling that somebody that is in a privileged position within the administration of justice would harbour these kinds of sentiments,'' Coburn said in an interview.

"It should be exposed. It should be aired.''

The national inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women and girls, which began its preliminary work last month, is expected to explore the actions of police forces and the complaints of family members who say their cases were not taken seriously, tainted by racist attitudes or otherwise mishandled.

"It should be exposed. It should be aired.''

Pirt said none of that will have any bearing on his investigation.

"We treat each case on an individual basis and regardless of who the person is, if there are factors surrounding the death that are suspicious, regardless of the person, we are going to look into that death,'' Pirt said.

"We are giving it attention — quite a bit of attention — simply because it requires it.''

Pootoogook was born in Cape Dorset, Nunavut and came from a family of artists. Her work has been featured at various exhibitions since 2002.

Police are asking anyone who has information about Pootoogook's whereabouts in the days before Sept. 19, when they recovered her body, to contact investigators.

— Follow @smithjoanna on Twitter

With files from Emma Paling

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