Ques­tion­ing the an­swers

Long-de­layed in­quest into the deaths of seven young abo­rig­i­nals, sep­a­rated from fam­i­lies as they at­tended school in Thun­der Bay, will fo­cus both on how they died and how the sys­tem let them down


Af­ter years of de­lay, a sin­gle in­quest will fi­nally in­ves­ti­gate the deaths of seven abo­rig­i­nal youths forced to leave their re­mote re­serves in north­ern On­tario to at­tend high school in Thun­der Bay, the province’s chief coro­ner an­nounced Wed­nes­day.

The five-month in­quest, called by Dr. Dirk Huyer, will start Oct. 5 af­ter be­ing stalled for three years over a fight to im­prove abo­rig­i­nal rep­re­sen­ta­tion on ju­ries.

Reg­gie Bushie, Jethro An­der­son and Jor­dan Wabasse, all 15 years old, along with Kyle Mor­riseau, 17, and Cur­ran Strang, 18, all ap­par­ently drowned in the wa­ters lead­ing to Lake Su­pe­rior, while Paul Panacheese, 21, and Robyn Harper, 18, al­legedly died of over­doses.

A 2011 Star re­port on the lack of in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the stu­dents’ deaths, all of which oc­curred since 2000, prompted the in­quest, but the de­lay left many of the fam­i­lies won­der­ing if they would ever learn the truth about their chil­dren’s deaths.

“In 2000, we lost Jethro An­der­son, who was only15 years old. Since then, six more young peo­ple have been lost,” said Grand Chief Alvin Fid­dler of the Nish­nawbe As- ki Na­tion (NAN), a fed­er­a­tion of 49 abo­rig­i­nal com­mu­ni­ties spread across north­ern On­tario.

For years, the NAN has pushed for a joint in­quest into the deaths of the seven young peo­ple, all of whom came from NAN com­mu­ni­ties at least 200 kilo­me­tres from Thun­der Bay — and some as far as 700 kilo­me­tres.

“We are hope­ful that this in­quest will pro­duce mean­ing­ful so­lu­tions that keep our chil­dren safe and al­low them to ac­cess ed­u­ca­tion with­out fear of tragic end­ings,” Fid­dler said.

The in­quest has a dou­ble man­date: to in­ves­ti­gate the cir­cum­stances of the in­di­vid­ual deaths and make rec­om­men­da­tions to ad­dress the sys­temic risks of send­ing youth to school in far­away cities.

Be­cause many small, iso­lated re­serves in the north do not have high schools, fam­i­lies are forced to send their chil­dren away to Thun­der Bay, where spe­cial­ized First Na­tions high schools do their best to in­te­grate teens, many of whom have never left their tight-knit com­mu­ni­ties.

This com­pelled mi­gra­tion re­veals a fun­da­men­tal in­equal­ity in our so­ci­ety, says Ju­lian Fal­coner, a lawyer rep­re­sent­ing NAN.

“Why should fam­i­lies have to send their chil­dren hun­dreds of kilo­me­tres to at­tend high school? Why should com­mu­ni­ties end up so un­der­funded that they have to lose their chil­dren in or­der for their chil­dren to get ba­sic ed­u­ca­tion? And what kind of sup­ports ex­ist out there once they have to send their chil­dren hun­dreds of kilo­me­tres away? These are key ques­tions,” Fal­coner said.

Po­lice have never thor­oughly in­ves­ti­gated the deaths, Fal­coner said, which heaps in­sult onto in­jury for griev­ing fam­i­lies.

“This case, sadly, is a poster child for the no­tion that First Na­tions are less than wor­thy vic­tims. This is a very sad nar­ra­tive about fam­i­lies who sim­ply ex­pe­ri­ence the worst the sys­tem has to of­fer in terms of in­ves­ti­gat­ing their chil­dren’s deaths.”

While they have waited for an­swers, par­ents’ fears have grown, but they have lit­tle choice but to con­tinue send­ing their chil­dren south.

“Peo­ple who live in the re­mote com­mu­ni­ties, their chil­dren have to ac­cess high schools by be­ing sent out of the com­mu­nity. And with the re­oc­cur­ring deaths, it’s lit­er­ally be­come some­thing par­ents are afraid to do,” said Toronto lawyer Christa Big Ca­noe, di­rec­tor at Abo­rig­i­nal Le­gal Ser­vices of Toronto, which is rep­re­sent­ing fam­ily mem­bers of six of the seven youths.

“The youths go to school to get a bet­ter ed­u­ca­tion, to in­crease op­por­tu­nity, to bring good skills back home — and the con­cern is: How safe are they when they’re there?”

Big Ca­noe and Fal­coner agree that the in­quest is a pos­i­tive sign that fun­da­men­tal is­sues of in­equal­ity fac­ing abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple are fi­nally be­ing taken se­ri­ously.

“Whether we’re talk­ing about miss­ing and mur­dered in­dige­nous women, or youth who don’t have equal ac­cess to ed­u­ca­tion and as a re­sult find them­selves ex­posed to harm, these are big is­sues that First Na­tions and in­dige­nous peo­ple live with daily,” Big Ca­noe said.

Fal­coner added: “It’s im­por­tant to re­spect the fact that the of­fice of the chief coro­ner has or­dered this multi-bar­reled in­quest, that seven fam­i­lies are fi­nally go­ing to have their day in court, and that the sys­tem is work­ing to at­tempt to rem­edy what have been ter­ri­ble in­equities in terms of close scru­ti­nies of deaths.”


Teacher Greg Quachegan holds pic­tures of Paul Panacheese, left, and Cur­ran Strang, who died while at­tend­ing Dennis Franklin Cro­marty school in Thun­der Bay. Six of the seven stu­dents who are the sub­ject of a coro­ner’s in­quest be­gin­ning next month...


The fam­ily of Jor­dan Wabas­sel lis­ten to prayers dur­ing a me­mo­rial ser­vice for the teen in 2011 near where he died.

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