In­quest starts into deaths of young abo­rig­i­nals

Only 10 seats set aside for fam­i­lies in tiny Thun­der Bay hear­ing room

Toronto Star - - FRONT PAGE - TANYA TA­LAGA STAFF RE­PORTER

Af­ter a three-year wait, an in­quest into the mys­te­ri­ous deaths of seven First Na­tions youth who lost their lives while liv­ing far from home as they at­tended high school in Thun­der Bay be­gins Mon­day.

The broad in­quest, presided over by Dr. David Eden, will be one of the largest ever to be held in On­tario. Teams of lawyers rep­re­sent­ing var­i­ous in­ter­ests are ex­pected to call nearly 200 wit­nesses un­til March.

The in­quest was called af­ter a Star se­ries on the lack of in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the deaths of the six males and one fe­male who died be­tween 2000 and 2011. Three of them — Reg­gie Bushie, Jethro An­der­son and Jor­dan Wabasse — were only 15 years old. The oth­ers were Cur­ran Strang, 18, Paul Panacheese, 21, Robyn Harper, 18, and Kyle Mor­ris­seau, 17.

Each came from re­mote First Na­tions in the north, and each had to move to Thun­der Bay to at­tend an ap­pro­pri­ate high school.

On Fri­day, the fam­i­lies of the dead youths were shocked to learn that the room cho­sen in the new Thun­der Bay court­house for the hear­ing is quite small, and that just 10 seats will be avail­able at the back for the seven fam­i­lies, their sup­port­ers and mem­bers of the public.

An over­flow room has been set up in­side the build­ing, but for Nish­nawbe Aski Na­tion Grand Chief Alvin Fid­dler, this is not an ac­cept­able so­lu­tion.

“This is dis­gust­ing,” Fid­dler said. “The par­ents and fam­i­lies of the seven have the right to be in the room (as the in­quest pro­ceeds).”

“There is lots of room in the jails for our peo­ple,” he said. “Yet when our com­mu­nity tries to ac­cess the jus­tice sys­tem, there are bar­ri­ers in the way.”

Only 4 per cent of Canada’s pop­u­la­tion is in­dige­nous, but nearly 23 per cent of Canada’s prison pop­u­la­tion hails from an abo­rig­i­nal back­ground.

Prom­i­nent politi­cian Bob Rae and nov­el­ist Joseph Boy­den quickly took to so­cial media to de­nounce the lack of ac­com­mo­da­tion for the fam­i­lies.

“Fix this now,” tweeted Rae, On­tario’s for­mer premier and a pre­vi­ous leader of the fed­eral Lib­er­als.

“Courts sure make plenty of room for FN in jail cells. Vic­tims fam­i­lies’ can’t at­tend,” tweeted Boy­den, au­thor of award-win­ning books, in­clud­ing Three Day Road and Through Black Spruce.

It has been nearly 15 years since Jethro An­der­son’s body was found in the Kamin­is­tiquia River in Thun­der Bay.

Jethro’s mother, Stella An­der­son, said the in­quest will be dif­fi­cult in many ways, given such a long pas­sage of time.

“Half of me wants to know what hap­pened to Jethro, and the other half of me wants to leave it alone,” she said in a state­ment through the fam­ily’s lawyer, Christa Big Ca­noe with Abo­rig­i­nal Le­gal Ser­vices of Toronto.

“The day that Jethro’s body was found and I heard the news, my heart shat­tered into a mil­lion pieces,” An­der­son said.

“I miss Jethro ev­ery day and the thought of learn­ing more about his death is fright­en­ing and brings up old wounds that have been slowly heal­ing,” she said.

For as­pir­ing hockey player Jor­dan Wabasse’s mom Ber­nice Ja­cobs, the hope is that the in­quest will fo­cus on the lack of ed­u­ca­tional choices for abo­rig­i­nal youth.

“Our two other sons are now in high school in We­be­quie,” Ja­cobs said in a state­ment.

“There is no science lab, no me­chan­i­cal shop, no art and no mu­sic cour­ses avail­able. My one son is tak­ing only two cour­ses be­cause he has al­ready com­pleted all of the avail­able cour­ses for his grade.”

Yet af­ter Jor­dan’s death, Ja­cobs said, she can’t bring her­self to let her eldest sur­viv­ing son at­tend school in Thun­der Bay, 500 kilo­me­tres from the re­mote First Na­tion.

On­tario Re­gional Chief Isadore Day cred­ited the “tenac­ity” of the north­ern First Na­tions, who pushed the province for the in­quest. De­ter­mined lead­ers of the Nish­nawbe Aski Na­tion “re­fused to let go ques­tions that must be an­swered to why the num­bers of lost lives in that re­gion of On­tario are youth from north­ern First Na­tions com­mu­ni­ties.”

The in­quest was sup­posed to be­gin in 2012 but faced many de­lays, one caused by the lack of abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple on the in­quest jury.

This lack of First Na­tions par­tic­i­pa­tion in the jus­tice sys­tem — whether on trial or in­quest ju­ries — was the sub­ject of a ma­jor re­port by for­mer Supreme Court jus­tice Frank Ia­cobucci. It was also the sub­ject of a Supreme Court chal­lenge.

In­quests are in­tended to in­ves­ti­gate prob­lems and fig­ure out how to pre­vent fu­ture deaths. They can­not as­sign fault or blame.

The in­quest will be live-streamed on the Min­istry of Com­mu­nity Safety and Cor­rec­tional Ser­vices web­site.

Seven young peo­ple from re­mote First Na­tions com­mu­ni­ties died in Thun­der Bay be­tween 2000 and 2011.

Grand Chief Alvin Fid­dler says the lack of seat­ing in the main in­quest room for the fam­i­lies of the seven dead youths is “dis­gust­ing.”

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