Massive inquest into student deaths opens in Thunder Bay

THUNDER BAY An inquest into the deaths of seven First Nations students living in boarding houses in Thunder Bay is under way in a Thunder Bay courthouse. Six of the seven young people were students of Dennis Franklin Cromarty School when they died. Bodies of five of the seven were found in the McIntyre River.

The inquest was told all seven, between the ages of 15 and 21, left their remote communities to attend school in Thunder Bay between 2000 and 2011. According to a CBC report none of these deaths were fully examined.

Initially written off as death by misadventure due to alcohol, the inquiry will look well beyond that into other contributing factors.

The inquest began in the new courthouse’s smallest room, which proved to be woefully inadequate for the hundreds of family members, First Nations supporters, and interested media.

Testimony in day two of the six month long inquest was heard in one of the largest court rooms in the city to accommodate the crush of people.

Forensic evidence was brought forward on day one with pathologist Dr. Toby Rose and toxicologist Ken Woodall taking the stand. Each of the cases were separate incidents but all linked to the same circumstances of separation anxiety, alcohol intoxication and depression.

It is hoped that deeper causes to this kind of situation can be found and steps made to at least slow down the epidemic of suicide and drug and alcohol related deaths of indigenous young people. Five inquest jurors, one men and four women, will hear the evidence.

The inquest hopes to find answers to five basic questions surrounding all seven deaths, including how students from remote communities become eligible for Thunder Bay schools; what are the policies, procedures, qualifications and training of boarding home parents and supervisors; how well do police, boarding parents, First Nations high schools and families respond to reports of missing students; what programs are available to prevent the deaths of First Nations students; and what obstacles and challenges were faced by the students both in their home communities and in Thunder Bay. The inquest will also include instances of discrimination and alcohol and substance abuse.

Phase one of the inquest includes evidence, which will likely last until a Christmas break, and will focus on the circumstances of each individual death.

Phase two will deal with evidence related to the government’s policies in context to the deaths.

Phase three will look at information regarding potential recommendations looking forward.

Alcohol was a contributing factor in some of the deaths, however, lawyers for the victims families contend that although being a factor, the real cause goes much, much deeper.

“Alcohol may be the canary in the coal mine, but not the cause’ of students’ deaths,’” said lawyer Julian Falconer “These youth actually died of neglect.”

During the first day of evidence, Woodall testified that the average concentration of alcohol considered fatal is 360 mg alcohol per 100 mL of blood. None of the students who died exceeded that level.

Alcohol was determined to be part of the cause of death in the drownings of Jethro Anderson, Reggie Bushie, Kyle Morrisseau and Curran Strang. It was not listed as a cause in the death of Jordan Wabasse.

Testimony so far revealed that homicide couldn’t be ruled out at this point.

“Our challenge is that the investigations in the early stages were so superficial that it is very difficult to get a narrative together that tells us anything – what we do know after Dr. Rose finished testifying we know that anything is possible – that she can’t rule out homicide – she can’t definitively say accident – we just don’t know,” said lawyer Julian Falconer.

The inquest is the largest in Ontario history and is expected to call 200 witnesses, continuing through to March 2016.

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