THUNDER BAY – From 2000 to 2011, seven First Nations teenagers died under similar circumstances while attending highschool in Thunder Bay, a community home to hundreds of Native youth who bus and fly in from various remote communities in northern Ontario in order to get a highschool education.
The Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN) is a political territorial organization, comprising 49 First Nations in James Bay Treaty 9 and Ontario portions of Treaty 5. NAN has been pressuring the government to call a public inquiry to find out why and how so many of their youth died under similar and suspicious circumstances. NAN Deputy Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler who holds the Justice portfolio, has been supporting the families of the victims throughout this long ordeal. He states “we are now working closely with the families to prepare them for the inquest and to ensure that the necessary legal, cultural and other support services are in place before they begin what is sure to be a very emotional and painful ordeal.”
But last week, Ontario’s Chief Coroner, Dr. Dirk Huyer made a statement to the media stating he has made an ‘administrative decision’ to delay the inquest which was supposed to commence in 2012 but has seen nothing but delays and prolonged grief for the families involved.
The deaths paint a grim picture for Indigenous youth who leave their remote communities to get an education in Thunder Bay and who have very few social support systems once they get there. According to the police investigations, six of the seven deaths were drowning related. All seven youth were from various northern communities who all left behind their families and friends to get an education only to return to their home communities in caskets and with no answers for their grieving families. The dead youth are:
Jethro Anderson, 15, from Kasabonika Lake First Nation drowned in November 2000.
Curran Strang, 18, from Pikangikum First Nation drowned in Setpember 2005.
Paul Panacheese, 19, from Mishkeegogamang First Nation drowned in November 2006.
Robyn Harper, 18, from Keewaywin First Nation drowned in January of 2007.
Reggie Bush, 15, from Poplar Hill First Nation drowned in October of 2007.
Kyle Morriseau, 17, of Keewaywin First Nation drowned in November of 2009.
Morriseau was the grandson of famous Native artist Norval Morriseau.
Jordan Wabasse, 15, of Webequie First Nation drowned in May of 2011.
Six of the victims were found in the McIntyre River, which flows through the city of Thunder Bay.
A hearing occurred in June 2013 and the inquest itself was supposed to begin this fall. Even though the students allegedly died by drowning, families want to know if something, or someone, forced them into the water.
Cheryl Mahyr, Issues Manager at the Office of the Chief Coroner for Ontario, explained to Two Row Times that the actual inquest itself has not occurred yet. Mahyr stated that this is going to be a big inquest and that there are, “a lot of details yet to work out before an inquest can officially begin.”
The anticipated outcome of this inquest is to have the jury make recommendations aimed at preventing future deaths of students from remote northern communities who move to Thunder Bay to seek an education. According to the Chief Coroner, one of the biggest reasons the inquest is being delayed is due to the lack of First Nations representation among the jury.
Ontario’s Chief Coroner Dr. Dirk Huyer said in a statement, he recognized how distressing the delay is going to be for families. “It is a decision I did not make lightly,” said Dr. Huyer who went on to state that he felt he didn’t have a choice.
Huyer explained the two key reasons why he felt the inquest is not going to proceed this fall as expected. First, there is a lack of Indigenous representation on the jury roll. Second, due to the scope of the investigations of the seven student deaths’, the documentation for the inquest is not fully prepared. This means that all seven families will have to wait until next year for the inquest to begin.