October 6, 2016
The Inquest into the deaths of Jethro Anderson, Curran Strang, Paul Panacheese, Robyn Harper, Reggie Bushie, Kyle Morriseau and Jordan Wabasse, seven (7) First Nation youth who died while attending high school in the City of Thunder Bay, concluded on June 28, 2016. These young people were forced to leave their families, homes, communities and cultures to obtain a high school education in a far away and unknown City. Most First Nation students in Northwestern Ontario are forced to do the same – to live with strangers far away from home, without family or financial support. The students must navigate City life and public transit for the first time, often face language barriers and culture shock, have no funded after-school academic or recreation supports, and often encounter brutal racism for the first time in their lives.
The jury found the means of death of Jethro Anderson, Paul Panacheese, Kyle Morriseau and Jordan Wabasse remain undetermined, despite intoxication, but failed to recommend ongoing, active investigations upon new evidence and theories surfacing during the Inquest. It is difficult to see how these inconclusive findings can satisfy the families or lead to prevention of future deaths in similar circumstances. The deaths of Curran Strang, Robyn Harper and Reggie Bushie were found to be accidental, although there was no evidence as to how Curran Strang and Reggie Bushie ended up in the river where they drowned, while intoxicated. Robyn Harper died of acute alcohol poisoning in her boarding home, when left unsupervised by a responsible adult. All parties to the Inquest and the jury agreed that there was no evidence of suicide in any of the deaths.
Upon these findings, the jury exercised its right to issue one hundred forty-five (145) recommendations for the prevention of future deaths in similar circumstances. The first notable recommendation calls upon Canada and Ontario to cease using the terms on-reserve and off-reserve in their respective First Nation education funding policies, to deny or delay access to education and related supports. The jury accepted that Canada and Ontario are each constitutionally capable of funding education and related supports for First Nation students wherever they reside. They further recommended that no First Nation student should be denied access to a provincial or First Nation high school for lack of space or supported living arrangements, an ongoing problem well-supported by the evidence. In reaching these recommendations, the jury rightfully recognized the connection between access to supported secondary education and student safety.
The jury then made its most courageous recommendation that each First Nation have full education facilities at home so young people can have the support of their families and communities at this vulnerable time in their development. While this recommendation received extensive negative commentary in mainstream media for being unrealistic, it is clearly supported in law, as found in the Treaties between Northwestern Ontario First Nations and the Crown, as well as the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and international, federal and provincial human rights law.
The further jury recommendations include process steps to achieve these goals as well as specific recommendations for supported living away from home, on and off reserve education, housing, and health services, cultural supports, family connectivity, and revised City of Thunder Bay, police and Coroner service protocols and training. While the recommendations are seemingly robust, many depend upon large consultation groups, while providing no funding for under-staffed indigenous political and education bodies to participate in same, while they strive to maintain currently available services. They also fail to recognize the need to empower families in education and related supports decision-making, in face of a strong residential school legacy. Finally, the jury recommended that those receiving their recommendations prepare ongoing annual reports, indicating whether the recommendations have been accepted, implemented or rejected, as well as detailed plans for ongoing implementation. The reports are to be published in a central, accessible location and provided to anyone who requests a copy from the Office of the Chief Coroner.
Review the verdicts, recommendations and reports, at their website.