Explaining The Inquest Into The Deaths Of Seven First Nations Students In Thunder Bay

January 5, 2016

On October 5, 2015, the long-awaited Inquest into the deaths of seven First Nation students, who died while attending high school in Thunder Bay, Ontario, between 2000 and 2011, commenced pursuant to the Coroners Act. Weilers represented the Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth (now part of the Ontario Ombudsman) throughout the six month review of the young students’ deaths.

The five person jury empanelled pursuant to the Coroners Act is required to answer five statutory questions in regard to the death of each student: who, where, when, how (medical cause of death) and means (unknown, natural causes, accident, suicide or homicide) of death. Additionally, the jury may issue recommendations for prevention of death in similar circumstances in the future. Given seven deaths of young people occurred within the city of Thunder Bay, in the shared systemic circumstances of the students having to leave their families, homes and communities to attend high school hundreds of kilometres from home, preventative recommendations are expected.

At this time, the Inquest has heard the evidence in regard to the deaths of Paul Panacheese, Robyn Harper, Jethro Anderson, Curran Strang, Reggie Bushie and Kyle Morriseau. On January 11, 2016, the Inquest continues with the evidence in regard to the death of Jordan Wabasse. This evidence will bring Phase I of the joint Inquest to an end. Phase II will commence in February 2016 with the examination of institutional and systemic evidence from various government, self-government and other participants in the delivery of education and support services to the “subject students”, defined by the presiding Coroner, Dr. David Eden, as “a youth from a remote First Nation who is enrolled in high school”. This systemic review will be followed in March 2016 by Phase III of the Inquest – the proposal of preventative recommendations by the parties with standing at the Inquest, closing arguments of counsel, and the presiding Coroner’s charge to the jury.

It is expected that the jury will then retire in April 2016 for deliberations on all of the evidence submitted, followed by its release of its answers to the five statutory questions per youth death and its preventative recommendations in regard to “subject students” who continue to leave their families, homes and communities in an effort to obtain a secondary education.