A jury has begun hearing the details surrounding the deaths of seven First Nations youth spanning an 11 year period. The youth came to Thunder Bay from their remote northern communities to continue their secondary education.
Dr. David Eden, the coroner who is presiding over the inquest, thanked the jury “for the commitment and personal sacrifices involved in your involvement in an inquest of this length and of this much importance to the community.”
The inquest will be a six-month, three-phase affair that promises to be disturbing and emotionally draining if the first two days are an indication of what is to come.
The jurors heard that all seven youth, six of whom were under the legal drinking age, had been consuming alcohol. Forensic pathologist Dr. Toby Rose†and forensic†toxicologist Karen Woodall testified that one death was directly attributed to “acute ethanol toxicity” while four others had alcohol as a contributing factor.
The two deaths ruled not alcohol-related were that of Paul Panachese, 21, who was found passed out on the floor in his home Nov. 12, 2006; and Jordan Wabasse, 15 years old, who was missing for three months before his body was found in the MacIntyre River in May 2011.
There was no known toxicological or anatomical cause for Panachese’s death. Rose said it was likely his death was due to a genetic heart condition and she suggested that his close family members be tested. In reference to Wabasse, Rose said she found “relatively low” concentration of alcohol in his blood and said he drowned.
The cause of Robyn Harper’s death in January 2007 was determined to be “acute ethanol toxicity.” She had a blood alcohol concentration of 338mg/100mL. Harper, 18, died two days after coming to Thunder Bay.
Rose and Woodall said that the alcohol level in the blood and urine were indications that alcohol was a contributing factor in the deaths of the other four youths: Curran Strang, 18, who died in 2005; : Reggie Bushie,15, who died in 2007; Jethro Anderson, 14, who died in 2008; and Kyle Morrisseau, 17, who died in 2009.
Christa Big Canoe, counsel for six of the families, said getting to the truth was important.
“And so it’s been a long wait. And the families’ priority and the mandate is to ensure one thing all families share (and that) is the prevention of future deaths of any youth coming from remote First Nations communities,” she said.
But making recommendations to prevent further deaths occurring in similar circumstances is “optional,” said Eden, as set out by the Coroner’s Act. He also said that the jury could make no legal findings.
Recommendations could be forthcoming in a number of areas, considering the breadth of testimony the jurors will hear. Areas of evidence include how students from remote areas become eligible for school in Thunder Bay; how boarding homes operate; how first responders and others respond to reports of missing children; programs that are available to prevent the deaths of First Nations children; and what obstacles and challenges faced the students who died, both in Thunder Bay and in their home communities.
Status to take part in the inquest has been granted to the Northern Nishnawbe Education Council, which operates the Dennis Franklin Cromarty high school, which six of the seven students attended; Nishnawbe Aski Nation, which comprises 49 communities, including the communities from which the students came; Ontario First Nations Young Peoples Council of the Chiefs of Ontario, which has youth representatives from all First Nations in the province; Attorney General of Canada and Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada; †the province of Ontario; the provincial advocate for children and youth; Thunder Bay police service board and Thunder Bay police service; and the City of Thunder Bay.
The inquest will be divided into three phases.
The first phase includes evidence about the seven deaths, which took place from 2000 to 2011. The jury will be tasked with determining the circumstances surrounding each death.
The second phase will provide broader evidence looking at policy and context, including operation of the schools and boarding home.
The third phase will provide information that will speak to potential recommendations.
“Like any institution hereÖ. (NAN) recognizes that it has to improve itself and it looks forward to the guidance it can receive from you as a jury in terms of how future deaths can be prevented,” said NAN counsel Julian Falconer.
The long awaited inquest got underway on Oct. 5, in less than favourable conditions as the smallest courtroom was employed. The inquest moved to the largest courtroom the following day.