Thunder Bay

First Nations student deaths inquest: 7 youths died in 10 years

Inquest, which begins Monday, will be one of the largest in Ontario's history

CBC News

January 20, 2016

The seven students who have died in Thunder Bay since 2000 are, from top left, Jethro Anderson, 15, Curran Strang, 18, Paul Panacheese, 17, Robyn Harper, 18, Reggie Bushie, 15, Kyle Morriseau, 17, and Jordan Wabasse, 15. (CBC)

A joint inquest into the deaths of seven First Nations students begins Oct. 5 in Thunder Bay, Ont.

All of the students died between 2000 and 2011 while attending high school in the city, hundreds of kilometres away from their remote First Nations where access to education is limited.

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Three of them were just 15 years old when their bodies were pulled from a local river. Two other teens are suspected of drowning while two more may have overdosed. The inquest is expected to fully examine the circumstances of their deaths and make recommendations to prevent others. 

The inquest is expected to hear from about 200 witnesses and is scheduled to run until March 2016.

Here's what we know about the youths whose deaths prompted one of the largest inquests in Ontario's history:

Jethro Anderson, Kasabonika Lake First Nation

Jethro Anderson of Kasabonika Lake First Nation died in 2000 while attending high school in Thunder Bay. He was 15. (CBC)

"Everyone should know that Jethro was a kind, soft-spoken kid who respected his parents," Jethro's mother Stella Anderson said in a prepared statement. "He never spoke back to us." 

"The kindness and respect he showed me is what helps me when I remember my son," she added.

Jethro was a student at Dennis Franklin Cromarty First Nations High School in Thunder Bay when he went missing in 2000. His body was found in the Kaministiquia River. He was 15.

Curran Strang, Pikangikum First Nation

Curran Strang, 18, Pikangikum First Nation. Died in 2005 (CBC)

Curran was a student at Dennis Franklin Cromarty First Nations High School when he went missing in 2005. His body was found in the McIntyre River.

He was 18.

His family is the only family without legal representation at the inquest.

Paul Panacheese, Mishkeegogamang First Nation

Paul Panacheese, from Mishkeegogamang First Nation died in 2006 while attending school in Thunder Bay. He was 21. (CBC)

Paul was 21 years old and a student at Dennis Franklin Cromarty First Nations High School when he died in 2006. Some reports have said that he died of an overdose but the cause is still uncertain.

"We don't know exactly how Paul died but it has been almost nine years and we are still waiting for some answers," his mother Maryanne Panacheese said in a prepared statement. "It is our hope that the inquest will help us to understand more."

She said Paul wanted better access to education for all First Nations students. 

Robyn Harper, Keewaywin First Nation

Robin Harper, 18, Keewaywin First Nation. Died in 2007 (CBC)

Robyn was 18 years old when she died in 2007, just days after starting classes at Dennis Franklin Cromarty First Nations High School.

She is alleged to have died of an overdose, but some people who knew her, question that.

Reggie Bushie, Poplar Hill First Nation

Reggie Bushie, 15, Poplar Hill First Nation. Died in 2007. (CBC)

Reggie was 15 years old when he went missing in 2007. He was a student at Dennis Franklin Cromarty First Nations High School.

His body was found in the McIntyre River.

His death prompted the call for an inquest.

Kyle Morriseau, Keewaywin First Nation

Kyle Morriseau, 17, Keewawaywin First Nation. Died in 2009 (CBC)

Kyle was the second student from Keewaywin to die while at school in Thunder Bay. He was 17 years old when he went missing in 2009.

His body was found in the McIntyre River.

Jordan Wabasse, Webequie First Nation

Jordan Wabasse from Webequie First Nation died while attending school in Thunder Bay. He was 15. (CBC)

Jordan was 15 years old when he moved to Thunder Bay with "dreams of playing serious hockey in a bigger league than he could from Webequie First Nation," said his mother Bernice Jacobs.

He was a student at the Matawa Learning Centre.

He went missing on Feb 7, 2011. His body was found in the Kaministiquia River three months later.

'System continues to fail these families'

The joint inquest was first called in 2012, but delays were caused by a problem with Ontario's jury system that did not have a standard way of ensuring that First Nations people who live on reserve are called for jury duty.

That problem has been fixed temporarily by allowing First Nations people to volunteer as inquest jurors.

The inquest is scheduled to begin at 9:30 a.m. ET on Monday at the Thunder Bay courthouse.

Late Friday afternoon, the Grand Chief of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation said he is concerned about the courtroom selected for the inquest, which is small and has room for only 10 observers.

"You know we have lots of room for First Nations peoples in jails," Alvin Fidder said, alluding to the over-representation of indigenous people in Canada's prisons. "But when it comes to access to the courtroom, there's no room at all."

The coroner's office said another room will be made available in the courthouse for observers to watch the proceedings on a television screen. The inquest will also be streamed live online for those who cannot attend.

"I think it is unacceptable for families that have waited for a long time for this inquiry to go and sit somewhere else while this hearing is taking place," Fiddler said. "I think it just reinforces for me just how this system continues to fail these families."

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