The part of the McIntyre River that flows past the movie theatre, Intercity mall and the big box stores in Thunder Bay, Ont., isn’t much of a river at all.

It’s part of a man-made floodway built in the 1970s to protect the city from high waters.

But in recent years, instead of saving lives, the McIntyre has been taking them.

In 2005, the body of a missing First Nations teen turned up in the part of the river where the murky water trickles past an industrial parking lot towards a Shoppers Drug Mart.

CURTIS STRANG CARD

The body of another boy was recovered in the same water in 2007. It happened again in 2009.

Few people in Thunder Bay noticed.

“You’re sending your kids out to get an education and they come back in a bodybag.”

In 2000 and 2011, two other Native teens drowned in the nearby Kamistiquia River, which, like the McIntyre, flows into Lake Superior.

Few people noticed their deaths, either.

“No one was believing me he was gone,” said Dora Morris, recalling how she tried telling Thunder Bay police in 2000 that her nephew Jethro Anderson was missing.

She said police told her “he’s just out there partying like any other Native kid.”

JETHRO ANDERSON CARD

Ranging in age from 15 to 18, the five boys who died were all from Ontario’s remote First Nations and had traveled to Thunder Bay to attend high school.

At the time of their deaths, Jethro Anderson, Curran Strang, Reggie Bushie, Kyle Morriseau and Jordan Wabasse had all been living in boarding homes, often with strangers, hundreds of kilometres away from their families.

“You’re sending your kids out to get an education and they come back in a bodybag,” says Joe Meekis, a former chief of Keewaywin First Nation, bluntly. “It hurts all the time.”

The question of whether the boys fell into the rivers or were pushed has rippled through First Nations communities for years.

“Why were they all Natives?” says Kyle Morriseau’s father, Christian. “My own thoughts were wild trying to come to terms with it.”

Christian Morriseau's son Kyle is one of seven First Nations teens to have died in Thunder Bay since 2000. (Ron Desmoulins/CBC)

At one point, Christian believed there was a serial killer in Thunder Bay.

“That’s a pretty harsh way to think about it,” he says. “I think I was just hurting myself thinking of it that way.”

In all, seven First Nations students died in Thunder Bay between 2000 and 2011; the other two deaths were unrelated to drowning.

Last fall, after years of pressure from parents and First Nations organizations and legal arguments over who should sit on the jury, Ontario finally convened a coroner’s inquest into the deaths.

Testimony started in October. One of the revelations was that all five of the drowning deaths remain unexplained. The police investigations are still open, but inactive.

JORDAN WABASSE CARD

While the inquest is scheduled to continue well into the spring, months of evidence from school officials, boarding home parents and police officers have already made it clear the inquest has come years too late to reveal new clues about what happened to these First Nations teens.

The years of anticipation leading up to the inquest left Christian doubtful he’ll ever get the full story about what happened to his son.

“I know I'm not going to get the answers I need for my healing,” Christian said during his testimony at the inquest.

But during his years of grieving, Christian came to a profound conclusion — a theory that explains Kyle’s death, and that it has meaning for future generations of indigenous youth.

“I realized my son did not die in vain,” Christian says now. “He made a spiritual sacrifice.”

Living Apart

The First Nations students who died in Thunder Bay were all from remote communities in northern Ontario. Few had any choice but to leave home to further their education.

“I didn't know what to expect from the city.”

It’s a matter of numbers and resources. Places such as Pikangikum, Mishkeegogamang, Kasabonika Lake, Poplar Hill, Webequie and Keewaywin are small and widely dispersed, with no roads connecting them to each other or to the towns and cities to the south.

Because there aren’t a lot of students, elementary school classes often comprise three different grade levels. Most of the communities don’t have enough teenagers to run a full high school curriculum or enough money to recruit educators who have the skills to teach several secondary subjects, to several grade levels, at once. There is no budget for shop classes, computer labs or even libraries.

So if First Nations kids in remote communities want a regular high school education, they need to travel hundreds of kilometres away from home and family to cities and towns such as Thunder Bay or Sioux Lookout.

“I didn’t know what to expect from the city. That was my first time out[side the reserve],” said Ricki Strang, whose brother Reggie Bushie died when they were both students in 2007.

REGGIE BUSHIE CARD

“We didn't want him to come to Thunder Bay,” Reggie’s mother, Mary Owen, testified at the inquest through an Ojibway interpreter, tears streaming down her face. "We didn't want to let him go."

Six of the seven students who died in Thunder Bay attended Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School, which is operated by an education authority representing 24 remote First Nations.

Each fall, school officials struggle to find enough accommodations for all the students coming to the city.

Most end up staying in boarding homes, sometimes with several other students, double-bunked in the spare rooms of families with their own children or retirees looking to fill an empty nest.

A 2011 guidebook for boarding home parents provides a list of suggestions for how to welcome new students. They include giving a tour of the residence, going over house rules and taking the time “to learn the correct pronunciation of your student’s name.”

“We didn't want him to come to Thunder Bay. We didn't want to let him go.”

The primary role of boarding parents is to report to support workers if a student misses the curfew set by the school.

The curfew is ostensibly meant to prevent kids from getting into too much trouble, but some people who have housed students say they have few tools to ensure the emotional well-being of their charges. In many cases, they receive little useful information about the teens other than their name, birth date and a name and phone number for their parents.

“I don’t know how to get [students] ready to come here,” said Barbara Malcolm, who over the years has been a boarding home parent to more than 50 kids.

“They don’t seem ready for the size [of the city] and all the people.”

In the midst of this overwhelming transition, many kids must contend with confusion, loneliness, racism, hostility, possibly even predators.

One of the kids Malcolm boarded was Kyle Morriseau, who came to Thunder Bay from Keewaywin First Nation, a tiny community located 600 kilometres to the north where the only year-round access is by air.

KYLE MORRISSEAU CARD

“I am a nice dude that likes to meet new people and would like to meet new friends,” Kyle wrote as part of a resumé-building exercise at Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School in the fall of 2009.

Under the skills section, he said, “Love 2 [sic] moose hunt, partridge hunting, fishing...meeting new chicks.”

Kyle’s teacher was amused by the teen’s attempt to turn the preoccupations of a northern Ontario boy into a job (or a date). But Kyle’s resumé makes no mention of the innate skill that had already been earning him money.

Kyle was a gifted artist. He began painting at age 12, and by 17, had created 40 works, selling several of them at an art show in Ottawa. Many of the brightly coloured pieces feature the wildlife Kyle knew from his hunting trips.

His father, Christian, is also a painter, and his grandfather is the late Norval Morrisseau (family members vary the spelling of their last name), dubbed “the Picasso of the North” by French journalists after a 1989 exhibition in Paris.

Norval, who died in 2007, is largely credited with inventing the colourful pictographic style known as the Woodlands school of art, and his paintings are part of the permanent collection at the National Gallery of Canada.

Norval’s most famous works are based on the Anishinaabe (Ojibwe) legends and beliefs of his own grandfather, a shaman.

Kyle Morriseau, right, was an accomplished artist who had created more than 40 paintings. (Courtesy Morrisseau family)

During the inquest, Christian explained the significance of passing on Norval’s artistic insights to his son.

“I told him, ‘If I’m going to teach you right, I’m going to teach you the way my father taught me,” Christian said.

“He knew that his future was going to be bright.”

 

But darkness descended after Kyle moved to Thunder Bay.

His mother, Lorene, told the inquest, “There were times when he felt lonely, he wanted to quit and come home.”

His parents encouraged him to stay.

“I told him, ‘Don’t drink. You’re there for an education,’” Lorene said.

On Oct. 26, 2009, Kyle called home, asking to speak to his dad, but Christian was out hunting. Lorene thought Kyle sounded intoxicated. She told her son she loved him and that it was important that he go to school the next day.

It was the last conversation they’d ever have.

That night, one of Kyle’s classmates watched him leave their boarding home, alone, and disappear into the night.

His body was found in the McIntyre River two weeks later.

He was last seen drinking near the riverbank with a man. After Kyle’s disappearance, school officials spoke to some of his friends and were thereby able to identify the man. They went to speak to him and told police they thought he may have harmed the boy.

The red dot on this map, which was submitted to the Thunder Bay inquest, shows where Kyle Morriseau's body was found in 2009. (Courtesy First Nations Youth Inquest)

But police didn’t interview him until the day after Kyle’s body was found.

Insp. Don Lewis of the Thunder Bay police testified at the inquest that in the two-week period between Kyle’s disappearance and the discovery of his body, “it was mostly believed by officers that Kyle was alive and well and didn’t want to be found.”

After finally interviewing the man in question, police never spoke to him again. They have never explained why, but Insp. Lewis said police would need fresh evidence in order to resume the work they set aside on the investigation more than six years ago.

Insp. Lewis’s testimony in Kyle’s case exemplifies how fruitless the police investigations into the river deaths have been.

“We’ve heard a lot of evidence and I think we all agree that no one knows how Kyle got in the river,” said Karen Shea, one of the lawyers for the coroner at the inquest.

The last moments of Kyle Morriseau’s life may forever be a mystery.

It's impossible to know what he was thinking, but other students from Keewaywin shed light on the loneliness and confusion that make First Nations students so vulnerable in the city.

‘Lonely for the land’

“Growing up here was really good. It was everything I know,” says 25-year-old Skye Kakegamic, gazing out upon Keewaywin one day this past January, snowflakes sparkling in her black hair.

Her roots here are deep.

“It started with my grandfather. He started this whole Keewaywin,” she says, gesturing at the 50-odd houses, administration office, church and store that make up this community on the south shore of Sandy Lake.

At age 15, Skye Kakegamic left Keewaywin First Nation to attend high school in Thunder Bay. She now works as an educational assistant in Keewaywin. (Ron Desmoulins/CBC)

The signing of the Treaty 5 adhesion in 1910 established the Sandy Lake reserve across the water. But some families felt left out of community life there.

Two brothers decided to return to their traditional lands, where they used to set up their trap line to catch fur-bearing animals. Skye’s grandfather was one of them.

They named this new place Keewaywin, which means “going home” in Oji-Cree, the language spoken here.

“They wanted that feeling of just being home,” says Joe Meekis, a former Keewaywin chief who is now a band councillor, recounting the local lore. “They were lonely for the land.”

It’s a feeling Skye knows well. She believes her friend Kyle Morriseau felt it, too.

“To go to school in Thunder Bay with no parents, no guidance – it was really different,” she recalls.

Skye was 15 when she flew out to Thunder Bay to go to high school.

One of her keenest memories is going days in the city without eating because the store-bought food served at her boarding home seemed so foreign to her.

“I’m used to eating berries and moose meat and bannock and duck and fish,” she says, her enthusiasm growing at the mention of each tasty dish.

“Fish is my favourite. We never had that [at the boarding home in Thunder Bay].”

In recent years, the First Nations school has started providing meals after many students complained they were going hungry because the fridges and cupboards in their boarding homes had locks on them.

Indeed, food took on a different meaning for Skye in the city – especially when it was regularly hurled at her, along with racist taunts, from passing cars.

“They’d say stuff like, ‘Go back home, dirty Indian.’”

She recalls bags of half-eaten McDonald’s burgers, full take-out cups of pop and cruel words flying at her as she waited for a bus or walked home from school.

“They’d say stuff like, ‘Go back home, dirty Indian,’ and I would have my long hair all sticky from the pop,” she says.

Skye says that nothing, not even the long shadow cast by residential schools, prepared her for what she encountered as a teenager alone in the city.

“Growing up on the reserve, I didn’t think those situations were real. I thought they only happened on TV, on the other side of the world,” she says.

Audio: Skye Kakegamic on being harassed in Thunder Bay

 

“We thought Thunder Bay would be safe,” says Meekis. “But the fact that we have our own high school [there] sort of put a target on our backs.”

Various First Nations organizations provide workers who drive around the city streets at night looking for First Nations teens in distress. The trouble usually comes in two forms: alcohol and violence, often racially motivated.

One van driver told the inquest he was knocked out when he intervened in a fight between First Nations students and locals.

“I think they were a gang, the white kids,” said Harley Fox.

He also expressed concern that First Nations students are treated “roughly” when they interact with Thunder Bay police. Skye vividly remembers the night a police officer slammed her head into the trunk of a squad car and took her into custody for public intoxication.

She was 15 at the time.

Mae Katt, a nurse at the First Nations high school, believes the kids are “devalued” in a city “where no one really knows who they are.”

Cultural differences can also be difficult to overcome.

“You can’t read these kids,” says Barbara Malcolm, who has had dozens of indigenous students live in her home. “They keep everything to themselves and they’re very quiet.”

Katt says when students are misunderstood and lonely, they "feel pretty low [and] their reaction is poor decision-making.

"They soothe their feelings through drugs and alcohol."

Seeking refuge

Skye Kakegamic saw alcohol kill her friend Robyn Harper, who also came from Keewaywin.

Robyn was a shy, quiet 18-year-old who "just wanted to stay home with her dad," her mother, Tina, told the inquest.

ROBYN HARPER CARD

During her first week in Thunder Bay in 2007, Robyn phoned her mom every night, saying she was lonely and asking to be allowed to come home.

On the Friday night of that week, she didn’t call. She’d found her own cure for homesickness.

“The easiest thing to do is to drink a little to boost up your confidence,” Skye says. “That’s what happened to Robyn.”

Skye admits that she herself “made friends like that, too, and [so did] everyone around me. I guess we were just taking the easy way. We didn’t know any other way. We were just kids.”

Keewaywin, like all the remote First Nations in northern Ontario, is a dry community, and once they’re free from community and parental controls in the city, many students gravitate to alcohol.

They’re technically not of drinking age, but in Thunder Bay, as in most cities, there are enterprising adults — runners — willing to buy it for them, for a fee.

“The easiest thing to do is to drink a little to boost up your confidence.”

Runners may stand outside the liquor store or meet kids at the mall.

Skye told the inquest that on Friday, Jan. 12, 2007, Robyn had asked her for help figuring out which bus to take to get home after school. During their conversation, they hatched a plan to meet up later at the mall.

That’s where several students from the First Nations high school pitched in money and found a runner to buy them vodka, beer and coolers.

That was at 8:30 p.m. Skye testified that with their boarding home curfew looming in two hours, the group went to a park, hiding their tracks in the snow so they wouldn’t be found by the school vans on the lookout for wayward students.

Once the alcohol was finished, the other students departed, leaving Robyn and Skye. Robyn, who appeared to be an inexperienced drinker, was very drunk, Skye testified.

“I tried putting her on my back to carry her,” Skye said. “I couldn't carry her, though. And then I was dragging her by her feet.”

This 2007 footage from the bus terminal in Thunder Bay shows Robyn Harper, seated, on the night she died. (Courtesy First Nations Youth Inquest)

Skye struggled to drag Robyn several blocks through the dark and snow to the bus stop. No one stopped to help.

Surveillance video from the bus station shows Robyn falling off a bench several times and hitting her head on the floor. A security guard comes to speak to the girls and then walks away.

Eventually, the video shows support workers from the school putting Robyn into their van. Harley Fox told the inquest that once they got her home, Robyn “wanted to lie down in the hallway.” The boarding home parent suggested Robyn be laid on her side and allowed “to rest a bit.”

That’s where the teenager was found dead the next morning.

The official cause is acute ethanol intoxication, more commonly known as alcohol poisoning.

Knowing the specific cause of Harper’s death doesn't make it easier to explain or accept, says Joe Meekis.

“Why did we have to send her out?” he asks, tears pooling in his eyes.

“We tried so many different ways to get our kids educated, but we always come back to the same thing: We have no choice but to send them away.”

Blaming the victims?

During the inquest, the coroner made a startling analogy: the death of two children out of Keewaywin’s population of 300 people would be the per-capita equivalent to the loss of 700 children from Thunder Bay.

“If these were white children dying, what would be the response?” asks Sherene Razack, a University of Toronto professor who studies inquests and inquiries into the deaths of indigenous peoples.

PAUL PANACHEESE CARD

“That really crude, very difficult race question is one we have to get on the table,” Razack says. “You have to think about what already exists in Thunder Bay. And what if what exists is a deeply racially hostile environment?”

Razack says inquests like this too often focus on alcohol use and the perceived vulnerability of indigenous peoples, and have a tendency to “blame the victim for their own demise.”

That attitude makes it too easy for the state to avoid its responsibilities, she says, pointing out that First Nations education in Ontario “is massively underfunded.”

“If these were white children dying, what would be the response?”

The federal government is responsible for the education of children whose primary residence is on a reserve. But according to testimony at the inquest, the amount the government pays the First Nations school in Thunder Bay is thousands of dollars less than the per-pupil rate at provincially run schools.

Another challenge is that federal funding for student support services such as after-school activities and mental health counseling is based on a decades-old formula and not on student needs.

The 2016 federal budget includes increased funding for First Nations education, although it's not clear how that would impact the high school in Thunder Bay, as the $2.6-billion over the next five years is specifically targeted for primary and secondary schooling on reserves.

At the inquest, Jonathan Allen, the official in charge of the education policy for the Ministry of Indigenous and Northern Affairs, disagreed with the premise that First Nations are inherently vulnerable in the city.

In light of systemic challenges, school officials in Thunder Bay try to save lives by teaching students about the dangers in the city.

Teachers at Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School begin every year with a ceremony on the McIntyre River that memorializes the First Nations kids who died. (Jody Porter/CBC)

Every school year at Dennis Franklin Cromarty now begins with a ceremony on the banks of the McIntyre River, where the students remember the kids who died by placing flowers and tobacco — a traditional Anishinaabe medicine — in the water.

The gathering is an implicit warning to the new students about the hazards of alcohol use.

Since Skye Kakegamic was a student some changes have been made. The First Nations high school, First Nations organizations and the regional multicultural youth council have been offering more after-school programs.

In the evenings, older students conduct a “foot patrol” along the rivers looking for teens who may be in trouble.

The city is planning a video series to welcome students to Thunder Bay, as well as a special phone line for reporting and tracking racist incidents.

A complaint filed with Ontario's civilian police oversight agency in March asked for a complete review of the way Thunder Bay police investigate the deaths of indigenous people, particularly when it comes to bodies found in the McIntyre River.

Thunder Bay police say they’re waiting for recommendations from the inquest to consider what, if any changes, they might make in their interactions with First Nations students and school officials.

Brian Gover, the lawyer for the Thunder Bay police service, says officers are interested in identifying at-risk indigenous youth.

“That’s something that we need to take away from the inquest and learn as much as we can about it.”

Lessons from the legends

A month after testifying at the inquest, Christian Morriseau took me to see the graves of his father and son, which lie side by side in Keewaywin’s cemetery near the lake.

The 46-year-old was breathless from the trek up the unplowed road to the cemetery, shivering in his running shoes and a jacket too light for the January day.

Even so, he was smiling.

“A lot of people might think it’s hard [to lose your father and son], but I don’t feel that way when I come here. I feel good. I feel at peace knowing they were both in my life and they moved on.”

Christian Morriseau stands at the graves of his son, Kyle, and his father, Norval, in the cemetery in Keewaywin First Nation. (Ron Desmoulins/CBC)

Seven white, sun-bleached feathers hang from the wooden frame surrounding Kyle’s grave — one for each of the students who died in Thunder Bay. They’re positioned upside down, Christian says, to represent the inversion of the spirit world.

Seven is an important number in the traditions of the Anishinaabe (Ojibwe) people. There are seven grandfather teachings that guide people in pursuit of a good life.

After his son’s death, Christian said he went back to Anishinaabe legend to “heal” himself and to explain the mystery of how Kyle died.

Audio: Christian Morriseau on how Anishinaabe legend explains his son's death

 

“There was a legend that there was a water spirit here and he would come up from Lake Superior,” Christian says. “He would come up and drag these young people, men and women, into the river and take them.”

The spirit’s name is Mishipeshu. He has a tail like an alligator, a body like a fish and a head like a lynx.

“Education is still hurting our people today as it did in the past.”

Christian found himself thinking not only of Mishipeshu but of another Lake Superior legend: Nanabijou, the Sleeping Giant, the reclining figure that forms the Sibley Peninsula, visible from Thunder Bay.

Christian says that before Nanabijou laid down to sleep, the giant explained that one day seven generations later, after much hardship, his spirit and his people would rise again.

“After I brought my son home and buried him, I began to think about it: Why was it my son?” Christian says. It’s then that he made a connection with the prophecy of the seventh generation.

Kyle’s generation.

“That’s when I really started to really clench onto it, believe in it, to find some comfort in it.”

Christian remembers telling Kyle about the prophecy before he died.

"Kyle said to me, ‘I want to do something, I want my life to have meaning,’” Christian says. “I looked at him and said, 'Then you keep painting.'

Gazing at “Spiritual Bird,” one of Kyle’s paintings that he retrieved from a neighbour’s house, Christian says he believes that now that he is dead, Kyle is able to experience nature and art in a way that we, the living, cannot.

“It’s different for my father and son because they’re back in the spiritual world, where the images come from,” he says.

They get to see a spiritual creature such as the bird Kyle drew “alive and living. They get to see the motion of it, they get to continue looking at it as it moves on.”

This painting was a collaboration between Christian and Kyle Morriseau. (Ron Desmoulins/CBC)

Christian’s smile disappears, and the shadows draw an older man’s face — a vision of his father, the shaman.

“I know today, by what happened to him, that Kyle fulfilled his dream of wanting to do something meaningful,” Christian says. “I’m proud of my son.”

Christian doesn’t believe that Kyle deliberately went into the water.

“My heart really believes he was put in that river.”

Even if the actual facts and details of how Kyle got there are eventually discovered, they will not replace what his father believes to be the truth.

The truth is in the legend.

Kyle allowed his life to be taken, Christian says, so that people would come to understand the struggles all First Nations students face, and make the changes necessary to keep them safe.

Christian hopes the public hearings in Thunder Bay will help people to see the deaths as part of a bigger picture.

“Education is still hurting our people today as it did in the past,” he said during the inquest, referring to the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission into Canada’s residential school policy, which was released on the same day he testified.

No matter how fraught, the inquest is a big part of raising that awareness, Christian says. And its results have the potential to raise the people up.

Just like Nanabijou said.

On the horizon

While Christian Morriseau finds comfort in legends and the belief in the potential of the inquest to effect change, the community of Keewaywin, like all other First Nations in northern Ontario, still has to ship its young off to get a secondary-school education.

The mountain formation on the Sibley Peninsula, visible from Thunder Bay, is also known as the Sleeping Giant - a reference to the Anishinaabe legend Nanabijou. (Getty Images)

According to Joe Meekis, 27 youngsters — nearly a tenth of Keewaywin’s population — left the community after the Christmas break to attend high school.

Every time students leave, Keewaywin elders come to the community’s airport to send the kids off with a ritual that includes prayers for their safety.

“It’s heartbreaking to ask the elders to come and bless the kids at the airport and then see them go,” Meekis says.

“Do we hold them [all] back? We cannot do that, because they need the education in order to get ahead.”

Skye Kakegamic worries, too. As an educational assistant in Keewaywin, she has been in a position to watch students grow from toddlers to teens.

“The kids I saw in Grade 1 and 2 went out to high school last year,” she says with a shudder. “Did that ever make me nervous for them.”

“It’s heartbreaking to ask the elders to come and bless the kids at the airport and then see them go.”

Given the dangers of sending their children out into the big world, the community is working on a plan to provide Grade 9 classes in its elementary school.

There are also plans, but as yet no funding, for a residence beside the First Nations school in Thunder Bay so younger students can be more closely supervised.

But there’s no sign that any of that will come to pass before September, when Kyle Morriseau’s 15-year-old brother, Bret, will have to decide whether he will follow in his sibling’s footsteps and leave home for high school.

“No matter how much it hurts me after what happened to Kyle, it’s going to be Bret’s choice if he wants to go out or not,” says Christian. “I want to give him the freedom to make the decision on his own, like I did for Kyle.”

When I visited Keewaywin in January, I caught a glimpse of Bret in the school gym. He gave me a friendly smile and said hello, but not much else. He was wrapped up in an after-school floor hockey game, scoring goals with an air of confidence that wasn’t there the first time we’d met.

Weeks earlier at the Thunder Bay inquest, he sat quietly with his father listening to testimony about Kyle’s death.

“When I was growing up, I barely knew him. I was too young,” Bret said afterwards when I asked him about about his brother. Bret was only eight when Kyle died.

“And what are you going to do about school?” I asked Bret.

“About school?” he repeated after a long pause, looking at the floor. Tears quickly started to flow.

“What are your thoughts about being the next one to come out to high school?” his father said, stepping in, attempting to help the conversation along.

Bret’s answer was a single word:

“Scary.”

Editing: Andre Mayer | Design and Development: Richard Grasley, Michael Leschart, CBC News Interactives