A First Nations group in northern Ontario wants the province's chief coroner to call an inquest into the deaths of seven teenage aboriginal students while away from their remote reserves to get a secondary school education in Thunder Bay.
"I want to get answers to what happened to the seven youth that have perished over the last number of years," Deputy Grand Chief Terry Waboose of the Nishnabe Aski Nation (NAN) told CBC News in a telephone interview from Dryden on Wednesday.
Over an 11-year period, seven aboriginal teens died while pursuing high school diplomas in Thunder Bay. They suffered isolation and loneliness, and died under mysterious circumstances.
Six of the seven students had attended Dennis Franklin Cromarty School. In the most recent death, Jordan Wabasse, 15, from Webequie First Nation in 2011, the student attended the Matawa Learning Centre.
Last year, CBC's The Fifth Estate chronicled the deaths in a report that aired Nov. 4.
From CBCs The Fifth Estate's chronicle of the mysterious deaths:
- Jethro Anderson, whose body was recovered from the McIntyre River on Nov. 11, 2000. Jethro, 15, was from Kasabonika Lake First Nation.
- Curran Strang, 18, from Pikangikum First Nation, who went missing Sept. 22, 2005. His body was found in the McIntyre River on Sept. 26, 2005.
- Paul Panacheese, 17, from Mishkeegogamong First Nation, who died on Nov. 11, 2006, in Thunder Bay.
- Robyn Harper, 18, from Keewaywin First Nation. She died on Jan. 13, 2007.
- Reggie Bushie, 15, from Poplar Hill First Nation, who went missing Oct. 26, 2007. His body was recovered from the McIntyre River on Nov. 1, 2007.
- Kyle Morriseau, 17, of Keewaywin First Nation, who was reported missing Oct. 30, 2009. His body was recovered from the McIntyre River, on Nov. 10, 2009. He was the grandson of renowned native artist Norval Morrisseau. Kyle was also a promising artist.
- Jordan Wabasse, 15, from Webequie First Nation, who went missing on Feb. 7, 2011. His body was found May 12, 2011, in the Kaministiquia River.
Five of the teens apparently died in alcohol-related circumstances. Their bodies were pulled from local rivers amid swirling suspicions and rumours about what pushed them over the edge. Another two teens suffered troubling and unexpected deaths that have left lingering questions.
"I know it will be difficult, it will be painful," Waboose said, but added that the families of all of the young people support the application for a wider inquest made by letter this week to Ontario's chief coroner, Dr. Andrew McCallum.
"Our students are in a vulnerable situation,' Waboose said. "We're the only people in the country that have to send our kids out to school. I don't think it's much different from residential school."
Waboose expressed hope that an inquest would lead to recommendations for better support for native youth who leave remote communities to attend high school. NAN represents 49 First Nations across northern Ontario.
Families have unanswered questions
This week, NAN's lawyer, Julian Falconer, travelled across the north to consult with families who lost their loved ones. Falconer tells CBC News they all have unanswered questions and hope an inquest will help prevent future deaths.
One inquest was already underway into the death of Reggie Bushie, a 15-year-old from Poplar Hill First Nation who was found dead in the McIntyre River in 2007.
Since his death, however, there have been two more, prompting concerns about large systemic risks of aboriginal youth having to leave home in remote communities to attend school in Thunder Bay. The Bushie inquest was halted last year after the jury roll was ruled invalid because it did not include aboriginal representation.
Falconer says that issue is being addressed, and he hopes that if the chief coroner agrees to expand the inquest to include all seven deaths, a more representative jury roll will be in place by the time it is ready to begin.
The Bushie inquest resumed briefly on Wednesday morning, as lawyers for the family and NAN called on the regional coroner to halt proceedings and restart the investigation into all seven similar deaths.