'Horrified' First Nation chief asks for change in venue for inquest

Two First Nations leaders in northern Ontario want an inquest into the death of a First Nations man, scheduled for Sioux Lookout, Ont., to be held instead in the community where the man died.

Cat Lake First Nation Chief wants inquest into Romeo Wesley's death to be held in Cat Lake

Russell Wesley, chief of Cat Lake First Nation, says he was "appalled, horrified and angered at the disrespect" shown to families whose children are the subject of the First Nations student deaths inquest in Thunder Bay. (Jody Porter/CBC)

Two First Nations leaders in northern Ontario want an inquest into the death of a First Nations man, scheduled for Sioux Lookout, Ont. to be moved instead to the community where the man died. 

Romeo Wesley died in 2010, while in police custody, at the nursing station in Cat Lake First Nation. He is a member of Mishkeegogamang First Nation. Chiefs of both communities are pushing for the inquest to be held in Cat Lake.

The motion for a change in venue for the inquest comes after Cat Lake Chief Russell Wesley said he was "appalled, horrified and angered at the disrespect shown" to families of seven students whose deaths in Thunder Bay are the subject of an inquest that started last week.

Wesley said he was in Thunder Bay for the  first day of the student deaths inquest that saw lawyers scrambling to squeeze enough chairs into a tiny courtroom which was too small to seat the family members of all seven students.

"The traditions of aboriginal people are the same as Euro-Canadian legal principles in recognizing that investigation and inquiry, judgement or punishment, out of sight of those involved does not serve the communities' interest," Chief Wesley said in an affidavit that is part of a motion for the change of venue.

The legal documents were filed on October 7, just two days after the start of the inquest in Thunder Bay.

'Reconciliation, healing and wellness'

Mishkeegogamang Chief Connie Gray-McKay says holding the inquest into Romeo Wesley's death in Cat Lake would help bring healing to the community. (Martine Laberge/Radio-Canada)
Mishkeegogamang Chief Connie Gray-McKay said she supports the bid to move the inquest to Cat Lake.

"I believe the most important reason relates to reconciliation, healing and wellness," she said. "The trauma he [Romeo Wesley] faced, many people were affected by it.

"A voice needs to be given to the people to create healing and the ability to move on," Gray-McKay added.

Cat Lake is a fly-in First Nation, about 180 kilometres north of Sioux Lookout.

The lawyer representing Cat Lake at the inquest said First Nations people will be less likely to attend if the proceedings are held outside the community.

"If you have to fly out to attend, it probably means you won't attend, travelling in the north is extremely expensive," Francis Thatcher said.

Thatcher said the new school in Cat Lake could host the inquest proceedings; a secure Ontario government building could be used by the coroner and his staff and there is overnight accommodations and catering services for up to 25 people in the community.

"It would also be good for the jury and various professionals participating in the inquest to actually see the services available and the isolation," Gray-Mckay said. "I don't think people actually realize how difficult it is to live in the north."

The inquest into Romeo Wesley's death is scheduled to begin on February 1, 2016. Thatcher said the change in venue would not interfere with that timing.