'More than a tragedy' Ontario child advocate says of youth who die when taken into care
Irwin Elman says he still wants inquests for every child who dies while in care of child welfare
The review to explore the deaths of 11 young people in Ontario who died while in the care of child welfare agencies must, at its core, focus on the children's stories, according to the province's advocate for children and youth.
Ontario's chief coroner, Dirk Huyer, confirmed that the months-long "expert review" will probe how the youth were cared for when they were placed in homes or facilities away from their communities, and issues that may have arisen.
"I think it's really important," Children and Youth Advocate Irwin Elman said of the review. "I'm not ready to say it's something that should happen instead of an inquest [but] I will support it." Huyer said the review does not preclude inquests from being called into any of the young people's deaths, something Elman also acknowledged.
Elman said he wants to make sure "the children, through this process, are honoured."
"That means their lives are explored with care, with honour and wonder about what we can do so that others don't face a similar fate."
Elman confirmed that he is not one of the seven members of the panel who will be charged with taking a closer look at how the young people — seven of whom are Indigenous and from the northwest part of the province — died, what systemic issues may have been present as well as coming up with recommendations. He said, however, that he will be involved in other ways.
"If families require advocacy support in this process, the coroner's asked us to be available to them," he said. "We would start by ensuring ... that families have, if they're going to be involved, have emotional support ... because this is an arduous process."
Elman added that his office will also help facilitate discussion and publicize any recommendations that come out of the review.
'More than a tragedy'
While Elman said he still wants to see an inquest called "every time a child dies in a residential care facility," he added that this process still has the potential to shed some light on an important issue.
"For me, when the state ... says to a child, 'you are coming with us for your own safety and protection,' that's a covenant we make with that child," he said. "When those children, who have had a promise made to them by the province die ... this is more than a tragedy."
One of the deaths being examined by the panel is that of Azraya Kokopenace, a 14-year-old from Grassy Narrows First Nation who was found dead in Kenora in 2016, two days after police dropped her off at the local hospital.
At the time, she was, by her own request, in the care of an agency in the city so she could receive counselling after the death of her brother Calvin in 2014 from mercury poisoning — a decades-old, and ongoing, heath crisis in Grassy Narrows.
Azraya's family has been calling for an inquest into her death; their lawyer told CBC News that hasn't changed in light of the coroner's decision to hold the panel review, but the family will cooperate with it. Elman said he echoes those sentiments.
"This process (the panel review) is a collective process, bringing young people who had died together, in some ways," Elman said. "For me, the process elevates their voice but when you do that, you can sometimes miss — and that would be my worry — the distinct voice of individual children."
"If her voice — and her family feels her voice — is not heard in the review's report, then I think another process is necessary to honour her," he continued. "An inquest, from my point of view, can do that."
The panel's report is expected to be complete in the spring or summer of 2018.
With files from Jody Porter