Reporter's Notebook: A mother's grief laid bare at Thunder Bay inquest
First Nations student deaths inquest exposes deep wounds, need for healing
The sound of Stella Anderson's crying filled the tiny room where I was sitting next to her.
Her sobs rocked her body. As she put her head down, her tears dropped to the floor — so many there were wet splotches on the carpet.
I stopped my tape recorder, feeling uncomfortably guilty. I was asking about the death of her son, Jethro, back in 2000.
Jethro is one of seven students who died after leaving their homes in remote First Nations in northern Ontario to attend high school in Thunder Bay. Their deaths are the subject of one of the largest inquests in Ontario's history and the focus of my work for the past several months.
- IN DEPTH: First Nations student deaths inquest
- What a missing and murdered indigenous women inquiry could learn from an inquest in Thunder Bay, Ont.
- First Nations student deaths inquest adjourns until 2016
"I fell on the floor. It was so painful I thought I was going to die," Stella told inquest jurors on Nov. 3. "The pain was so great I truly thought I was going to die."
The last thing she heard clearly with her own ears was the news that her son's body had been found in the Kaministiquia River in Thunder Bay.
He had just turned 15 years old, far away from his home in Kasabonika Lake First Nation in northwestern Ontario. He had been missing in Thunder Bay, nearly 600 kilometres south of Kasabonika, for more than a week.
Stella Anderson testified at the inquest using a hearing aid and an Oji-Cree interpreter. She spoke to me afterwards in English so plain and clear each sentence was a gift of insight, wrapped tight in pent up emotion.
"It's like it happened yesterday, like I'm repeating looking for my son, expecting to see him," she said.
The stories of Paul Panacheese, Robyn Harper, Reggie Bushie, Curran Strang, Kyle Morriseau and Jordan Wabasse are equally heartbreaking.
Few can afford to move to the city with their children, so the students live in boarding homes among strangers who know little about them, their families or their culture.
The bodies of five of the boys were found in rivers flowing through Thunder Bay. There has been little evidence to suggest how any of them got in the water. Kyle Morriseau's body was pulled from the McIntyre River in 2009.
Morriseau drew a line from residential schools to his son's death to the epidemic of missing and murdered indigenous women, saying he believes Kyle died as a "spiritual sacrifice" so others could see those connections.
Surely unresolved grief is a thread weaving through the residential school legacy to this inquest to the anticipated national public inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women.
It's a deep wound unimaginable to many Canadians, a pain so unbearable many of us may be tempted to reach for a quick fix.
Certainly, the many days at the inquest have left me antsy, impatient, starving for a solution.
Will someone produce a step-by-step guide to keeping First Nations students safe in the city?
Can someone give us a template for how to keep indigenous women and girls safe, wherever they live?
Will an expert show up soon and tell us what is needed to make all the pain stop?
When my impatience reaches its peak, I lean on the wisdom I received in that cramped room with Stella Anderson. Her sister Saloma Anderson was there, too.
When Stella began to cry, not quietly as she had done for several days in the courtroom, but wailing, like a siren, my first instinct was to dig in my bag for a tissue. It distracted me from overwhelming sadness and made me feel useful. The solution for tears is a tissue, right?
Saloma stopped me, with advice she said came from the elders.
"If you give her that, it sends the message to stop," Saloma said. "Then she will hold everything inside."
So I sat still and accepted the sound a mother makes after hearing the details of her child's death for the first time in 15 years.
It was the raw sound of mourning amplified by more than a decade of wondering how and why it happened.
It is a pain that Canadians may need to become more open to hearing for there to be any hope of healing.