Reporter's Notebook: A mother's grief laid bare at Thunder Bay inquest

An inquest into the deaths of seven First Nations students in Thunder Bay provides insight into what may be ahead during a national inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women and girls.

First Nations student deaths inquest exposes deep wounds, need for healing

The seven students who died in Thunder Bay between 2000 and 2011 are, from top left, Jethro Anderson, 15, Curran Strang, 18, Paul Panacheese, 17, Robyn Harper, 18, Reggie Bushie, 15, Kyle Morriseau, 17, and Jordan Wabasse, 15. (CBC)

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.

The inquest began in October 2015 and is expected to run until March 2016. Each family that testifies at the inquest provides a fresh lesson in loss and how it ravages relationships and personal lives.
Stella Anderson lost her ability to hear on the day her son was found dead.
Stella Anderson, right. says the First Nations student deaths inquest made it feel like her son Jethro's death in 2000 'just happened yesterday.' Her sister Saloma Anderson, left, also testified. (Jody Porter/CBC)

"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.

Little choice

Parents hoping for a brighter future for their children in remote First Nations in northern Ontario have told the inquest they had little choice but to send their children hundreds of kilometres away to the nearest high school.

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.

Christian Morriseau says from residential schools to modern day, education is still hurting First Nations people. His son Kyle Morriseau died in Thunder Bay in 2009. (CBC)
"Education is still hurting our people today as it did in the past," said his father Christian Morriseau, testifying at the inquest during the same week the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission into residential schools was released.

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?

Finding wisdom

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.