Monday March 21, 2016

Thunder Bay inquest examines death of 7 First Nation high school students

Maryanne Panacheese, Mishkeegogamang member and mother of Paul Panacheese (in photo) who died in Thunder Bay, while attending Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School in 2006.

Maryanne Panacheese, Mishkeegogamang member and mother of Paul Panacheese (in photo) who died in Thunder Bay, while attending Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School in 2006. (Marc Apollonio/CBC)

Listen 19:48

Read story transcript

Mishkeegogamang

Mishkeegogamang is an Ojibway First Nation about 500 km north of Thunder Bay. It does not have a high school and students who wish to continue their education often travel to Thunder Bay. (Marc Apollonio/CBC)

In Oct. 2015, coroner David Eden launched one of the largest inquests in Ontario's history, an inquest into the deaths of seven First Nations students. They'd left their homes in remote, northern Ontario and travelled to the city of Thunder Bay for high school.

Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School

Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School, or DFC, is a school for First Nations students in Thunder Bay. (Marc Apollonio/CBC)

The testimony of nearly 200 witnesses who have taken the stand is filled with stories of loneliness, racism, alcohol and drug abuse, accusations of inadequate police investigations, and a systemic failure to protect these young people.

Out there Doc - Connie and Henry

Connie Gray McKay ­is the chief of Mishkeegogamang First Nation, and mother of 28 year ­old son, Henry Baker. Back when Henry was 13, he joined the exodus of youth leaving home for a diploma. (Marc Apollonio/CBC)

The Chief of Mishkeegogamang or Mish, as locals call it, has been following the inquest closely. Her two daughters Hannah & Savannah, are currently in high school in Thunder Bay.

And Chief Connie Gray McKay knows first hand the dangers of being a native teenager, in the city for the first time, alone. Like her girls and son, McKay went to Thunder Bay for high school too. 

"You want to scare them because you know. So what do you tell them to scare them? Tell them that somebody can throw [you] in a car and kill you." - Connie Gray McKay, mother of two daughters in high school in Thunder Bay
Savanah Gray

Fourteen-year-old Savannah Gray loves shooting hoops at the gym in Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School in Thunder Bay. But the loneliness hits when she thinks about her mom back home. (Marc Apollonio/CBC)

Julian Falconer, a lawyer for the Nishnawbe Aski Nation — a political body which represents 49 First Nations in northern Ontario — says many institutions failed these kids who died leaving home to further their education in Thunder Bay.

Falconer says the police botched the investigations into the deaths of the students repeatedly and adds it's a common theme: police perform sloppier work for Indigenous people than for anyone else. 

"Every institution that had a role in taking care of these kids and making them safe has to strengthen how they do business." -  Julian Falconer, lawyer for the Nishnawbe Aski Nation

As the inquest nears its end, family and friends hope for answers. The jury is expected to make recommendations later this spring.  

Mish Map - Out There documentary

(Ben Shannon/CBC)

The documentary, Out There, was produced by The Current's Marc Apollonio and documentary editor, Joan Webber.