Hamilton

Inquest into death of Samuel Brown at Ontario-run school for the blind postponed

Eight days after announcing an inquest into the death of Samuel Brown, a student at a provincially run school for the blind, the Ontario Ministry of the Solicitor General says it will be postponed to early next year.

Accessibility concerns were raised over virtual process for inquest, now expected in early 2022

Andrea Brown, whose son Samuel died at W. Ross MacDonald School for the Blind in February 2018, has long called for an inquest into his death. One was announced late last month, but the province says it will be delayed until 2022. (Dan Taekema/CBC News)

An inquest into the death of Samuel Brown at a government-run school for the blind in Brantford, Ont., has been postponed to next year.

Brown's family, who are in Brampton, had been calling for an inquest for years. On Oct. 27, the Ontario Ministry of the Solicitor General announced one would take place by video conference starting on Nov. 15, stretching over five days and hearing from approximately 13 witnesses.

However, eight days after the inquest was announced, the ministry said it would be delayed.

Brown, 18, was a deaf, blind and non-verbal student at the school in 2018. He died sometime overnight on Feb. 9 of that year.

In a news release Thursday, the ministry said the inquest would instead take place in early 2022 when an in-person inquest is expected to be possible.

"This will address concerns of accessibility voiced by the disability community as well as allow further exploration of the evidence without the constraints of a virtual environment," it read.

David Lepofsky, a disability advocate and visiting professor at Toronto's Osgoode Hall Law School, said that with physical distancing and other COVID-19 safety measures, doing something in person should be possible.

Lepofsky is part of the Ontario Courts Accessibility Committee, which provides input into how to ensure the province's courts are as open as possible. He said there are ways to ensure sign language or captions are infused in virtual court or inquest appearances, but noted some aspects, such as screen-sharing documents, can raise issues.

Lepofsky said inquests provide a format for the public can seek answers about a fatality.

"Given the vulnerability of any residential school setting … this is important," he said of the inquest into Brown's death, adding that's especially true as W. Ross Macdonald School, where he died, is provincially run.

Family's lawyer says province has apologized

The venue and new dates for the inquest have not yet been announced.

Saron Gebresellassi, the lawyer for Brown's family, said she anticipates it will be held sometime in the first quarter of the new year.

The lawyer previously told CBC she and his parents "refuse" a virtual inquest process.

"We don't believe that's what the community deserves," she said at the time.

The government of Ontario has formally apologized to the Browns, according to Gebresellassi, who described it as a "significant event."

"They are really appreciative of the government apology," said the lawyer, adding the family is still processing whether or not they accept it.

"They want the world to learn who Samuel is."

Gebresellassi said there are pros and cons to the inquest being pushed off, but said she's glad the coroner's office understood doing it in person was the "right move."

"Doing a cross-examination over the telephone … is not an attractive place to be," she said.

Saron Gebresellassi, right, lawyer for the Brown family, says the province has agreed to an in-person inquest. (Michael YC Tseng)

That said, delaying it is a "destabilizing event" for those who involved with and following the case.

"We need the public to keep the foot on the gas pedal ... keeping the eye on the ball, getting this inquest done as soon as possible," said Gebresellassi.

The lawyer said her team was prepared for the inquest and remains "ready to go" whenever it's held.

With files from Samantha Craggs

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