Thunder Bay

Lawyers familiar with Ontario inquest process call for more accountability after deaths at Thunder Bay jail

Going through a provincial inquest into the death of someone in the government's custody is often traumatizing for the family members that Emily Hill has represented. The senior staff lawyer with Aboriginal Legal Services says that while inquests are legally required by the Ontario Coroner's Act when someone dies while in custody or being detained, families don't have to participate. Yet in most cases, they do.

Emily Hill of Aboriginal Legal Services says inquests show deaths are preventable but province isn't listening

Thirteen people have died at the Thunder Bay District Jail since 2002. Recommendations made to hopefully "prevent further deaths" have in many cases been ignored. Lawyers familiar with the provincial inquest process say it has to do with a lack of accountability and oversight of the correctional system. (Nicole Ireland/CBC)

Going through a provincial inquest into the death of someone in the government's custody is often traumatizing for the family members that Emily Hill has represented.

The senior staff lawyer with Aboriginal Legal Services says that while inquests are legally required by the Ontario Coroner's Act when someone dies while in custody or being detained, families don't have to participate.

Yet in most cases, they do.

"Every family I've ever represented has said that to go through this very painful and traumatic process, in some ways, is worth it if they can prevent another family from going through it," said Hill. 

The families' hopes to "make things better" and prevent other families from losing a loved one while in the custody of the government largely hinge on the recommendations made by jury members during the inquest, which are issued to relevant stakeholders to "prevent further deaths," according to the Ministry of the Solicitor General's website.

The Thunder Bay jail is notorious. Problems with overcrowding and high levels of violence are well-documented. The building itself is almost 100 years old and quite literally crumbling. It's also a place where more than a dozen people have died in less than 20 years. To discuss the latest on these deaths is the CBC's Logan Turner. 7:43

But Hill says, in her experience representing the families of three First Nations men who died in the Thunder Bay jail, and gearing up for the inquest into the death of another First Nations man in the same facility, she's noticed important recommendations made repeatedly by inquest juries are ignored.

"Time and time again, the evidence of the inquests says these are preventable deaths. And yet the Ministry of the Solicitor General is not following the advice of the inquest juries to prevent more deaths of First Nation men in the Thunder Bay jail."

More accountability, oversight needed after a death happens

Hill says she wants more accountability from the government when someone dies in their custody, to demonstrate there's been some change or improvement.

One of the ways her team at Aboriginal Legal Services is trying to build that accountability into the inquest process is by requesting results and recommendations from previous inquests be presented to jury members at new inquests.

"We think it's important that juries understand that recommendations have been made in the past, and that representatives from the Ministry of the Solicitor General come in to answer questions in the inquest process about what recommendations have been followed and more often than not, which have not," said Hill.

Insiya Essajee, the legal counsel for the Ontario Human Rights Commission, is also concerned about the lack of independent oversight and transparency in he provincial correctional system.

"The government has tremendous control over the lives of some of the most marginalized and vulnerable people in our society. It's hard to believe, especially when there has been such a troubling track record, that there isn't any official independent oversight," Essajee wrote in an emailed statement.

She suggests that the creation of an independent position at the provincial level dedicated to investigating what happens in jails could improve transparency and accountability when abuses occur or, in the worst cases, when someone dies.

"The correction system is so shielded from scrutiny. Very few people are ever allowed in and get to see how truly awful the conditions can be. Having someone like an Inspector General of Corrections [like what exists at the federal level] to provide independent oversight and publicly report on what is happening is key for accountability," added Essajee.

Coroner's role to track recommendations, but not to hold people accountable

But the provincial government would not commit to creating a new position dedicated to oversight of the provincial corrections system, saying in a written statement that "the Ontario Ombudsman...is independent of government and political parties. The Ontario Ombudsman receives and investigates complaints regarding a number of areas across government, including correctional services."

A spokesperson with the Ministry of the Solicitor General, Andrew Morrison, added, "the ministry takes inquest recommendations seriously" and "responds to them directly and strives to implement changes to improve its policies."

The Office of the Chief Coroner prepares and publishes an annual implementation report on the status of recommendations made from all inquests, which s available to the public.

Regional Coroner in Thunder Bay, Dr. Michael Wilson, says it is difficult to know when the implementation of inquest recommendations have prevented deaths, but adds not all recommendations that could be implemented have been. (parotary.com)

The regional supervising coroner in Thunder Bay, Dr. Michael Wilson, said his office "tracks recommendations and responses to recommendations" made in relation to deaths at the Thunder Bay jail.

But he said, "I think that the role of the coroners is not so much to hold accountable, but to ensure that the truth comes out. And so whether everyone is, you know, is found accountable, really, that has to be explored in a different venue."

Dr. Wilson estimated that he has been the presiding coroner for at least five inquests into deaths at the Thunder Bay jail, and says he's seen several recommendations implemented or sees ongoing work to implement them — like the construction of a new correctional facility, and addictions and suicide screenings upon admission to the jail, for example.

But the regional coroner added, "it's very difficult to say that we have prevented a death. It's hard to know. We don't have an incident that a death has been prevented... there are changes that have come about. Certainly not everything that could be done has been."

When those recommendations could have saved lives, Aboriginal Legal Services lawyer Emily Hill finds it concerning that not everything has been done that could be.

"There are barriers to fulfilling the good work the inquest could do, and I think those barriers are related to systemic racism and are related to a lack of concern about the people who have passed away inside institutions."

Hill added, "I think that's a real problem because those are often very vulnerable members of our community. They're often people who have suffered a lot of trauma, had a lot of difficulty, and — especially in the circumstances of these young men who die — never then have the opportunity to get on a path that would let them contribute back into their communities and be the fathers, the community leaders and folks that they could grow into."

Listen to the full interview with Emily Hill by clicking here:

Today, we continue our exploration of the 13 deaths that have happened in the Thunder Bay jail since 2002. The CBC's Logan Turner told us that he found a number of recommendations to make jails safer have gone unheeded by the provincial government This morning he's back with more on the story. 9:35

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