Thunder Bay

'Sad and brutal' death of First Nations teen in Kenora an example of federal neglect, NDP MP says

The death of a 14-year-old girl in Kenora, Ont., earlier this year is an example of the way the federal government is failing First Nations children, according to NDP MP Charlie Angus.

Azraya Ackabee Kokopenace, 14, of Grassy Narrows First Nation, died in April 2016

Azraya Kokopenace, 14, was found dead in April 2016 in the woods near the hospital in Kenora, Ont. She was involved with a child welfare agency at the time of her death. (Ontario Provincial Police)

The death of a 14-year-old girl in Kenora, Ont., earlier this year is an example of the way the federal government is failing First Nations children, according to NDP MP Charlie Angus.

Azraya Ackabee Kokopenace was involved with a child welfare agency when provincial police picked her up and dropped her off at the Lake of the Woods District Hospital. She walked away from the hospital and was found dead two days later in the woods nearby. 

"No child should be left like that and no child should ever die in a situation as sad and brutal as she faced," Angus told CBC News.

He raised Ackabee Kokopenace's death as part of his speech in the House of Commons while putting forward a motion calling on the government to comply with a Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruling.

That ruling found that Canada discriminates against First Nation children on reserves by failing to provide the same level of child welfare services it does to other children.

The decision ordered the government to "cease the discriminatory practice and take measures to redress and prevent it" by overhauling the system and funding model to provide culturally appropriate services to First Nations children. Two compliance orders have since been issued.

The circumstances around the death of Ackabee Kokopenace are a perfect example of the discrimination, Angus said.

Her family is from Grassy Narrows First Nation where the water is contaminated by industrial pollution. Her brother, Calvin Kokopenace, was 17 years old when he died in 2014 from symptoms related to mercury poisoning.

"We have a case of a family that was poisoned by mercury, there were obvious effects on her [Ackabee Kokopenace] and on her brother — if that was a non-Indigenous family there would have been supports taken in to support the children in their home," Angus said.

Instead, Angus said, Ackabee Kokopenace had to leave her home to obtain mental health services in Kenora.

"The broken child welfare system did not help her and her family, he said. "It put her into foster care. The poor little girl ended up on the streets, dealt with police, was put in a hospital one night with no oversight or adult to look after her, and her body was found later."

The NDP is calling for an immediate investment of $155 million in new funding for the delivery of child welfare to First Nations children.

The Liberals agree with the NDP that the current child welfare system is failing. They've earmarked $71 million for child welfare this year while they plan reforms.

'Failed system'

"Putting too much money into a failed system can actually cause really bad results," Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett said in response to the NDP motion.

Bennett announced the appointment of Cynthia-Wesley Esquimaux, an expert in intergenerational trauma in Indigenous communities, as a special representative on child welfare on Thursday.

Wesley-Esquimaux said the Liberals are prepared to invest, "but they are not going to take money and throw it up in the air like confetti and hope it lands where it needs."

"They want to be able to do this systematically and strategically to ensure that the people who need the resources, immediately, get them," she said.

That statement left Angus "stunned."

"The Liberals may think that giving money to First Nations children is confetti, but there is a legal court ruling, so maybe Ms. Esquimaux should decide whether she wants to consult for a government that doesn't believe the law of the land applies to them when it comes to systemic racial discrimination," he said.

'Stop attacking'

Wesley-Esquimaux said it's time to move past the arguments about the tribunal ruling and what went wrong in the past.

"Stop attacking, stop making it sound like nothing is being done," she said. "We need people to roll up their sleeves and start collaborating, start working together."

Meanwhile, the family of Ackabee Kokopenace say that six months after the teen's death, they're still waiting for the coroner to decide whether to hold an inquest.