Thunder Bay

Coroner rules on scope of First Nation student death inquest

An inquest into the deaths of seven First Nations students in Thunder Bay will not single out the city's police service for special scrutiny, according to a ruling released Thursday by the presiding coroner.

Dr. David Eden denies families' request to study quality of police investigation at inquest

The seven students who have died in Thunder Bay since 2000 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)

An inquest into the deaths of seven First Nations students in Thunder Bay will not single out the city's police service for special scrutiny, according to a ruling released Thursday by the presiding coroner.

The inquest into the deaths of Jethro Anderson, 15, Curran Strang, 18, Paul Panacheese, 19, Robyn Harper, 18, Reggie Bushie, 15, Kyle Morriseau, 17 and Jordan Wabasse, 15, is set to begin in the fall. All of them are from remote First Nations. They died between 2000 and 2011 while in Thunder Bay to attend school.

Lawyers representing the Nishnawbe Aski Nation and the families of the students argued at a hearing last month that the scope of the inquest must include "the quality of the Thunder Bay police investigation" into the students' disappearance and deaths.

But Dr. David Eden ruled that the scope needed to be "agency-neutral", identifying the roles and responses of all agencies involved in the students.

Police actions that could prevent the deaths of students were already included, Eden wrote in his ruling.

"The motion that is denied is for this inquest to undertake a broad, comprehensive inquiry into the quality and competence of the Thunder Bay police," Eden said.

The technical nature of policing means granting the motion would "substantially increase the amount of evidence to be heard, likely by months," Eden said. "If this motion were granted, the inquest would be unlikely to start before 2016 and to conclude before 2017."

The inquest was first called in 2012 and has already been delayed for years by problems with Ontario's jury roll system.

Nishnawbe Aski Nation and the families of the students were also asking the coroner to add the word racism explicitly to the scope of the inquest.

Racism vs. discrimination

Eden ruled that racism is encompassed in the broader category of discrimination. 

"The deceased faced discrimination on a number of grounds, often mingled, which included not only race but also age, gender, cultural background and likely other factors," Eden wrote.

The "anticipated areas of evidence" at the inquest are now set as follows:

1.  Selection and intake of students including application process and needs assessment 

2.  Boarding and supervision, including: 

a.Policies and procedures

b.Physical accommodations and amenities

c.Qualifications and training of persons supervising subject students

3. Identification of, and response to a missing student, including but not limited to the respective roles of boarding parents, school, police, families and others

4. Programs, regardless of provider, directed to the prevention of deaths

5. Obstacles and challenges faced by subject students within their home communities, and within Thunder Bay prior to and during their enrolment at DFC or MLC. This includes, but is not limited to:                       

a.The unique life experience of subject students

b.Discrimination against First Nations youths, and programs to prevent discrimination and/or reduce the harm caused by discrimination

c. Alcohol and substance use, and programs to reduce resulting harm                                                                                                                 

Nishnawbe Aski Nation issued a statement Thursday following the release of the coroner's decision.

Deputy Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler wrote, "NAN is deeply disappointed that the voices of the families and communities leadership have yet again gone unheard by the coroners system. NAN is considering it's legal options."

Nine parties have standing at the inquest. It's expected to take six months to complete. Meanwhile, the coroner's office said additional hearings will be held in June to deal with any outstanding preliminary matters.

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