Thunder Bay

Coroner willing to revisit Kenora residential school death

The Coroner's Office in Ontario says it is willing to take another look at the death of a residential school student who died near Kenora more than 40 years ago.

46-year-old case may hold key to preventing modern student deaths in Thunder Bay

Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School in Kenora, where Charlie Wenjack was a student before running away in 1966. He died of exposure while trying to make his way hundreds of kilometres home. His family is seeking a new inquest into his death in hopes that it might shed light on continuing problems with First Nations education. CBC (CBC)

The Coroner's Office in Ontario says it is willing to take another look at the death of a residential school student who died near Kenora more than 40 years ago.

Charlie Wenjack was 12-years-old, back in 1966, when his body was found near the railroad tracks. He was trying to walk hundreds of kilometres home to his father at Marten Falls First Nation.

Wenjack's death garnered national media attention and was one of the first times ordinary Canadians caught a glimpse of trouble at residential schools. But his family had never seen the results of the inquest, they weren't allowed to attend.

"No one has ever come to tell my mother why her son had to die," said Pearl Achneepineskum, Wenjack’s sister. "She still waits to this day."

Pearl Achneepineskum wants a new inquest into her brother, Charlie Wenjack's death. She says new information has come to light that the 12-year-old was sexually assaulted, prompting him to run away from residential school. (Jody Porter/CBC)

CBC News obtained the hand-written copy of the inquest report.

The inquest jury asks, back in 1966, whether the "present Indian education and philosphy" is right. Wenjack’s sister Daisy Munroe said it's a question still relevant today.

After her brother died, she expected to see big changes.

"[But] there’s no difference," Munroe said. "The way schools are run [is] the same way they did when we were going to school.

"It’s not different, there’s only as far as grade eight and then they have to board out to go to school, so what’s the difference?" she added. "Did they really improve anything?"

There is no high school in Marten Falls First Nation, where Charlie Wenjack’s family lives.

Teens from re1 mote First Nations in Northern Ontario are flown hundreds of kilometres away to school.

‘Abject discrimination’

Former Prime Minister Paul Martin has made Aboriginal education a focus in his retirement.

He sees a link between Canada's residential school past and the way First Nations students are treated now.

Federally-funded schools for First Nations receive about 40 per cent less money per student than other schools. 

"That's abject discrimination, that's a human rights issue and it is certainly a moral issue," Martin said.

Ontario coroner Dr. David Eden reviewed Wenjack's file and sees the parallels between past and present too.

"It's an issue that's still alive," he said.

Eden was recently named as the presiding coroner for an inquest into the death of seven First Nations students who have died since 2000, while at school in Thunder Bay.

He said he’d be willing to meet with Wenjack’s family if they approach him.

‘The enormity of the problem’

The family has another issue they want to discuss with him regarding Wejnack’s death.

His sisters say new information has come to light since the inquest.

"I was told by somebody else that he [Charlie] was sexually assaulted," Achneepineskum said. "Someone around out there is free, because of what he did to my brother."

Journalist Ian Adams covered the inquest for MacLean's magazine back in '66.

He said its conclusion that Charlie ran away because he was lonely, seems naive now.

"I don’t think they had a sufficient grasp of the enormity of the problem," Adams said of the 1966 inquest jury. "We know now that one of the big problems that was going on in these schools is a terrible amount of sexual abuse.

"At the time of the inquest none of this was raised as the real reason why Charlie ran away,that he was suffering from sexual abuse," Adam added in an interview with CBC News. "And so for those reasons, I think it’s really necessary to revisit that perhaps through another inquest or another investigation which is really legitimate for the family to ask for at this time."

"I can’t see any white person ever seeing their child in that situation and not demanding more questions as to why their child had died, and more answers," Adams said. "So I think that’s what needs to be done now."

Eden says he would talk to the Wenjack family about anything they want to discuss.

But he cautioned allegations of sexual abuse are matters for police, not coroners, to investigate.