Thunder Bay

First Nations student deaths inquest in Thunder Bay begins final phase

The inquest into the deaths of seven First Nations students in Thunder Bay, Ont., resumes Wednesday with lawyers for each of the parties making closing statements.

Seven students from remote communities died between 2001 and 2011 while attending high school in the city

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)

The inquest into the deaths of seven First Nations students in Thunder Bay, Ont., resumes this week with lawyers for each of the parties making closing statements.

Jethro Anderson, Paul Panacheese, Curran Strang, Robyn Harper, Reggie Bushie, Kyle Morriseau and Jordan Wabasse died between 2000 and 2011. All of them had travelled from remote communities to Thunder Bay to attend high school.

On Wednesday, lawyers are expected to put forward a joint slate of suggested recommendations for the jurors to consider before issuing the inquest verdict and final recommendations in June.

The long-awaited inquest began in October 2015 and has had many unexpected twists and turns.

Here are five of the most compelling moments:

  • 1. Mothers testify:

Maryanne Panacheese, mother of Paul Panacheese (in photo) who died in Thunder Bay in 2006, was the first parent to testify at the inquest. (Marc Apollonio/CBC)
"I told him just to coexist with the non-Natives, that's the way it has got to be," Maryanne Panacheese told the inquest on Oct. 8 after describing the details of her son Paul's death in 2006. 

"I told him not to say bad things or treat anybody bad that's not his race," she said of the advice she gave Paul when he was moving away to go to school in Thunder Bay.

The 21-year-old was bounced around among 10 different boarding homes while trying to get through Grades 10 to 12. Finally, his mother moved to the city to help him through his final classes. 

Panacheese found her son dead on the kitchen floor of the home they were renting, likely from a rare, undiagnosed heart condition.

Click on the name to read more about what each of the mothers of Robin Harper, Jethro Anderson, Reggie Bushie, Kyle Morriseau and Jordan Wabasse had to say in their testimony.

  • 2. Flying food:

James Benson says his work with at-risk youth in his own community is in memory of his friend Curran Strang, who died in 2005, when they were both students in Thunder Bay. (James Benson/Facebook)
Former student James Benson told the inquest in November about what it was like to regularly have eggs and racial slurs hurled at him while he was walking down the street in Thunder Bay.

It was "scary" at first but "because it was an ongoing thing we were used to it after awhile," Benson said.

Several other students testified about having eggs, food or bottles thrown at them.

"It appears to be a deep-rooted practice among some people in Thunder Bay," said Jonathan Rudin, the lawyer for the families of children who died.

City officials testified in March about plans to create a phone line for reporting such incidents.

  • 3. Hints of murder:

Derek and Bernice Jacob say their son, Jordan Wabasse, was an out-going boy who enjoyed going to school and loved hockey. Wabasse died in 2011 while attending school in Thunder Bay, Ont. (Jody Porter/CBC)
"He told me he killed a kid and pushed him off the bridge for a bag of weed," Kirk Jedyk testified in January, recalling a conversation he had with his half-brother Stephen Cole.

They were talking about Jordan Wabasse, whose body was found in the Kaministiquia River in May 2011, nearly three months after he disappeared.

Thunder Bay police Inspector Don Lewis later testified that police had looked into the allegations against Cole but deemed them "improbable", partly because Jordan's body "didn't have the trauma you would expect" if he was pushed from the bridge.

Police told the inquest that the investigations into the deaths of all five boys whose bodies were found in rivers near Thunder Bay remain open. But police said new information would be required to actively work the cases.

  • 4. Funding gap:

Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett says she does not share the opinion of a senior official in her department who testified at the inquest about funding levels for First Nations schools. (UN video/CBC)
There was conflicting testimony at the inquest about whether there is a gap in the amount of money received by federally-funded First Nations schools as compared to provincially-funded schools.

A senior official with the Department of Indigenous Affairs denied the discrepancy. Jonathan Allen testified in March that the "perception" of a funding gap exists because of different funding formulas.

But Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett disagreed with that view during a standing committee meeting in Ottawa in May when she was asked if Allen had expressed her department's position.

"It's not mine," she said.

The Liberals have promised $2.6 billion dollars over five years for primary and secondary schooling on reserves.

  • 5. Residential school references:

Edmund Metatawabin, 66, a survivor of St. Anne's residential school in Fort Albany, Ont., says 'it's not safe' to send First Nations students to Thunder Bay. (Colin Perkel/Canadian Press)
Several people who testified at the inquest, including residential school survivors, said the current system of removing students from their homes, families and communities for high school is a continuation of residential school policy.

On the final day of testimony, survivor Edmund Metatawabin was asked what he would recommend for keeping First Nations students safe.

"Students have to stop coming to Thunder Bay, he said. "It's not a safe place to be."