Thunder Bay·Audio

'Pervasive racism' remains outstanding issue from First Nation student deaths inquest, lawyer says

One year after an inquest into the deaths of seven First Nations students in Thunder Bay, Ont., a lawyer representing their families reflects on the racism at the root of the tragedies.

Inquest revealed '2 very different existences' of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, Jonathan Rudin says

Families of the seven First Nations students who died in Thunder Bay will issue their own report on the progress made on 145 recommendations issued by a coroner's inquest last year, said lawyer Jonathan Rudin. (Jody Porter/CBC)

The legacy of an inquest into the deaths of seven First Nations students in Thunder Bay, Ont., will be seen in the way the city deals with racism against Indigenous peoples, says a lawyer who represented families of the young people who died.

The inquest into the deaths of Jethro Anderson, Paul Panacheese, Robyn Harper, Curran Strang, Reggie Bushie, Kyle Morrisseau and Jordan Wabasse concluded one year ago this week, with 145 recommendations for preventing similar deaths in the future.

But the most striking evidence for lawyer Jonathan Rudin was the testimony about "pervasive racism" faced by current and former Indigenous students who come to the northwestern Ontario city for education from remote First Nations where schools only go up to Grade 10.

"Almost all of the witnesses who testified about their experience attending high school at DFC [Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School] spoke about the racism, racism that sometimes took the form of name-calling but often included food and drinks being thrown at them on the street," Rudin writes in his chapter of a new anthology titled More Tough Crimes.

The seven students who died in Thunder Bay between 2000 and 2011 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)
"These incidents happened day and night. They happened not only over the sixteen-year period that the inquest looked at in detail, that is, from 2000 to 2016, but extended back to the 1980s and 1990s..."

Rudin said the testimony of students was in sharp contrast to city officials, who also gave evidence at the inquest.

"This issue didn't seem to be on their radar at all," he told CBC News in an interview. "So it really emphasized the two, very different, existences that Indigenous and non-Indigenous people live in Thunder Bay."

Two more Indigenous youth, Tammy Keeash and Josiah Begg, died in Thunder Bay in May. Both had come to the city for services not available in their remote First Nations. 

Their deaths have also raised concerns about racism against Indigenous people — a subject that had police and several local politicians accusing Indigenous leaders of 'pointing fingers' and laying blame.

"Something more happened to her besides accidental drowning," Pearl Slipperjack said of the death of her daughter, 17-year-old Tammy Keeash, in Thunder Bay in May 2017. (Martine Laberge/Radio-Canada)
Last week, Ontario's chief coroner called in York Regional Police and Nishnawbe Aski Police Service to help investigate the deaths of Keeash and Begg, after First Nations leaders expressed their lack of faith in Thunder Bay police.

Ensuring the safety of Indigenous youth will require people in power to admit that racism exists," Rudin said.

"Pretending this is not going on, ignoring racist activities — that's preventing progress and that's fundamentally the issue," he said.

The City of Thunder Bay issued a report earlier this month stating the city is making progress on the 31 inquest recommendations directed at the municipality, including a safety audit of places where students are known to hang out at night.

The city is also expected to announce on Tuesday a new way for people to report racist incidents.

$10 M in new funding needed, Matawa says

Matawa Learning Centre also issued a report this month on its progress in meeting inquest recommendations. Jordan Wabasse was a student there before his death in 2011.

Officials with Matawa said they cannot meet 10 of the 23 recommendations directed at the learning centre without additional funding from the federal government.

Approximately $10 million in new funding is required for the learning centre to address recommendations such as providing student transportation, mental health and cultural workers and special education services, according to the report.

Families of the students who died will be issuing their own progress report on the recommendations later this summer, Rudin said.