Thunder Bay

Ontario calls joint inquest in aboriginal student deaths

Ontario's chief coroner will hold a joint inquest into the deaths of seven First Nations teenagers from remote reserves who were living in Thunder Bay to attend high school.
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)

Ontario's chief coroner will hold a joint inquest into the deaths of seven First Nations teenagers from remote reserves who were living in Thunder Bay to attend high school.

Dr. Andrew McCallum made the announcement Thursday in a news release.

The seven teens were all forced to leave their homes and families because there are few secondary school facilities on their remote reserves.

Tragic list

  • Jethro Anderson, 15, whose body was recovered from the McIntyre River on Nov. 11, 2000, was from Kasabonika Lake First Nation.
  • Curran Strang, 18, from Pikangikum First Nation, went missing Sept. 22, 2005. His body was found in the McIntyre River on Sept. 26, 2005.
  • Paul Panacheese, 17, from Mishkeegogamong First Nation, died on Nov. 11, 2006, in Thunder Bay.
  • Robyn Harper, 18, from Keewaywin First Nation, died on Jan. 13, 2007.
  • Reggie Bushie, 15, from Poplar Hill First Nation, went missing Oct. 26, 2007. His body was recovered from the McIntyre River on Nov. 1, 2007.
  • Kyle Morriseau, 17, of Keewaywin First Nation, was reported missing Oct. 30, 2009. His body was recovered from the McIntyre River on Nov. 10, 2009. The grandson of renowned native artist Norval Morrisseau, Kyle was a promising artist.
  • Jordan Wabasse, 15, from Webequie First Nation, disappeared on Feb. 7, 2011. His body was found May 12, 2011, in the Kaministiquia River.

Asked why he decided to call for the joint inquest now, McCallum told CBC News he had received a request from legal council for the Nishnabe Aski Nation (NAN) and after reviewing the files "felt there were common elements in the cases and obviously a population that's vulnerable … so I felt that was a reasonable request."

While he wouldn't get into details that might be common among individual cases, McCallum said the primary thread was that these "are First Nation youths who leave their home communities to receive an education. They're in a situation where they're isolated from their own communities, and they have passed away in circumstances that are similar, in that there are obviously complications involved.

"And I felt that those factors all require a public hearing to elucidate them and understand them and hopefully make recommendations aimed at preventing similar deaths in the future," McCallum said.

He would not specify when the inquest might take place.

Demanding answers

Many of the teenagers' families, as well as leaders of the NAN, which represents 49 northern aboriginal communities, have been demanding answers about the deaths, questioning whether they were suicides that could have been prevented, or whether they might have been homicides.

"It was just a really quick answer we got that he died from drowning," Dora Morris told CBC News in May 2011, recalling the 2000 death of her nephew Jethro Anderson, 15, from Kasabonika Lake First Nation. He was in Thunder Bay attending high school.

"I never believed he died from drowning, because of the suspicious marks he had on him. He had a mark from the top of his head down to the middle of his forehead. It looked like he had a blow on his head," she said.

She and members of other students' families want to know how Thunder Bay police probed the disappearances and deaths.

"They be telling me 'no'  or 'he's just out there partying like any other native kid.' Those are the kind of comments I was getting," Morris recalled when her nephew was reported missing in the fall of 2000. His body was recovered months later from the McIntyre River.

Many of the teens' bodies were found in rivers near Thunder Bay, including the McIntyre River and the Kaministiquia River. Their deaths were chronicled recently by CBC's The Fifth Estate, which intends to rebroadcast its documentary investigation this weekend.

The program will appear on CBC News Network at 8 p.m. ET Saturday, June 2, and 7 p.m. Sunday. It will also be aired on the main CBC network at 11 a.m. ET and 11 p.m. Sunday,  June 3.

Beyond the police response, the inquest is expected to examine the social isolation and loneliness of the students in an education system that sees teenagers billeted away from home. 

It is also expected to probe the social and emotional supports for the aboriginal students in a federally funded high school system that receives roughly half the per capita funding that a traditional Ontario public high school would receive.

"There are a lot of unanswered questions, apprehension and even a sense of fear in terms of this happening again," Terry Waboose, deputy grand chief of NAN, told CBC News in an interview Thursday in Thunder Bay. "That's what motivated us to seek answers. There's been a lot of speculation and the sense that seven deaths under similar circumstances is more than coincidence."

Six of the seven students who died attended Dennis Franklin Cromarty School in Thunder Bay, which has since taken steps to acquire more funding and implement better support mechanisms for teenage students attending from distant communities. The school has not had a death since 2009.

The most recent teen to die was Jordan Wabasse, 15, from the Webequie First Nation, who attended the Matawa Learning Centre in Thunder Bay. The alternative high school program run by a local tribal council was in its first two years of operation when Wabasse was reported missing in February 2011. 

His body was found May 12, 2011, in the Kaministiquia River.


Dave Seglins

CBC Investigations

Dave Seglins is an investigative journalist whose recent work includes exposés on global ticket scalping, offshore tax avoidance and government surveillance. He covers a range of domestic and international issues, including rail safety, policing, government and corporate corruption.