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Ontario First Nation fights for right to host inquest into nursing station death

Cat Lake First Nation wants a judicial review of a coroner's decision not to hold an inquest in the remote community in northwestern Ontario.

'Logistic and security hurdles could not be overcome': Coroner denies request for change of venue

Cat Lake First Nation Chief Russell Wesley says the coroner's decision not to hold an inquest in the remote community is discriminatory. (Jody Porter/CBC)
An Ontario coroner rules Cat Lake cannot host the inquest into a death in their community because of a lack of medical and security services....the very factors that may have contributed to the man's death. We have reaction from the chief.

Cat Lake First Nation wants a judicial review of a coroner's decision not to hold an inquest in the remote community in northwestern Ontario.

In December, Ontario coroner Dr. David Cameron denied the First Nation's request for a change in venue for the inquest into the death of Romeo Wesley.

Wesley died in 2010 after repeated attempts to get medical attention at the Health Canada nursing station in Cat Lake, according to Chief Russell Wesley. Staff at the nursing station called Nishnawbe Aski Police, who had Romeo Wesley in their custody when he died, the chief said.

"He had a medical issue that needed attention," Russell Wesley said. "Things just progressed from bad to worse. After [police] had control of him, one of the police officers applied pressure on his back, with Romeo face down."

"Essentially Romeo died from heavy pressure on his back, compressing his chest," Russell Wesley said.

The manner of the death has led to a "distrust" of medical staff who fly in to provide health care in the community, he added.

A lack of emergency services were among the key reasons the inquest could not be held in Cat Lake, Cameron said.

"Despite the eagerness of the coroner's team to hold the inquest in Cat Lake, there are obstacles relating to infrastructure, security and logistics which simply could not be overcome, even with additional resources," Cameron wrote in his decision.

Police raise security concerns

CBC News obtained a copy of a memo about Cat Lake sent to the coroner's office by the Ontario Provincial Police Justice Officials Protection and Investigation Section.

"In the event of community unrest resulting from emotional witness testimony, there would be a static number of assigned police officers on the site," Sgt. Lee Jeannotte wrote in the memo to Ontario's Chief Coroner.

Cat Lake is accessible only by air except in winter months when a temporary road is built more than 100 kilometres across the muskeg to Pickle Lake, Ontario. Sioux Lookout, where the inquest is scheduled to take place, is another 250 kilometres away.

The provincial police report said 24-hour security by OPP officers would be required for three separate buildings where officials for the inquest would stay in Cat Lake.

"Security screening for cleaning staff has not be addressed in relation to accommodations," Jeannotte wrote.

Chief Wesley said he had his own plan for security and is disappointed the coroner appeared to rely so heavily on the provincial police report, without speaking to him.

Inquests are a service provided by the province, Russell Wesley said, "in denying that service to Romeo Wesley to have his inquest in Cat Lake, you've denied all other First Nations the potential to have inquests in their community in the future."

A lawyer for the First Nation said talks are underway between the coroner's office and Cat Lake in an attempt to reach an agreement on the location of the inquest.