Thunder Bay

First Nations student deaths inquest: 5 recommendations we've heard before

A coroner's inquest into the deaths of seven First Nations students in Thunder Bay, Ont. repeats several of the recommendations made nearly 20 years ago by an inquest into the death of a teenager from Neskantaga First Nation.

'The disappointment we face, is there was no action,' chief says 17 years after inquest into teen's death

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)

A coroner's inquest into the deaths of seven First Nations students in Thunder Bay, Ont. repeats several of the recommendations made nearly 20 years ago by an inquest into the death of a teenager a  First Nation in the same area.

"The problem and the disappointment we faced was there was no action, no support, no immediate steps to address the issues in that inquest," said Wayne Moonias, chief of Neskantaga First Nation, where Selena Sakanee, 15, died in 1997.

Neskantaga is one of dozens of First Nations in northern Ontario that do not have local high schools. Teens must travel hundred of kilometres away from their homes and families to further their education.

That's what the seven students from various remote First Nations — Jethro Anderson, 15, Paul Panacheese, 21, Curran Strang, 18, Robyn Harper, 18, Reggie Bushie, 15, Kyle Morriseau, 17 and Jordan Wabasse, 15, had done. They died between 2000 and 2011 in Thunder Bay.

The inquest ruled three of their deaths accidental, the other four, undetermined. 

The jury at the 1999 inquest into Selena Sakanee's death ruled it a suicide. But Moonias said many of the underlying social issues the recommendations spoke to then, came up again at the inquest into the students deaths.

"Our hope is that in honour of the seven youths that tragically passed on, we hope that there are immediate steps and actions taken to address the issues identified in addition to what was raised at past inquests," he said.

5 repeat recommendations

Here are five recommendations that were mirrored at the 1999 Selena Sakanee inquest and 2015/16 First Nations student deaths inquest:

  • 1.  Poverty:

1999 recommendation: "The Government of Canada and Ontario should address the poverty issues that exist within First Nation communities such as inadequate housing and unemployment."

2016 recommendation : Canada should "develop an antipoverty strategy for NAN First Nations community members, and to assist individual First Nations in creating economic opportunity that emphasizes self-reliance, local control, and the relationship between the people and the land."

  • 2. Recreation:

1999 recommendation: "The Government of Canada should provide adequate funding for recreational facilities and programming in remote First Nation communities."

2016 recommendation: "Canada should fund and develop a program that will ensure that all First Nations children and youth have access to a robust offering of high-quality extracurricular activities including traditional, cultural, recreational, academic, artistic, and athletic activities."

  • 3. Suicide prevention:

1999 recommendation: "Suicide prevention Programs should be implemented in every community. Every member should be involved including professionals, Chief and Council, Elders, parents, children and youth."

2016 recommendation: "In consultation with youth and Elders commencing in 2016, develop a suicide prevention strategy to address the continuing inter-generational suicide trauma experienced by children and youth in the remote NAN First Nation communities. The federal and provincial government should fund the strategy development and implementation."

  • 4. Mental Health

1999 recommendation: "The Governments of Canada, Ontario and Nishnawbe-Aski Nation should develop, adopt and implement a comprehensive Aboriginal mental health policy."

2016 recommendation: Canada and Ontario should "assist NAN First Nation communities in the development of a comprehensive Mental Health program for children, youth and adults. This program should consider the need for integrated mental health services including models which incorporate traditional practices as defined by the individual First Nation."

  • 5. Jurisdiction:

1999 recommendation: "The government of Canada and Ontario should consult with First Nations Communities and their Service Providers to assess their needs before adopting new Policies/programs or making changes to existing Policies and programs."

2016 recommendation: "Canada should support individual First Nations communities as they develop local solutions to the effects of colonial policy."

Request for oversight

The Nishnawbe Aski Nation and Aboriginal Legal Services Toronto, which represented the families at the student First Nations deaths inquest, are calling for the provincial and federal  Auditor Generals to report on Canada and Ontario's response to this week's inquest recommendations in two years.

"We are pushing very hard for the [involvement] of those actually tasked in government with making sure there is value for the public's dollar," said Nishnawbe Aski Nation lawyer Julian Falconer. "This was an eight-month inquest...what was expended both financially and emotionally was on a huge level."

A spokesperson with the Office of the Chief Coroner for Ontario said the final tally of expenses for the inquest is not complete, but the cost is approximately $700 thousand, so far, including travel, jury and witness expenses and support for the families. 

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