Thunder Bay·Audio

Year-2 report into 7 Indigenous youth inquest recommendations shows progress, report finds

It's taken a longer than expected, but lawyers representing the families of six of seven Indigenous students who died while attending school in Thunder Bay, Ont., have issued their two-year progress report about what's changed since the months-long inquest into the young people's deaths, and, generally, the results are positive.

Overall grade for collective efforts improves from C+ after year 1 to B+ after year 2

Jonathan Rudin of Aboriginal Legal Services helped deliver a year-two report into progress made on the 145 recommendations from the Seven Youth Inquest in Thunder Bay. (Jody Porter/CBC)

It's taken a longer than expected, but lawyers representing the families of six of seven Indigenous students who died while attending school in Thunder Bay, Ont., have issued their two-year progress report about what's changed since the months-long inquest into the young people's deaths, and, generally, the results are positive.

Aboriginal Legal Services unveiled its report Wednesday on what progress has been made on the 145 recommendations made by the jury at the conclusion of the inquest in 2016 aimed at preventing similar deaths. Overall, it found that the parties to whom the recommendations were directed — including multiple levels of government, police and Indigenous education authorities and service providers — have addressed or are addressing more calls to action than in the first year after the inquest concluded.

"What's clear when we look at the results in the year-two reports is the parties really took an effort to accomplish things," said Jonathan Rudin, the program director of Aboriginal Legal Services, the Toronto-based organization who represented most of the families of the young people whose deaths the inquest examined in 2015 and 2016.

"We're encouraged."

Jethro Anderson, 15, Curran Strang, 18, Robyn Harper, 19, Paul Panacheese, 21, Reggie Bushie, 15, Kyle Morrisseau, 17 and Jordan Wabasse,15, all died in Thunder Bay between November 2000 and May 2011. They were all in the city from remote northern Ontario First Nations attending school.

The progress review, similar to the year-one report, used a mathematical formula, distilled into letter grades, to quantify the progress made by the eight parties to whom jurors made recommendations. The overall grade in year one was a C-plus; that improved to a B-plus in 2018.

Individually, the respondent parties graded as follows:

  • Government of Canada – D in 2017 to C-plus in 2018

  • Province of Ontario – C-plus in 2017 to B in 2018

  • City of Thunder Bay – C-plus in 2017 to A-minus in 2018

  • Nishnawbe Aski Nation – C-plus in 2017 to B-minus in 2018

  • Northern Nishnawbe Education Council and Dennis Franklin Cromarty First Nations High School – A-minus in 2017 to A-plus in 2018

  • Matawa Learning Centre – A-minus in 2017 to B in 2018

  • Keewaytinook Okimakanak – A in 2017 to A-plus in 2018.

It's been over two years since the months-long inquest into the deaths of seven First Nations students wrapped up in Thunder Bay. The young people died in the northwestern Ontario city between 2000 and 2011 while attending school. The inquest into their deaths concluded with jurors making 145 recommendations aimed at preventing similar tragedies. Those calls to action were made to many parties, including the federal and provincial governments, the city of Thunder Bay, as well as Indigenous leaders and education providers. Aboriginal Legal Services has committed to issuing yearly progress reports in order to publicize the work being done. Jonathan Rudin, the program director for Aboriginal Legal services says that's positive. Here he is speaking to reporters in Thunder Bay. 6:28

Thunder Bay police not graded in 2018

While Rudin told a press conference on Wednesday that Thunder Bay police have been "very diligent" in addressing the 10 recommendations aimed at the force from the inquest, the findings made by Ontario's Independent Police Review Director in late 2018 — specifically that the investigations into four of the seven students' deaths were inadequate, tainted by systemic racism and should be reopened — shone a new light on what police need to accomplish.

"What we know now that the jury didn't know is what was revealed in the OIPRD report," Rudin told reporters. "Had the jury known that information, they would have had very different recommendations for the Thunder Bay Police Service."

"We think it would be wrong to give the Thunder Bay Police Service a grade for the work that they've done when the real fundamental work of being a police service, they actually were not able to do in many of those deaths."

The scope of the seven youth inquest did not include examining the quality of city police investigations, nor whether systemic racism exists in the force.

The force received a B-plus grade in 2017. Rudin said Aboriginal Legal Services will continue to monitor police's progress and will return to grading them when the community at-large says it "has confidence in the Thunder Bay Police Service," saying that will have to come with continuing to engage First Nations leadership.

"We'll see as the years go by, whether or not trust can be gained and it shouldn't be hard to figure that out."

Thunder Bay police said they couldn't comment on Aboriginal Legal Services' decision not to issue a grade on Wednesday; the force's senior leadership, along with members of the police services board, were in training prescribed by the Ontario Civilian Police Commission following its own 2018 report into the conduct of the board of civilians that oversees the police service.

Slow progress updates by senior governments helped delay year-2 report

The 2018 report was supposed to be completed by August of that year — one year after the first annual review — but delays in receiving information from two parties to whom inquest recommendations were made, slowed down the overall process.

Rudin said Wednesday that the federal and provincial governments were slow in filing updates to their progress and "we were disappointed that we actually had to track them down."

"Clearly everybody's taking it seriously but timeliness is very important," Rudin told CBC News on Tuesday, one day before the results were publicly released. "Otherwise, we can lose momentum and that would be a shame."

The province acknowledged it was late in submitting its response; the press secretary to Indigenous Affairs Minister Greg Rickford said it was due to the minister having then-recently been sworn into his position after the 2018 election.

Federal officials have not yet told CBC News why they were late.

The release of the OIPRD's systemic racism report, and its implications concerning four of the seven deaths examined by the inquest, further delayed the update, according to Rudin.

Overall, of the 145 inquest recommendations, Wednesday's report found that 135 were either complete or in progress in 2018, compared to 110 in 2017. After year-one in 2017, only 22 recommendations were complete; that number jumped to 71 after year two.

"We didn't expect in the first year that everything would be done because [for] the long-term recommendations, things wouldn't have started," Rudin said on Tuesday. "But now we're in year two, so now we expect more progress on sort of the medium-term recommendations."

Rudin added that continuously issuing progress reports can help ensure recommendations are seriously considered.

"We've done a lot of inquests on behalf of Indigenous families over the years ... and one of the things that we've seen is juries work really hard to come up with recommendations and often nothing happens with them," he said.

"So we wanted to make sure this didn't happen with this inquest and I think everyone wanted to make sure of that."

Rudin said that annual reporting will continue in years three and four and, depending on progress, will be considered for subsequent years.

He added that the longer-term goals set out in the inquest recommendations will be the hardest to accomplish — and will require the most commitment from senior levels of government — but, "just focusing on this year, going from a C-plus to a B-plus can only be seen as a good thing."

With files from Kris Ketonen, Amy Hadley and Jody Porter