Thunder Bay

'Every penny is worth it': 3 ways Thunder Bay says it's still responding to 7 Youth Inquest recommendations

City officials in Thunder Bay, Ont., say they continue to work at implementing a number of recommendations made by jurors at the inquest into the deaths of seven First Nations students in the northwestern Ontario city.

'Safe sites' for intoxicated youth, 5-year mentorship program, improved city staff training among initiatives

The seven students who died in Thunder Bay since 2000, and were the subject of an inquest that wrapped up in 2016, are, from top left, Jethro Anderson, 15, Curran Strang, 18, Paul Panacheese, 17, Robyn Harper, 18, Reggie Bushie, 15, Kyle Morrisseau, 17, and Jordan Wabasse, 15. (CBC)

City officials in Thunder Bay, Ont., say they continue to work at implementing a number of recommendations made by jurors at the inquest into the deaths of seven First Nations students in the northwestern Ontario city.

At Monday night's city council meeting, councillors pored over a two-year report on what steps the city has taken so far to respond to the 31 recommendations the inquest jury tasked the city with, to attempt to help prevent similar deaths.

The inquest, which concluded in 2016, examined the deaths of seven Indigenous students who died in Thunder Bay between November 2000 and May 2011. They were Jethro Anderson, 15, Curran Strang, 18, Robyn Harper, 19, Paul Panacheese, 21, Reggie Bushie, 15, Kyle Morrisseau, 17 and Jordan Wabasse,15.

In total, the jury issued 145 recommendations directed at many levels of government as well as a number of educational and law enforcement organizations.

While the recommendations are not legally-binding, the province's chief coroner has requested that all respondent parties submit yearly reports on the progress they've made and, if a recommendation is not or won't be implemented, to provide an explanation.

Of the 31 recommendations directed at the City of Thunder Bay, the city's report noted that all 25 "short-term" goals have been implemented.
Members of Thunder Bay's city staff updated council Monday night on the progress the city says it's making on implementing recommendations made at the inquest into the deaths of seven First Nations students in the northwestern Ontario city. (Matt Prokopchuk / CBC)

Those included things like better providing information to Indigenous students moving to the city from northern communities, providing appropriate zoning and support for organizations constructing student facilities, conducting a safety audit of area waterways and developing a program to help First Nations youth navigate the city. That recommendation turned into a special transit pass piloted for the 2017-2018 school year and, subject to budget approval, will be extended to next year.

The remaining six — identified as medium or longer-term goals — are in progress but largely require partnerships and funding to implement, said Karen Lewis, Thunder Bay's director of corporate strategic services.

"This is really where the heavy lifting is required," she said. "These are the initiatives that have the potential to affect lives."

Here are three recommendations the city says it continues to work on:

Better cultural training for city staff

Inquest recommendation 139 calls on the city to provide "skills-based training in intercultural competency, conflict resolution, human rights and anti-racism to staff."

The city has offered that kind of instruction to new hires, according to the report; as well, it has provided training based on the Walk-A-Mile film series and associated curriculum.

"The direction is to expand [cultural competency, conflict resolution, human rights and anti-racism training] to all employees,"  city clerk John Hannam said. "So we're in the process of redeveloping the package of training that we do provide to enhance the curriculum."

City staff will meet with Lakehead University's Aboriginal initiatives office to review the curriculum, Hannam said; the new training is scheduled to launch this fall.

Establishing a peer mentoring program

In recommendation 75, inquest jurors called on the city, along with senior levels of government to "provide support and fund peer leaders and mentors."

That work has resulted in a proposal for a five-year youth inclusion program, according to the city. A funding application has been submitted to Public Safety Canada and Lewis said the city is hoping to hear if it's successful sometime in mid-July.

The program would "make many contributions in terms of youth inclusion, peer mentorship, social media campaigns to raise awareness in the community about the challenges faced by First Nation youth coming to school in Thunder Bay," she said.

The main issues the proposed initiative would focus on include youth safety, youth crime reduction and well-being, as well as participation in "recreational, social and cultural opportunities," according to the city's report.

3 'safe sites' to open by September 2018

The city's report also pointed to progress on a recommendation that consultation take place to develop an "alternative facility [for] intoxicated youth."

Proposals for three "safe sites" are almost complete, the city's report said, which will allow for one each for three Indigenous services providers: Keewaytinook Okimakanak, the Northern Nishnawbe Education Council and Matawa First Nations Management.

The proposals currently on the table will allow services and resources to be shared among the three sites, according to the city.

"They will have separate locations and are coordinating services as well as sharing some resources and using existing resources," Cynthia Olsen, Thunder Bay's drug strategy coordinator told council.

"The goal and target is to have services in place for the school year starting in September 2018."

The report said that implementing the recommendation is contingent on funding approval; Olsen said discussions continue to take place with the North West Local Health Integration Network.

All the work that has gone into addressing the inquest's recommendations has been worth it, said Coun. Aldo Ruberto.

"Every penny is worth it," he said. "What's the cost if we didn't do this?"