Thunder Bay

Indigenous youth reflect on recommendations from First Nations student deaths inquest

An inquest into the deaths of seven First Nations students in Thunder Bay issued 145 recommendations on Tuesday, one Indigenous youth hopes the inquest starts a national conversation about hate-crimes.

'Racism is very, very evident in Thunder Bay,' says Harley Legarde-Beacham of Fort William First Nation

Harley Legarde says he's hopeful the inquest in Thunder Bay will start a national conversation about hate crimes. (Jody Porter/CBC)

The end of an inquest into the deaths of seven First Nations students in Thunder Bay is just the start of the conversation about the impact of racism on the lives of Indigenous youth, says Harley Legarde-Beacham.

Legarde-Beacham testified at the inquest earlier this year, as a member of the Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth's Feather's of Hope Initiative. 

The group offered more than 200 suggested recommendations to the inquest, but few of the ones dealing with racism or police practices were adopted by the jury.

"Racism is huge, it's very very evident in Thunder Bay," Legarde-Beacham said.

Current and former students who testified at the inquest shared stories of having racial slurs and food thrown at them from passing cars. One former student told his story of being pushed in a river by a group of strangers and having to swim for his life to survive.

The story is relevant to the jury's ruling that the manner of death for three of the students whose bodies were found in the river is 'undetermined'. 

"What we're talking about is the tragic reality that, as matters stand today in respect of those three kids, Jethro Anderson, Kyle Morriseau and Jordan Wabasse, it is equally possible that those kids were killed deliberately and we will never know," said Nishnawbe Aski Nation lawyer Julian Falconer. "Now that's a tragedy."

'More people stepping up'

Even without specific recommendations to tackle racism from the inquest, Legarde-Beacham is optimistic that the proceedings will start a national conversation about hate-based violence.

"There's going to be more people stepping up and more people coming to and saying what they really think about different crimes around Canada," he said.

But another First Nations youth with the Feathers of Hope initiative says that discussion won't be easy.

"When you do share your struggles as a youth when you're coming to an urban environment for education, it's kind of hard to talk about because there are a lot of negative connotations with going to school and wanting to be successful but not being able to be successful," Jeremy Naveau said.

The 19-year-old from Brunswick House in northeastern Ontario said many of the recommendations, if implemented, could at least help to ease the "culture shock" First Nations students experience alone in the city.

Among those recommendations:

  • building a residence for First Nations students who come to the city for high school
  • providing peer mentors for First Nations students new to the city
  • providing more recreational and job opportunities for First Nations youth in the city
  • completing a needs assessment on arrival of each First Nations student in the city and providing care to meet their health, mental health and academic needs

"It's important that these recommendations get passed through because, who else is going to look after us?" Naveau said.