The Current

Thunder Bay inquest examines death of 7 First Nation high school students

Seven First Nations students, each dead under bewildering circumstances over the period of a decade, found in Thunder Bay where they'd moved for school. The Current's Marc Apollonio speaks with the families hoping for answers with the inquest.
Maryanne Panacheese, Mishkeegogamang member and mother of Paul Panacheese (in photo) who died in Thunder Bay, while attending Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School in 2006. (Marc Apollonio/CBC)

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Mishkeegogamang is an Ojibway First Nation about 500 km north of Thunder Bay. It does not have a high school and students who wish to continue their education often travel to Thunder Bay. (Marc Apollonio/CBC)

In Oct. 2015, coroner David Eden launched one of the largest inquests in Ontario's history, an inquest into the deaths of seven First Nations students. They'd left their homes in remote, northern Ontario and travelled to the city of Thunder Bay for high school.

Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School, or DFC, is a school for First Nations students in Thunder Bay. (Marc Apollonio/CBC)

The testimony of nearly 200 witnesses who have taken the stand is filled with stories of loneliness, racism, alcohol and drug abuse, accusations of inadequate police investigations, and a systemic failure to protect these young people.

Connie Gray McKay ­is the chief of Mishkeegogamang First Nation, and mother of 28 year ­old son, Henry Baker. Back when Henry was 13, he joined the exodus of youth leaving home for a diploma. (Marc Apollonio/CBC)

The Chief of Mishkeegogamang or Mish, as locals call it, has been following the inquest closely. Her two daughters Hannah & Savannah, are currently in high school in Thunder Bay.

And Chief Connie Gray McKay knows first hand the dangers of being a native teenager, in the city for the first time, alone. Like her girls and son, McKay went to Thunder Bay for high school too. 

You want to scare them because you know. So what do you tell them to scare them? Tell them that somebody can throw [you] in a car and kill you.- Connie Gray McKay, mother of two daughters in high school in Thunder Bay
Fourteen-year-old Savannah Gray loves shooting hoops at the gym in Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School in Thunder Bay. But the loneliness hits when she thinks about her mom back home. (Marc Apollonio/CBC)

Julian Falconer, a lawyer for the Nishnawbe Aski Nation — a political body which represents 49 First Nations in northern Ontario — says many institutions failed these kids who died leaving home to further their education in Thunder Bay.

Falconer says the police botched the investigations into the deaths of the students repeatedly and adds it's a common theme: police perform sloppier work for Indigenous people than for anyone else. 

Every institution that had a role in taking care of these kids and making them safe has to strengthen how they do business.-  Julian Falconer, lawyer for the Nishnawbe Aski Nation

As the inquest nears its end, family and friends hope for answers. The jury is expected to make recommendations later this spring.  


In June, the coroner ruled that the cause of death of Paul Panacheese, Kyle Morriseau, Jethro Anderson, and Jordan Wabasse were undetermined.  Robyn Harper, Curran Strang and Reggie Bushie's deaths were deemed to be an accident.

The Ontario Coroner's jury of five then went on to unveil 145 recommendations, some of which included providing a school to any First Nations community that wants one.

Other recommendations:

  • funding early childhood education, daycare and schools the same as every other Ontario school;
  • impoverished students to be given the means to phone their parents while they are away at school in Thunder Bay;
  • an opportunity to allow these same students the chance to fly home in the fall and holidays;
  • And basic standards and inspections in boarding homes for students, including criminal records checks of boarding parents.
(Ben Shannon/CBC)

The documentary, Out There, was produced by The Current's Marc Apollonio and documentary editor, Joan Webber.