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Inquiry into deaths of NAN youth delayed

Friday July 25, 2014
Wawatay file photo
A Dennis Franklin Cromarty student tosses a flower into the McIntyre River during a ceremony to honour the seven First Nations youth who died since 2000 while attending school in Thunder Bay.

The joint inquiry scheduled to examine the deaths of seven First Nations youth in Thunder Bay has been delayed by the Office of the Chief Coroner.

Ontario chief coroner Dr. Dirk Huyer said that the inquiry is delayed partly because information and evidence briefs for the many parties with standing in the proceedings are not ready, and because of ongoing judicial concerns with the jury roll representation in the district.

The lack of Aboriginal representation on jury rolls in the Kenora district has been an ongoing issue for Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN) since 2007. The regional tribal council discovered the problem during the inquiry into the deaths of two Kashechewan men who died in a fire while in police custody.

A juries review implementation committee was established by the province last year to address the matter.

But NAN says the joint inquest could get underway this fall if the Ontario Attorney General and the Office of the Chief Coroner are committed to the process.

“We had expectations that the Government of Ontario would get this inquest together as expeditiously as possible and they are not delivering,” said Deputy Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler, who also is a member of the review committee.

The joint inquiry, originally scheduled for this fall, was set to look into the deaths of the seven youth, who died while attending high school in Thunder Bay over an 11-year period since 2000.

This includes: Jethro Anderson, 15, of Kasabonika Lake; Reggie Bushie, 15, of Poplar Hill; Robyn Harper, 19, of Keewaywin; Kyle Morrisseau, 17, of Keewaywin; Paul Panacheese, 21, of Mishkeegogamang; Curran Strang, 18, of Pikangikum; and Jordan Wabasse, 15, of Webequie.
Two of the youth died due to overdose while the others drowned.

An inquest into the death of Bushie was halted in 2011 due to jury roll issues in Thunder Bay, at which point calls for a broader inquiry into the deaths of all seven youth came from NAN.

And while the Office of the Chief Coroner indicated that no inquests will be held using the Thunder Bay jury roll, the Attorney General has publicly stated that criminal jury trials will continue in the North, despite the invalid jury roll.

“This makes us question why the families of the youth are less deserving of access to jury proceedings than the criminal accused in the North,” Fiddler said. “We are at a loss as to how the Attorney General is proposing to run jury trials on criminal matters in the North while at the same time our families cannot have access to a jury for a coroner’s inquest. This is becoming absurd.”

NAN is also critical of the preparedness on the part of the Office of the Chief Coroner, as basic steps such as distributing a coroner’s brief years after this investigation started have not been done.

“The loss of these seven youth has caused fear and apprehension in NAN First Nations and the continued delays to get this inquest underway are unacceptable and very distressing for the families of these youth and their communities,” said Grand Chief Harvey Yesno. “I am surprised and disappointed on behalf of the families of these lost youth and our communities that even the most basic court documents haven’t even been prepared.”

A request for comment to the Office of the Chief Coroner was not returned as of press time.

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