Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler is calling for an extension of the inquest into the deaths of seven NAN high school students in order to implement recommendations.
“Phase three, which I understand will be some time in March, is the development of the recommendations,” Fiddler says. “But NAN is saying there has to be a phase four as well. That is for all the parties to come together and agree on a course of action to implement all the recommendations that will result from this joint inquest.”
Phase three is scheduled for Feb. 29 to March 10, with final instructions to the jury and jury deliberations scheduled for March 29-31. The jury of four women and one man is scheduled to hear evidence from about 200 witnesses during the inquest.
Fiddler was pleased to see Status of Women Minister Patty Hajdu in attendance at the inquest on Dec. 17.
“It was good to have her there to observe the proceedings because she will be one of the ministers that will have a say in terms of how the national inquiry on murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls is rolled out,” Fiddler says. “For her to take the time to observe the proceedings yesterday was very significant.”
Phase one of the inquest initially got off to a rocky start on Oct. 5 due to its placement in a small courtroom at the Thunder Bay courthouse.
“All of us were disappointed to learn about the venue,” Fiddler said at the time. “The fact that they chose one of the smallest courtrooms for one of the biggest inquests in Ontario’s history, the fact that they had to squeeze all the seven families into the room, was just very shameful.”
After the first day, the inquest was moved to the largest courtroom in the courthouse on the second day.
The inquest broke for the holidays on Dec. 17 after hearing testimony about the deaths of Paul Panacheese, 21, from Mishkeegogamang; Robyn Harper, 19, from Keewaywin; Jethro Anderson, 15, from Kasabonika; Curran Strang, 18, from Pikangikum; Reggie Bushie, 15, from Poplar Hill; and Kyle Morrisseau, 17, from Keewaywin.
“Right now, for the first phase, it is to hear evidence from the police, from the other experts that were involved in these cases during the time that these students passed away,” Fiddler says. “So it’s gathering information to hopefully give some answers to the families, to the many questions that they have as to what happened, why their sons or their daughter passed away and what were the contributing factors to those deaths.”
The first phase of the inquest is scheduled to resume on Jan. 11 with testimony about the death of Jordan Wabasse, 15, from Webequie. The first phase is scheduled to end on Jan. 21 and the second phase is scheduled for Feb. 1-25.
“Phase one … looks at each individual case,” Fiddler says. “(Phase two) looks at the broader systemic issues that may have contributed to the tragic deaths of these students.”
The inquest is being held to examine the circumstances surrounding the deaths of the seven students who died after leaving their remote home communities to pursue secondary school studies in Thunder Bay. The jury may make recommendations aimed at preventing similar deaths in the future.
Dr. David Eden is presiding as inquest coroner and Trevor Jukes, Karen Shea and Amy Leamen are counsel to the coroner.