The joint inquest into the seven Nishnawbe Aski Nation youth who died while attending school in Thunder Bay is an “atypical” case because of the number of deceased, said a representative in the Office of the Chief Coroner.
Cheryl Mahyr, an issues manager in the Office of the Chief Coroner and Ontario Forensic Pathology Unit, said most inquests involve one death though it is not unusual to involve more than one.
“We haven’t had an inquest with seven deceased for quite, quite some time,” she said.
On May 31, Dr. Andrew McCallum, Ontario’s chief coroner, called for a joint inquest into all seven deaths due to their similar circumstances after the previous chief coroner had called for an inquest into the death of Reggie Bushie of Poplar Hill in January 2009.
While most inquests are mandatory – such as deaths at construction or mining sites, or of children under specific circumstances – Dr. McCallum’s call for the joint inquest was “discretionary.” When considering a discretionary inquest, the chief coroner must consider whether the five questions are known – who the deceased are, where they died, when they died, how they died and by what manner did they die – and whether or not it is desirable for the public to have an open and full hearing of the circumstances of a death.
Mahyr said what makes this joint inquest unique is that more people could be involved in the inquest process due to the number of deceased.
“That’s something we might be expecting, having many more people,” Mahyr said. “It tends to slow down the process a little bit because everybody has to be given an opportunity to ask questions and speak to different matters as they come up.”
With the number of families involved, and if they have different legal counsel representatives, there could be more people who are “granted standing.”
“Parties who are granted standing by the presiding coroner are able to take part in the process,” Mahyr said. “Which means they are able to examine witnesses and address the jury and address the presiding coroner, so they actually participate.”
Inquests are open to the public, and family members can attend but do not have to unless called as a witness.
A jury of five people is selected and their task is to hear the evidence, answer the five inquest questions, and “if reasonable, make recommendations that, if implemented, may prevent deaths under similar circumstances in the future,” Mahyr said.
Mahyr said not all inquests result in recommendations.
“If they do, when they formulate their recommendations, they may know who they want to address the recommendations addressed to,” Mahyr said. “Or, if that’s not the case, when an inquest closes, when the staff in our inquest unit reviews the recommendations, they may determine who the best recipient of the recommendations and forward them accordingly.”
Juries cannot find fault or assign blame and their recommendations are not legally binding.
The average number of days per inquest in 2008 and 2009 was three days, while in 2003 the average was 9.3 days. However, due to the number of deceased involved, Mahyr could not speculate on the potential length of the joint inquest.
“This is going to be atypical so I couldn’t estimate how long it could possibly take,” she said.
Given the recent decision to have a joint inquest, the coroner’s office is back in the planning process of the inquest.
“It’s setting dates conducive to everyone who has standing and make sure everyone’s schedule meshes,” Mahyr said. “If everyone has different counsel, each one has to be consulted on time frames, then we can start setting time aside so they can participate fully.”
Mahyr said the office will issue a press release once it determines a start date.
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