Jethro Anderson, 15. Reggie Bushie, 15. Robyn Harper, 18. Kyle Morrisseau, 17. Paul Panacheese, 17. Curran Strang, 18. Jordan Wabasse, 15.
The families of these seven First Nations youths who died while attending school in Thunder Bay, Ontario, want their names to be remembered. More than that, they want their lives and untimely deaths to be the catalyst for change and future protection of all First Nations children.
To that end, the families are planing, through their attorneys, to grade annually the progress on 145 recommendations made by a jury after a nine-month inquiry into those deaths. The first grades are in, and they don’t reflect well on the government of Canada. The overall grade for all progress is only modestly better.
The families’ attorneys delivered this year’s overall grade plus specific grades, based on what they believe is an objective system, in a report card for nine entities charged with making changes during a press conference on Wednesday August 23 at Lakehead University’s Bora Laskin Faculty of Law in Thunder Bay.
“The grade overall (for the full set of recommendations) is a C+; that is a disappointing grade,” said Jonathan Rudin, director of Aboriginal Legal Services, which represents six of the seven youths’ families.
The lowest grade, a “D,” went to the government of Canada. The families graded the governments of Ontario and Thunder Bay (31) and the Nishnawbe Aski Nation as “C+”; Thunder Bay Police Service earned a “B+”; the Northern Nishnawbe Education Council and the two schools attended by the students—Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School and Matawa Learning Centre—earned “A-”; while the Keewaytinook Okimakanak, Northern Chiefs Council, received an “A.”
Progress has been slow or nonexistent on many recommendations, Rudin said.
“Only 15 percent are completed, and a quarter haven’t even been started,” he said after the press conference. “The response from the Canadian government is clearly the most disappointing; they barely got a D.”
In addressing the recommendations, the Canadian government entities “gave the same response—this generic nothingness, just not responsive,” he added.
Elsewhere he saw encouraging points of positive progress, Rudin said. The education providers have increased orientation materials and mentors. (A number of the youths who died were newly arrived to Thunder Bay.) Those groups also offer enhanced education and programs dealing with substance abuse and have partnered with Thunder Bay programs to provide more services. The federal government also has increased the funding available for First Nations students remote northern reserves to visit home more frequently.
“One of the challenges that the education providers have is that many of the things they were asked to do require funding, and this is one of the challenges that we faced in grading this,” Rudin said. “While the schools, the education providers, have done what they needed to do, it doesn’t mean necessarily the recommendations themselves are complete, because funding has to be found. But certainly the three education authorities have done as much as they possibly could.”
One of the biggest areas of pleasant surprise, Rudin admitted, was the response from the Thunder Bay Police Service, which has already completed 40 percent of the 10 recommendations directed at it.
“They’ve enhanced a program where the police go to the [remote] communities in the summer to meet with the students who will be coming to Grade 9,” Rudin said. “They’ve done a safety audit of the river areas in Thunder Bay, and that’s a very important step.”
The seven tragedies that generated the inquest occurred between November 2000 and May 2011. These young students traveled from their remote northern Ontario reserves to the metro hub of Thunder Bay for high school. Many reserves do not have upper-grade classes available.
Five of the young people were found in rivers in or near the city. Of the five river deaths, two were found to be “accidental” and three were “undetermined.” In the case of the undetermined river deaths the jury could not decide between accident and homicide for a verdict, according to Rudin.
Also ruled accidental was the death of one young woman from acute alcohol poisoning at her boarding home after an evening out with friends. Another youth collapsed at his boarding house, and his cause of death was ruled undetermined as well, according to CBC News.
In ruling some causes of death as undetermined, Rudin said, the jury was acknowledging that, “they had no idea, there was no explanation.… Nobody knows how it happens.”
None of these deaths was considered a suicide, he added. “There’s not a hint of suicide. That’s important, because suicide is such an important issue.”
The police also are not pursuing any of the deaths as possible homicides. Rudin did say, however, that the jury received evidence from a First Nations youth who described being attacked while out walking and thrown into the water by a group of young non-Native people. Rudin added that some drownings occurred “late October and early February—not any time that anyone would normally be going into the water in Thunder Bay.”
Thunder Bay has struggled with racism against First Nations people, with reports from verbal slurs yelled as people walking on the streets to sexual assaults against indigenous women. Most recently, Barbara Kentner died months after being hit by a trailer hitch thrown from a passing vehicle while she was walking with her sister on a Thunder Bay street.
Many stories came out during the inquest. The convened jury heard from First Nation students, family and friends of the seven youth, police and medical experts. Thunder Bay and Lakehead University have undertaken a number of programs to combat racism, including the launch in June this year of an online resource for reporting incidents of racism either experienced or witnessed. The city’s acting mayor, Linda Rydholm, attended the press conference.
“We appreciate the continued attention that’s being brought to the recommendations, and Aboriginal Legal Services is part of that,” he said. “It’s important to note that the city of Thunder Bay, through the direction of the city council—their unanimous direction—is highly motived and taking action on all thirty-one recommendations given to them. We are moving with real things. It’s true, we do need help.”
He acknowledged that there are issues with funding, as well as overall issues surrounding indigenous people in the Thunder Bay community.
“We’re looking at a broader approach to that,” he said. “We have good, strong partnerships with Fort William First Nations and with the Nishnawbe Aski Nation and are working together and moving forward on the broader indigenous issues.”
In his closing remarks, Rudin expressed hope of better grades, including for Thunder Bay, and emphasized that when it comes to the recommendations, people will be watching.
“It was our hope that more progress would be made in the first year toward completing the short-term recommendations and making a start on the medium- and long-term recommendations,” he said. “We think the grade should definitely increase next year, particularly if Canada takes its role in responding to the recommendations more seriously.”
He vowed to closely monitor compliance with the 31 recommendations.
“I don’t know if the will to be there will keep implementing recommendations,” he said. “That’s why we’ll be back next year, and we’ll be back the year after, and we’ll be back the year after, until we know that all the recommendations have been implemented, or until we know that people are just not going to do the work, and then we will hold people accountable.”
The jury’s wide variety of recommendations are intended to prevent future tragedies. They suggested translating the jury’s verdict and its explanation into Cree, Ojibway and Oji-ˇCree to be easily accessible to all citizens of Nishnawbe Aski Nation. Another recommendation is to develop a memorial for the seven fallen students at Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School and the Matawa Learning Centre, where they were attending school, and establish scholarships in their memory to improve and expand educational opportunities both on and off the reserves. Other recommendations charge federal and provincial government with providing improved access to services for First Nations youths.
“These things can’t be accomplished based on will alone,” said Rudin. “These students need help, and they need services, and those things cost money.”
Near the end of the press conference, Caitlyn Kasper, also an attorney with Aboriginal Legal Services, spoke on behalf of the families they represent.
“Over the past few weeks, I have connected with the families in various communities across northern Ontario,” she said. “It has not been easy, to say the least, to reach everyone, and I was reminded often of the challenges faced by those living in our remote communities. The strength and courage of these families to remain so invested in the outcomes of these recommendations and the importance to them that what happened to their loved one not happen to any other First Nations student seeking high school education should not be lost on anyone.”
The families and her group urge ongoing implementation of all recommendations, especially as they encouraged partnerships and increased services and support.
“After one year, it has become clear who has made the commitment to see real changes happen,” said Kasper. “On behalf of those who are most affected by the tragedy of these deaths, I would implore the other parties to do better next year, and every year after that, until every one of these recommendations has been implemented for all of the First Nations youth coming after.”
Before Rudin addressed the grades and grading system at the conference, elder Marlene Pierre of Fort William First Nation spoke, giving “our condolences to overcome the hardships and heartache” and ending with a prayer asking the Creator to “give us courage, give us strength, give us ideas.” She also closed the session.
In her opening remarks, Pierre praised the idea of the annual grading, but also encouraged First Nations people to proceed without waiting for the Canadian or provincial governments.
“We, in the Aboriginal community, have a responsibility,” she said. “We don’t need the government to do what is right.”
She said Anishinaabe communities have also made their own recommendations, including creation of an indigenous justice system. Fort William has created its own indigenous learning, without government funding, to help youths “relearn our way of life, our way of becoming adult with good background, knowing who we are and doing things for other people,” Pierre said. “I would like to encourage everyone who is listening, who will be listening to these recommendations to do one small thing, do one big thing, do whatever you can to stop this violence.”
The jury’s recommendations were comprehensive and thoughtful, Rudin said, but the families feared they would be shelved with no further thought until the loss of the next First Nations teen attending school in Thunder Bay.
The families and Aboriginal Legal Services full intend to continue their annual grading to keep not only the proper governmental “feet to the fire,” to make important changes, but also to keep the flame of these young people’s memory alive and to make critical—perhaps even live-saving—alterations to a system as part of their memorials.
“We have done so many inquests where the jury does really, really good recommendations and nothing happens with it,” Rudin said. “Everyone said at the end that we want to hold people’s feet to the fire, and we want to hold people accountable.”