Inquest into deaths of Ont. students will be echoed by MMIW inquiry: Aboriginal leader

OTTAWA -- An Ontario inquest into the deaths of seven First Nations high school students is raising difficult questions and themes sure to be echoed by a forthcoming inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women, aboriginal leaders say.

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The inquiry, which resumes Monday in Thunder Bay, is exploring how the deaths were investigated and the level of communication between officials and families, Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler said in an interview.

Nishnawbe Aski is one of the parties with standing at the inquest.

"I think there are a couple of themes that have emerged from this inquest that we see a strong parallel with the issue of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls," Fiddler said.

"One is the racism that these students experienced here in Thunder Bay and the lack of proper attention by the authorities into these deaths. There were delays in launching a full-scale search for these students once they were reported missing."

The inquest, which is being conducted in phases in front of a jury, is exploring what happened to 15-year-old Jethro Anderson, 18-year-old Curran Strang, 21-year-old Paul Panacheese, 19-year-old Robyn Harper, 17-year-old Kyle Morrisseau, 15-year-old Jordan Wabasse and 15-year-old Reggie Bushie.

The deaths, which occurred between 2000 and 2011, all took place while the students were living in Thunder Bay, away from their First Nations communities, in order to be able to attend high school.

Many northern Ontario communities lack high schools, which forces young people to live in boarding houses that are closer to available facilities, Fiddler said.

"For the most part, you don't have a choice but to go to high school -- whether it is in Sioux Lookout or Timmins or Thunder Bay," he said.

It's an experience with which Fiddler has first-hand knowledge.

"For me, it was the realization I was one of those kids," he said, recalling the memory of leaving his First Nations community to attend school in Sioux Lookout and Thunder Bay.

"It hits pretty close to home. You can't help but feel that you have to do something about what was happening -- and what is happening."

Although the jury's conclusions are not binding, the hope is that it can make recommendations in order to prevent deaths in similar circumstances.

The inquest is expected to highlight systemic problems with First Nations child welfare and access to education -- areas also flagged in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's recent findings in its exhaustive study of Canada's now-defunct residential school system.

In an interview with The Canadian Press, Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett called the Thunder Bay deaths a "terrible tragedy."

"Obviously the child welfare system is not working and I have already promised that we will look at it and overhaul it to make sure that we can have families stay together whenever possible," said Bennett.

"This is truly sobering, this inquest ... we want to be able to put in place concrete actions at all levels of government to prevent this tragedy in the future."

Canada may no longer have residential schools, but the attitudes and stigmas that helped bring them about are still a factor, said NDP indigenous affairs critic Charlie Angus, whose northern Ontario riding includes a number of First Nations communities.

"I've spoken with young people who have left home at 14 and lived in boarding houses," Angus said." They talk about the residential schools; they say, 'This is what my grandparents when through."'

Young indigenous people are often forced to leave their tight-knit home communities behind, ending up in big cities that can be dark and dangerous alternate worlds, Angus said.

"Why is that situation happening? It is because the federal government doesn't supply high schools in many of these communities."

Bennett said the new Liberal government is looking at solutions.

"I'm heartened by the fact that so many people are thinking about these things and obviously it really touches Charlie Angus's riding," she said.

"The kinds of supports and services that are there for those communities (are) clearly not adequate."


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