Inquests have become as lost as these seven aboriginal youths who left home and perished

Posted on June 29, 2016 in Inclusion Policy Context – Full Comment
June 28, 2016.  Christie Blatchford

There’s no question that they were all failed in myriad ways and places, that their deaths were a terrible waste and wrenchingly sad, and that something has to get better fast so more aboriginal young people aren’t similarly lost.

They are the seven kids — Curran Strang, 18, Paul Panacheese, 21, Robyn Harper, 18, Kyle Morrisseau, 17, and a trio of 15-year-olds, Jethro Anderson, Reggie Bushie and Jordan Wabasse — who over an 11-year period left their remote Northern Ontario reserves to go to school in Thunder Bay.

Deeply burdened, they arrived woefully unprepared for the relative big lights of a relatively big town, and the big town wasn’t particularly well-prepared for them, either.

Disadvantaged, homesick, vulnerable and not sufficiently supervised, they all perished in Thunder Bay, one of outright alcohol poisoning, five by drowning in local rivers (three with alcohol toxicity as a contributing factor), and one, Panacheese, who simply collapsed and for whom no cause of death has ever been determined.

Yet the coroner’s inquest which Tuesday returned with “verdicts” in each death (in the coroner’s system, a verdict simply answers the question “by what means” a person died) and no fewer than 145 recommendations (many more than that actually, since some have as many as 11 sub-recommendations), obediently forgot that.

Earlier, counsel for the various parties with standing at the inquest — and there were on paper as many as 25 lawyers, though usually only half that in attendance — had submitted what’s called a “joint slate” of recommendations to the jury.

There were 118 of these, and the jurors appear to have adopted them holus-bolus, including their precise language and exact words (I can practically hear the voice of Julian Falconer, the lawyer for Nishnawbe Aski Nation, the political organization that encompasses the late kids’ home reserves), as well as another 25 or so that the parties submitted individually.

The phrase “joint slate” suggests a degree of unanimity, but in fact, the government of Canada, I presume through one of its two lawyers, bravely took “no position” on all 118 recommendations.

Falconer, for NAN, by contrast, agreed with all but three of the 118, deferring in a couple of others to related indigenous organizations. It’s fairly clear, shall we say, who was driving this particular bus.

In any case, it offers further evidence that the inquest system, once the purview of the medical doctors who serve as coroners, has morphed into a highly politicized process and a fine source of work and income for lawyers; that lawyers quite directly run the show; and that jurors are not expected to think for themselves.

The bulk of the recommendations, via the lawyers to the jury, deal with sweeping changes to aboriginal education in this country. They would require truckloads of additional public money.

Recommendation No. 25, for instance, directs Ottawa to build a day care/kindergarten program for all preschool children in every reserve in NAN territory.

Oh, and an elementary school.

And a high school.

And an adult learning centre.

Or, as Falconer’s website proudly put it, “to build and fund a preschool, elementary school and high school in every reserve community in NAN territory.”

According to NAN’s website, there are 49 of these, all in the North, many of them remote, fly-in communities.

Oh, and the schools, all of them, must “further the physical, social, emotional, spiritual and cognitive development of the children” with, at the elementary and high school levels, appropriate extracurricular activities that “include traditional, cultural, recreational, academic, artistic and athletic activities.”

The federal government, says recommendation No. 27, must also ensure adequate Internet bandwidth in all the schools and serve three hot meals a day for students and staff.

While they’re at it, the feds must also build and upgrade housing, water-treatment systems and wastewater systems and develop an anti-poverty strategy for NAN members.

Not until No. 43 did I see a recommendation practical and relevant to the deaths of these seven young people — to give those students coming from remote reserves a proper orientation to Thunder Bay and the high school they will be attending.

And No. 59 is another practical one — build a freaking dorm for the out-of-town kids who are away from home in Thunder Bay so they have a safe and structured place to stay.

(Most of the kids who died were living in boarding homes, and another good idea is No. 76, which would establish minimum standards for both homes and boarding parents. Clearly, there are none now.)

But recommendations actually geared to student safety, which could be done reasonably quickly and economically, are few and far between.

More common are those such as No. 67, which would have Ottawa also give reserve students in Thunder Bay allowances for personal needs, clothes, registration fees, tutoring and “travel to other cities in Ontario and Canada.”

Those seven kids sure lost their way in the big town.

But they weren’t alone in that: The inquest system has lost its way, too, and with it, its real function: to prevent other deaths in similar circumstances.

On the website of Ontario’s chief coroner, officials explain what an inquest is, and what it isn’t. It’s not an adversarial process, not a trial, nor a process for discovery, a royal commission or “a crusade directed by personal or philosophical agendas.”

Funny, but that’s just what the inquest has become.

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