The City of Thunder Bay is moving forward with recommendations made last year following an inquest into the deaths of seven First Nations youth attending high school in the city.
Evidence presented during the inquest indicated there was a lack of recreational and extracurricular activities for the students to participate in while in Thunder Bay, separated from their families.
City clerk John Hannam said on Tuesday that it’s important the students and their families are made to feel welcome in the city.
“They’re part of our community, just as any other individual is,” Hannam said. “They’re here and accessing our services so we have a duty to support as much as we can all people who are residents in our community.”
Jethro Anderson, Curran Strang, Paul Panacheese, Robyn Harper, Reggie Bushie, Kyle Morrisseau and Jordan Wabasse all died between 2000 and 2011. Six of the students attended Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School and Wabasse was a student at the Matawa Learning Centre.
Proceeding for eight months with testimony from 146 witnesses and 185 exhibits, a coroner’s inquest probed the death of the seven students from remote First Nations communities attending school in Thunder Bay and produced a lengthy list of recommendations aimed at preventing future, similar deaths.
Of the total 145 recommendations, 31 are directed either wholly or partially to the city.
The city’s response to the recommendations was presented to Thunder Bay city council on Monday night. Council voted to accept and implement the recommendations.
Those include reviewing and enhancing existing cultural sensitivity training for city staff, increase access for recreational programs and services and generate more awareness and exposure of opportunities that are available.
“The intent of the recommendations is to reduce barriers and to provide equitable access and supports for students, regardless of whether they’re coming from a northern community or they come from a road access community,” said Hannam.
“The inquest acknowledges the kids come into our system at whatever age they do — typically high school but more and more are coming for elementary now — are coming in at a disadvantage. Whether that disadvantage is the quality of education they came from, the funding they have to support once they’re here, it needs to be addressed.”
The city’s implementation strategies include turning to senior levels of government by applying to Public Safety Canada for $1.35 million per year over five years to launch a Youth Inclusion Program and an application to the province to start a Youth for Youth: Working Toward Unity Project as an Ontario 150 Partnership Program.
Hannam said the report to council, which effectively serves as a blueprint for the implementation, helps city administration integrate existing resources such as the Anti-Racism Advisory Committee and Aboriginal Liaison into the response.
“In a number of cases we’re already working on areas the recommendations brought forward,” Hannam said, adding the inquest’s stakeholders such as the city were able to suggest recommendations to the jury. “Some of those recommendations we suggested became part of the final recommendations and we did so because we knew they would have impact and we would be able to fulfil them.”
Nishnawbe Aski Nation Deputy Grand Chief Anna Betty Achneepineskum, who one night earlier took members of city council to task for not attending the inquest proceedings, said in a statement on Tuesday she was encouraged by the city’s response.
“I acknowledge the City of Thunder Bay’s commitment to the implementation of these recommendations and I am encouraged that council is committed to building relationships with NAN and our First Nations to begin to address many of the issues identified throughout the inquest,” Achneepineskum said in a statement.
“We look forward to strengthening our relationship with the city and other organizations to move forward with this process.”
The parties with standing at the inquest — which include the city, Thunder Bay Police Service, NAN, Nishnawbe Education Council and the governments of Canada and Ontario — have been asked by the chief coroner to prepare a report at the one-year anniversary of the inquest’s conclusion in June about progress in implementing the recommendations.