Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

A former government-run group home where Traevon Desjarlais-Chalifoux died in Abbotsford, B.C., on Nov. 18, 2020.Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

Staff at the group home where Cree foster teen Traevon Desjarlais-Chalifoux killed himself received little to no training on how to treat Indigenous youth and were verbally abusive to the ones who streamed through their Abbotsford, B.C., facility, an inquest into his 2020 death heard.

On Thursday, the two middle-aged white men who traded three-day shifts at the group home, where the teen stayed for the last 15 months of his brief life, testified that most of the teens coming through their bungalow were Indigenous.

But, they said, their company Rees Family Services Inc., which runs nine such facilities in the Fraser Valley area east of Vancouver, gave them no formal training on caring for minors who have suffered trauma or are Indigenous. (A previous B.C. government review of 45 foster teens who died in care between 2018 and 2019 found two-thirds were Indigenous.)

Murray McMaster, who was a cook, car salesman and plumbing wholesaler before joining the foster care industry nine years ago, answered “no” when asked by one juror at the BC Coroners Service inquest whether he was familiar with the concept of intergenerational trauma, which is when survivors pass down their untreated stress from horrible experiences in their lives to their children.

Brett Claxton, a former soldier who was training to become a bodyguard when he began caring for an autistic child 23 years ago and then pivoted to staffing group homes a decade later, testified Thursday that he had some online training in de-escalation tactics and recognizing risky behaviour in teens but nothing specific to how to deal with Indigenous people.

The inquest was called this spring following a Globe and Mail investigation into the death of the teen, whose body was discovered in his bedroom closet four days after he was reported missing. The Globe investigation found serious deficiencies at the organization in charge of his care, Xyolhemeylh – also known as the Fraser Valley Aboriginal Children and Family Services Society, one of 24 Indigenous Child and Family Service agencies charged with providing foster care to First Nations, Métis and Inuit children and youth in British Columbia.

The Globe investigation interviewed former employees of Rees who said the hiring process was not rigorous and that these homes attracted the “most troubled kids” in the foster care system. In the past decade, the B.C. government has paid company owner Richard Rees between $875,000 and $1-million a year, records show. (Mr. Rees, who was contracted by Xyolhemeylh to house Mr. Desjarlais-Chalifoux, ignored multiple e-mails and hand-delivered letters requesting comment during The Globe’s investigation.)

On Thursday, Mr. Claxton testified that he got along with Mr. Desjarlais-Chalifoux well, but had called the police shortly after he arrived at the home in June, 2019, because the teen was bashing holes in his bedroom wall. Abbotsford Police Department officers arrived, the inquest heard, and talked to the teen and determined they could not apprehend him under the provincial Mental Health Act to get him more care. Police said it was a simple issue of property damage and left, according to Mr. Claxton, who said his company put him on leave for six months after Mr. Desjarlais-Chalifoux’s suicide.

Michael Pruden, a young Indigenous man who spent five months at the group home in 2019, testified that Mr. Claxton was verbally abusive to him and Mr. Desjarlais-Chalifoux, often withholding food if chores were not done and locking the pair outside the house during “coffee breaks” that could last hours. He told a Rees company lawyer at the inquest that his housemate told him he liked living there, but he knew the quiet teen was lying about it because he didn’t want to ruffle feathers at the house. He also testified that he would awake to screaming matches between the teen and either of the two staff.

“I left because I couldn’t take it any more, being treated poorly, talked about poorly,” said Mr. Pruden.

The inquest’s five jurors are tasked with determining when and how Mr. Desjarlais-Chalifoux died and with making recommendations for systemic changes that could prevent other foster children from dying in similar circumstances.

Mr. McMaster and Mr. Claxton testified that the week before his body was found, Mr. Desjarlais-Chalifoux went missing from the home for 36 hours. He returned, but come their shift change on the morning of Sept. 14, 2020, the pair had not seen him since the afternoon prior.

Mr. McMaster testified he called police soon after to report the teen missing. But, he said he did not tell the dispatcher about the teen’s past suicide attempt years earlier, or that he had threatened to slit his wrists weeks earlier because a call to police then did not result in Mr. Desjarlais-Chalifoux being apprehended.

Mr. McMaster said he searched the teen’s room daily, looking under the bed, but he somehow must have missed searching the closet. On the third day a smell began emanating from the basement and, he said, he feared Mr. Desjarlais-Chalifoux had been keeping a small pet may have become stuck into the sizable holes he had punched into the walls of the bedroom.

On the fourth day, Abbotsford police arrived, Mr. McMaster said. “They went downstairs and [an officer] found Traevon very quickly,” he said.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe