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Canada Families look for answers to deaths of 7 aboriginal students in Thunder Bay

A motivational sign on a wall at Dennis Franklin Cromarty school in Thunder Bay.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Fifteen years ago in Thunder Bay, a two-week search for 15-year-old Jethro Anderson ended with the discovery of the boy's body in the McIntyre River.

On May 10, 2011, the body of 15-year-old Jordan Wabasse turned up in another river a few kilometres away.

The two drownings bookend a morbid pattern in Thunder Bay. Five other young aboriginals from similar backgrounds died in the city over those 11 years, each death claiming the life of a student who was forced to leave home in a remote Ontario community to pursue high school in the province's major northwestern hub.

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"We started to realize in 2007 that there was something seriously wrong here," said Nishnawbe Aski Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler, whose wife works at the school that six of the seven dead students attended, Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School. "We started to get calls from parents then, parents wanting assurance their kids would be safe in Thunder Bay. So we called for a thorough investigation."

Those prolonged efforts will bear fruit on Monday with the launch of a long-delayed coroner's inquest into the seven deaths. The proceeding promises to be exceptional in size, length and scope: 200 witnesses over six months with a goal of drafting recommendations aimed at preventing similar deaths in the future.

"It is certainly one of the largest and most significant inquests we've done in Ontario," said Ontario Chief Coroner Dirk Huyer. "My hope is that the families have answers to all of the questions about deaths of loved ones."

Back in 2000, when the tragic pattern was not yet clear, few questions arose after searchers pulled Mr. Anderson's body from the river. His family, 600 kilometres away in Kasabonika Lake First Nation, mourned alone. "The day Jethro's body was found and I heard the news, my heart shattered into a million pieces," said his mother, Stella Anderson, in a written statement.

But soon the heartbreak would spread across the fly-in communities that dot Ontario's northern reaches.

Five years after Mr. Anderson came Curran Strang, 18, from Pikangikum First Nation, roughly 500 kilometres northwest of Thunder Bay, who drowned in the Neebing-McIntyre Floodway in September, 2005.

Paul Panacheese, 21, died in November of 2006, of an alleged drug overdose. He came from Mishkeegogamang First Nation, 350 kilometres away.

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Three months later it was Robyn Harper, 18, who died 500 km from her home in Keewaywin First Nation.

Mr. Fiddler and others began demanding a wider investigation in November of 2007 after the body of 15-year-old Reggie Bushie turned up in the McIntyre River, 550 kilometres from his family in Poplar Hill First Nation.

Then, on Nov. 10, 2009, there was Kyle Morrisseau, 17, another body pulled from the McIntyre River, 500 km from home.

Families of the seven victims are looking forward to the inquest with both dread and relief. They have waited years to find out what happened to their children and why fatal mistakes were repeated. And yet they are ill-prepared for the grisly disclosures of a coroner's inquest.

"Within the first week we'll hear from toxicologists, so we'll have someone who lost a son 15 years ago hearing about decomposition – those are not easy moments for any family members, and especially in such a public forum," said Christa Big Canoe, legal advocacy director at Aboriginal Legal Services of Toronto, the legal agency representing most of the families.

Local police and government officials will share in the unease. The inquest is expected to focus on the initial police investigation into the various disappearances and the larger treatment of aboriginals in the city.

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At the heart of the issue is the lack of high schools in remote First Nations communities. Across the country, countless children are forced to abandon their families and travel hundreds of kilometres from home in hopes of obtaining a high-school diploma.

"When you talk to some of these families, it's very reminiscent for some of them of the residential-school era," said Ms. Big Canoe. "Why is it that the only education opportunities require them to leave home?"

First Nations leaders have long publicized the funding gap that exists between federally funded aboriginal schools and provincial schools attended by other students. While provincial schools net roughly $10,000 a head, the federal government allots closer to $7,000 per student to its aboriginal schools.

"There is no science lab, no mechanical shop, no art and no music courses," said Mr. Wabasse's mother, Bernice Jacobs, in a statement about educational opportunities in her home community of Webequie First Nation. "The courses are so limited that [another] son is taking only two courses because he has already completed all of the available courses for his grade. It's not like the city where you can choose."

Still, she'd rather have her two surviving sons undereducated in Webequie than dying in Thunder Bay.

Her eldest wants to make the switch to school in Thunder Bay, but, says Ms. Jacobs, "I just can't let him go."

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