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Canada It's time to shed some light on native suicides in Thunder Bay

As with so much that is about Canada's native people, the story out of a Thunder Bay press conference last week didn't garner nearly the attention it should have.

A poignant piece in the local paper, the Chronicle Journal, which also appeared in the North Bay Nugget, was about as big as it got.

The facts are pretty damn startling: Five young students attending the same small first nations-run high school in Thunder Bay, all of them from remote Northern Ontario reserves, have died in sudden and unexpected ways in the past eight years - four of them since 2005.

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All were Nishnawbek, the word for members of the Nishnawbe-Aski Nation (NAN), an aboriginal political organization which represents almost 50 first nations communities in Ontario that lie north of the 50th parallel and whose total population of about 30,000 live scattered in dozens and dozens of isolated communities across a huge geographical area.

Jethro Anderson, a 15-year-old from Kasabonika Lake First Nation, about 400 kilometres north of Sioux Lookout, was the first. He died in a drowning accident on Nov. 11, 2000.

Curran Strang, 18, was next. From Pikangikum First Nation, which is about 200 kilometres from Sioux Lookout, he drowned in the Neebing-McIntyre Floodway in Thunder Bay on Sept. 16, 2005.

Paul Panacheese, from Mishkeegogamang First Nation, about 350 km northwest of Thunder Bay, died on Nov. 11, 2006; his death is alleged to have been drug-related.

Robyn Harper, from Kee-way-win First Nation, a tiny community of 265 people about 300 km northwest of Sioux Lookout, died on Jan. 13, 2007, his death allegedly alcohol-related.

Reggie Bushie, only 15, went missing on Oct. 26 last year, his body found in the McIntyre River on Nov. 1. He was a member of the Poplar Hill First Nation, another hamlet of about 400 people accessible only by air and a so-called "winter road." His death also appears to have been a drowning.

Reggie's parents, Berenson and Rhoda King, were the first to call for a coroner's inquest into the death of their son, a quiet boy who had never left his reserve until he headed off to high school in Thunder Bay last fall.

They were joined by NAN Deputy Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler, whose organization retained well-known Toronto lawyer Julian Falconer to make the formal request last week.

"NAN has an increasing concern about the safety of their community members who attend high school in Thunder Bay," Mr. Falconer wrote in a March 6 letter. "For many small, remote, fly-in communities, NAN youth are required to attend a high school outside their home territories."

One such school is Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School.

Named in memory of a former NAN Grand Chief and leader, the school draws its student body of 250 from reserves across northwestern Ontario, is run by the Northern Nishnawbe Education Council and aims to provide a family atmosphere for students who are away from home, many for the first time.

But as Deputy Chief Fiddler said yesterday in a phone interview from Thunder Bay, "It's very challenging for a high school to look after 250 students with no family supports. ... We need to look at what are some of the possible solutions, what other supports need to be put in place and see that the students succeed."

The elephant in the room, though certainly Deputy Chief Fiddler and NAN don't flinch from it, is suicide: Among aboriginal youth, it is no secret that suicide rates are five to six times higher than among their non-native peers. NAN recognized this almost two decades ago, sponsoring a study of adolescent suicides in its own enormous backyard in 1990.

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The opening paragraph of that study's introduction notes the following: "Suicide is a tragedy that occurs in the first nations communities of Northern Ontario with frightening regularity.

"The Sioux Lookout Zone Hospital, which serves 27 native communities, reported 143 attempted and 10 known suicides in 1990." The report notes that "these are probably only a fraction of the actual suicides" if, as the literature suggests, "violent deaths involving alcohol," including drownings, "are commonly miscategorized as accidents or crimes."

In fact, one of the things that Deputy Chief Fiddler says his people need to know is if the five teens' deaths were suicides or accidents.

"That's the thing," he said yesterday. "We don't know. It's the reason we're calling for this inquest."

All five deaths were "coroner's cases," Ontario Chief Coroner Bonita Porter told The Globe and Mail yesterday, meaning that they were reported to and investigated by a coroner from her office. Certainly, she said, the coroner's office is aware "that we have an issue with drug abuse and suicide" in first nations communities, pointing to the recommendation last year from the Paediatric Death Review Committee.

Noting "the pattern and number of suicides among first nations youth," the committee said it is "gravely concerned."

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Deputy Chief Fiddler was blunt: "They [the coroner's office]knew about our concerns; they just haven't done anything."

In fact, just last month, as the Goudge Commission (formally, the Inquiry into Pediatric Forensic Pathology in Ontario) held policy meetings in Thunder Bay on aboriginal issues, Deputy Chief Fiddler and Jim Morris, from the Sioux Lookout Health Authority, took part in discussions.

Mr. Morris said that the last time he looked, since 1986, there had been 276 youth suicides in the area. "And one inquest," he said.

And Deputy Chief Fiddler added, "The relationship between the coroner's office and the first nations leadership in the community is non-existent."

In his March 6 letter, Mr. Falconer said NAN wants "a broader inquest" that will examine all five deaths - boys all attending the same school; all residing in Thunder Bay in a "foster" care-type arrangement; all from remote reserves.

"Homesickness, cultural discontinuity and cognitive dissonance marked their existences," Mr. Falconer wrote. "NAN is insisting that their deaths no longer suffer from this same level of neglect."

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Operating at its best, the coroner's inquest can shine a little light on matters of significant public interest that otherwise would remain in the dark; this would seem a case, or rather a series of them, crying out for that very service.

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