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First Nations leaders question safety of youth in Thunder Bay

Alvin Fiddler, Grand Chief of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, is shown before receiving an honorary Doctor of Laws degree in 2016. In an interview Friday, Mr. Fiddler said, “The fact that [Josiah and Tammy] went missing the same evening, the same day, is obviously something that should alarm all of us that reside here in Thunder Bay.”

J.P. MOCZULSKI/The Globe and Mail

The drownings of two more Indigenous teenagers in Thunder Bay has First Nations leaders raising new questions about whether their young people are safe on the streets of the Northern Ontario city and whether police investigations into the deaths have been adequate.

A body was pulled from the McIntyre River on Thursday and, based on the clothes and the watch he was wearing, it is believed to be that of 14-year-old Josiah Begg, who had been missing for 12 days.

Tammy Keeash, a 17-year-old First Nations girl, was found in the city's waters last week, bringing to seven the number of Indigenous teens who have drowned in the Northern Ontario city since 2000.

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"The fact that [Josiah and Tammy] went missing the same evening, the same day, is obviously something that should alarm all of us that reside here in Thunder Bay and I think it just confirms the fear and the concern that our leadership has and the families have on the well-being and the safety of our children," Alvin Fiddler, the Grand Chief of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, said Friday in a telephone interview.

"The families are asking for a very thorough investigation for both Tammy and Josiah," said Mr. Fiddler, "that all of the circumstances that led to them going missing should be examined and the effort needs to be made [to find out] why this is happening."

Josiah Begg disappeared on May 6 after travelling to Thunder Bay with his father from his home on the Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug First Nation to attend medical appointments. A day after Josiah went missing, the body of Tammy Keeash was found floating in the Neebing-McIntyre Floodway. Tammy, who was boyish in appearance , had been living in a group home in Thunder Bay while she received counselling.

Five other Indigenous youths – Jordan Wabasse, 15, Kyle Morrisseau, 17, Reggie Bushie, 15, Curran Strang, 18, and Jethro Anderson, 15 – also drowned in Thunder Bay's rivers between 2000 and May, 2011. A coroner's inquest into the drownings of the teenagers and the deaths of two other Indigenous youth, which was completed last year, determined that Curran Strang and Reggie Bushie died accidentally, but the the reasons for the other boys' demise was "undetermined."

Tammy Keeash was troubled. But she was also a Junior Canadian Ranger who knew about water safety.

So when the Thunder Bay police issued a statement on May 12 saying "there is no evidence to indicate criminality in this tragic death," First Nations leaders reacted with skepticism. Dinah Kanate, chief of the North Caribou Lake First Nation, where Tammy was from, said she would raise funds to hire a private investigator.

Staff Sergeant Ryan Hughes of the Thunder Bay force said Friday that officers are still investigating Tammy's death, even if they have said there is nothing to point to criminality. And if the First Nations want to hire a private investigator, the police would make no objection.

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"We will work with a private investigator," Staff Sgt. Hughes said. "If they have any information to provide us with our investigation, we will gladly take it."

For several years, there have been complaints from Indigenous leaders that the investigative practices of the Thunder Bay police have been less than adequate when First Nations people are victims.

The force is now the subject of a systemic review by the Office of the Independent Police Review Director, the province's police oversight body, to determine whether the investigations of missing Indigenous people and Indigenous deaths have been conducted in discriminatory ways.

In 2015, when 41-year-old Stacy DeBungee was found in the McIntyre River, the Indigenous leadership was so dissatisfied with the police investigation that the chief of the Rainy River First Nation hired a private investigator who quickly obtained information that investigating officers had overlooked.

Now that two more Indigenous youth have drowned, Mr. Fiddler said he hopes Josiah Begg and Tammy Keeash will be included in the investigation of the Office of the Independent Police Review Director.

"More needs to be done to look into why this is happening," said Mr. Fiddler, "and someone needs to get to the bottom of this."

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