Hamilton’s police chief is backing the push for an inquest into the death of a First Nations teenager whose body was found near his group home just outside the city nearly seven months after he went missing.
Chief Eric Girt wrote to the Ontario Coroner’s Office on Tuesday to confirm his support for the inquest that has been requested by the grandmother of Devon Freeman, as well as the Chippewas of Georgina Island First Nation.
The chief’s support lends a significant voice to the growing chorus of organizations calling for an inquest.
Lawyers for Mr. Freeman’s First Nation and his grandmother, Pamela Freeman, say he was last seen alive on Oct. 6, 2017. More than seven months later, they say, his body was found hanging from a tree, exposed to the elements, no more than 35 metres from the back door of the group home.
In a statement to The Globe on Mail on Thursday, the Hamilton Police Service said it wouldn’t comment further at this time given the matter may be the subject of an inquest.
“As an organization committed to continuous learning and improvement, we believe that an inquest is [an] appropriate venue to explore the circumstances of the death and any improvements that can assist in preventing similar tragic death in the future,” said Jackie Penman of the police’s corporate communications branch.
Hamilton police have been subject to criticism since the discovery of Mr. Freeman’s body.
Sarah Clarke, the lawyer for the First Nation, and Justin Safayeni, the lawyer for Ms. Freeman, say the police force did not treat Mr. Freeman as a priority and it is unclear what efforts were made to find him. They say the force failed to investigate or search the property of the group home and they did not contact his First Nation on Lake Simcoe to see whether the community had information about his whereabouts.
Mr. Freeman’s grandmother had been in contact with Hamilton police but she did not feel they undertook a serious search for him, the lawyers added, saying she was told he was a “runaway.”
The push for an inquest has also been supported by the Assembly of First Nations, the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society and other organizations.
In the Ontario legislature on Thursday, NDP MPP and Indigenous relations critic Sol Mamakwa urged the Ontario government to ensure there is an inquest into Mr. Freeman’s death and a stronger mental-health and addictions strategy for Indigenous peoples.
“How many more young people have to die? How many young people have to lose hope before we wake up as senior levels of government and do what needs to be done to give these young people hope so they choose life over death?” Mr. Mamakwa said.
Jill Dunlop, Ontario’s Associate Minister of Children, said the death or injury of any youth or any child is unacceptable.
“On behalf of our entire government, our hearts go out to this family and community,” she said.
The ministry does not comment on individual cases due to privacy reasons, Ms. Dunlop said, adding the decision to hold an inquest is made by the Office of the Chief Coroner.
“The Chief Coroner and his staff are experts in their field and are responsible for determining whether an inquest is necessary,” she said.
At the time of his suicide, Mr. Freeman was 16 and in the care of the Children’s Aid Society of Hamilton. Children’s aid societies follow a joint directive from the ministry and the Office of the Chief Coroner when a child who has been in care within the past year dies, to better understand what happened and to identify how further deaths may be prevented, Ms. Dunlop said.
Earlier this week, the Office of the Chief Coroner said it had made a decision not to launch a discretionary inquest into Mr. Freeman’s death. The family has asked for the decision to be reconsidered.
The office says it will take the time to consider the request.
Ms. Clarke and Mr. Safayeni said the public interest requires an inquest into his death so that "serious communication failures” can be examined, as well as underlying causes and appropriate recommendations.
“Devon’s story is tragic, but his life should not be without meaning,” they wrote in a submission to the coroner’s office.