Ontario’s Attorney-General says the suicide of a First Nations teenager in the child welfare system is an “absolute tragedy,” but he would not immediately commit to mandatory inquests for children who die in care.
Doug Downey said on Friday that the Progressive Conservative government is reviewing a request by Indigenous leaders and others to make such inquests mandatory, but he still needs to consult with other ministers.
“It’s an absolute tragedy. And we have a process where we talk among our colleagues. I don’t walk up to a mic and just make decisions,” Mr. Downey said at an unrelated community policing announcement, alongside Premier Doug Ford. Mr. Ford deferred questions to Mr. Downey.
“Certainly, we’re looking at that request. We’ll have to bring in also some of the other ministers who will have input in terms of their portfolios.”
Mr. Downey said Ottawa MPP Jeremy Roberts, parliamentary assistant to the minister of children, community and social services, is leading consultations about the child welfare system “to make sure that we’re doing things the best way possible.”
Devon Freeman, a 16-year-old from Chippewas of Georgina Island First Nation, died by suicide and was found in 2018 on his group home’s property, nearly seven months after his disappearance from the Hamilton-area facility.
The Ontario government has been facing calls from Indigenous leaders, the provincial NDP and Ontario’s former children’s advocate to immediately ensure there are mandatory inquests when children die in care.
Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler accused the government of stalling on the issue.
“It’s just not acceptable,” he said. "They know how serious this is. They know how urgent this is. And their response has to reflect that. They can’t just keep putting off this excuse of consulting each other.
“They’ve heard from the families. They’ve heard from the leadership. I just don’t know what else they need to hear.”
Devon’s family and community are making an appeal to the provincial coroner’s office for an inquest, saying the process could result in recommendations to prevent future deaths of children in care.
Anna Betty Achneepineskum, a former deputy grand chief for Nishnawbe Aski Nation who held the child welfare portfolio and continues to advocate on the issue, told The Globe and Mail on Friday she has long advocated for mandatory inquests for children who die in the child welfare system.
Children must be afforded justice, she said, adding that group homes are publicly funded institutions like correctional institutions. In Ontario, inquests are mandatory if a person dies in custody. (Construction site deaths also warrant inquests.)
“How can we, as a society, say that we are protecting our children when we our laws don’t reflect that?” Ms. Achneepineskum said.
In Ontario, child protection services are provided by children’s aid societies and governed by the Child, Youth and Family Services Act, while the ministry provides funding to the societies and monitors them.
NDP MPP Sol Mamakwa said he plans on writing to Mr. Downey to push for mandatory inquests and to also ensure that Devon’s death is properly investigated.
“To make it mandatory would certainly have an impact to make sure it doesn’t continue to happen,” Mr. Mamakwa said.
He said he believes the government’s decision is “purely financial,” as such inquests are costly, especially in remote areas. “We cannot put a price on children’s lives,” he said.
With a report from Kristy Kirkup