The Ontario government and coroners in the province’s northwest are asking a judge to throw out a case launched against them by family members of a four-year-old First Nations boy who say their grief was amplified by the lack of an adequate investigation into his death.
Lawyers for the coroners and the province were in the Ontario Superior Court in Thunder Bay, Ont., on Tuesday to say a suit filed by relatives of four-year-old Brody Meekis should be dismissed because their clients did not intend to harm Brody’s family, and because coroners owe a duty to the public as a whole and not to specific people or a specific “class of people.”
They say the suit filed by Brody’s father, Fraser Meekis, his mother, Wawaskaysca Keno, his brothers, and his grandfathers is an abuse of the court’s process.
But Brody’s family says in a statement of claim that the coroners failed in their obligation to provide a high-quality investigation that could be used to prevent similar deaths in the future. And, they say, the failure is because of the “unreasonably inadequate coronial services” that are provided to remote First Nations communities.
“At the centre of this case is young child who died an easily preventable death, and his family who has been left with heartache and too many questions,” their lawyer, Julian Falconer, told the court on Tuesday in response to the motion to have the case dismissed.
“At the centre of this case is a family whose grief at the unexpected and tragic death of their son was prolonged and compounded by a coronial system that was indifferent to his death and just couldn’t be bothered,” Mr. Falconer said. "Couldn’t be bothered to show up to investigate the alarming death. Couldn’t be bothered to collect and analyze information in order to identify systemic failings and make recommendations to remedy them.”
The judge reserved his decision in the case.
The suit is taking place against a larger backdrop of alleged discrimination against Indigenous people by authorities in Thunder Bay that affects the people in the many remote First Nations that lie to its north.
Brody died of a strep infection on the Sandy Lake First Nation in May, 2014. He was the second Indigenous child in the region to succumb that year to the disease, which is rarely fatal anywhere else in Canada.
Unlike when normally healthy children die elsewhere in the country, no coroner arrived in community to visit the nursing station where Brody’s life ended, to talk to the nurses who treated him, or to take a hard look at the factors such as underfunding and understaffing that may have contributed to his death. His body was sent to Kenora, Ont., for an autopsy before it was determined that an inquest was not required.
Brody’s family members say in the statement of claim that they were provided with little information by the coroners after the body was flown out of Sandy Lake.
Instead, they say, the coroners told police officers to visit their home and check for evidence of drugs or alcohol – none of which was found. In the end, they say, the family was “scrutinized more heavily than was the nursing station and its staff.”
The family says in the statement of claim that Wojciech Aniol, the coroner assigned to the case, deliberately failed to comply with the policy for death investigations when he did not travel north to the scene of Brody’s death. And they say that Michael Wilson, the regional supervising coroner, and Dirk Huyer, the Chief Coroner for Ontario, were negligent in overseeing Dr. Aniol’s investigation.
In addition, they say, the coroners failed to provide them with the same quality of services that would be expected by any Ontario resident who does not live on a reserve and, as such, they were discriminated against on the basis of race and the place where they live.
“The plaintiffs have suffered, and continue to suffer psychologically and emotionally as a direct result of the conduct of the defendants,” says the statement of claim.
But the province and the coroners counter in their motion to dismiss the case that there is no evidence of deliberate unlawful conduct, or that they exercised their authority in way that would intentionally harm Brody’s family.
They say coroners cannot be held liable for negligence because the Coroners Act protects them from liability for acts or omissions that are done in good faith while carrying out their duties. And, even if the plaintiff’s rights were infringed, they say awarding damages would serve no purpose because “coroners perform a duty owed to the public at large and not to particular individuals.”