It has only been weeks since Jordan Wabasse was laid to rest in his home community of Webequie, Ontario and yet it may take years before he and the other six First Nations students, all of whom died while attending school in Thunder Bay, will get justice.
On February 7, the search began for the 15-year-old Wabasse after he was last seen getting of a Thunder Bay bus. The teen failed to return to his home where he was boarding and was never to be seen again alive.
Wabasse had been in the city, hundreds of miles away from Webequie, to attend secondary school. This is the case for many First Nations students from the 49 communities in the Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN). Many of the communities are fly-in only and most do not have secondary schools that go beyond Grade 8.
While the search for Wabasse garnered a great deal of media attention and brought out hundreds of volunteers to search for him, sadly the next revelation in his case was a body matching his description being discovered in the Kaministiquia River on May 10. The following day it was confirmed that the corpse was indeed that of Wabasse.
While news of Wabasse’s death has rocked his tiny northern Ontario community (population under 800), devastating family and friends, perhaps what may be more disturbing is that the teen is one of seven from the NAN to have died in Thunder Bay since 2000 and six of them were found drowned. The remaining death was caused by asphyxia.
NAN Deputy Grand Chief Terry Waboose spoke to the Nation on behalf of the communities to share what he knew about the case and the dire situations that NAN teens find themselves in away from home
“We don’t know what happened between the time Jordan left the mall in the evening, getting on the bus and being dropped off at the bus stop closest to where he was boarding and three months later when he was found in the river. The mere fact that again we have another First Nations student who has perished under similar circumstances to the last seven is very disturbing,” said Waboose.
At the time Waboose spoke to the Nation, he had just attended the funeral services for Wabasse in Webequie on May 16 alongside NAN Grand Chief Stan Beardy.
Waboose said the recent tragedy had a devastating impact on the community but more so on Wabasse’s family as the teen left behind several younger brothers.
While he recognized that the next phase for the family and community would be to seek answers in Thunder Bay to understand what had happened to the teen, Waboose expressed his own frustration in a system that leaves teens vulnerable in a world they have never known before.
Waboose described the 49 communities within NAN as having high unemployment and few services available outside of the standard band offices, nursing stations or a medical clinic if they are lucky, a store or two and a policing station. About 34 are without roads going into the community and so the only way in or out is by plane and while most communities have a primary school that goes until Grade 8, not every community is so lucky. Waboose said some of them are still on Indian and Northern Affairs’ (INAC) waiting list to get schools built and only have portable trailers available to them as classrooms.
“So obviously there is no choice but to send teens to an urban centre like Thunder Bay or Sioux Lookout, if they want to further their education. So we are talking about lots of 14-15-year-olds leaving their communities for the first time to go to a large urban centre. Once there they experience a lot of challenges as there are a lot of risks,” said Waboose.
While NAN has two First Nations schools for their students – one in Thunder Bay and one in Sioux Lookout – Waboose said these schools unfortunately function more like under-funded private schools because they are under NAN and therefore subject to federal funding under INAC and not eligible for provincial funding. Waboose said INAC will not pay for maintenance of the schools, and that these institutions have to make do with the minimal funding they receive.
The two NAN schools were created by the chiefs of the communities, but not every student goes there. Some teens are instead dispersed throughout Timmins, North Bay and other urban centres far away from home.
This is where these First Nations students get a second strike against them, not only are they forced to live away from family and community to obtain a simple high school diploma, because INAC will only fund the standard tuition, there is no funding available for support services or extracurricular activities. Students get a home or facility to board in and a bare bones high school program to attend but nothing else.
In Wabasse’s case however things were slightly different; he was attending a different school in Thunder Bay and was on a local hockey team. Still, since his arrival in Thunder Bay last September, it was his first time away from home, and he felt cut off from everything he had ever known.
In terms of what has happened to the seven students who have died, Waboose said he could only speculate about the type of trouble these teens must face on a daily basis while studying away from home.
Sure they have school to attend but what about the rest of the time he asked?
“It has been my experience being a First Nations person that there is a lot of discrimination and racism out there that these kids could be facing and if you couple that with all of the problems of being a young person and then all of the temptations of drugs and alcohol, and you can see how this can often lead to tragic circumstances,” said Waboose.
While he wouldn’t speculate that all of the deaths have been suspicious, what Waboose could say was it was suspicious how none of the concerned communities have been able to get any answers when it comes to looking at how seven teens turned up dead with six dying under nearly identical circumstances.
According to Christopher Adams, the Executive Officer for Thunder Bay Police Services, Wabasse’s case has remained open since his body was discovered.
While Adams said an extensive amount of work had gone into the search for Wabasse, to date there has been nothing to indicate foul play though a toxicology report is currently pending.
“The question is what happened to Jordan from the time he stepped off that bus on February 7 until he made his way down to the river remains a mystery. It is unfortunate to have that information unknown because certainly that would help to add further closure to the family and the community,” said Adams.
Regarding the other six NAN teens who perished, Adams could only say that in his mind the common thread was that these kids could have been involved in “dangerous activities, such as drinking and socializing in some dangerous situations.”
While Waboose acknowledged that drinking could have been a factor in all of these deaths, it isn’t the be-all and end-all.
“They could have perished due to their own misfortune. Maybe they slipped and fell while intoxicated but there could be those other causes as well. Again, this is what we need to find out,” said Waboose.
But it’s getting to the bottom of these cases and looking at the parallels between them that have ultimately been problematic in Thunder Bay due to a major conflict between various courts and the Attorney General over the issue of jury rolls.
Here is how these two issues are integrally related:
According to Howard Hampton, New Democratic Party MMP for Kenora-Rainy River, understanding the commonalities between all of these deaths is essential when it comes to giving the parents of these teens the answers and closure they so desperately need but it won’t happen until the province of Ontario stops standing in the way of justice.
“I think what has bothered a lot of people is that there have been seven deaths in the space of 10 years, only two coroners’ inquests have been called and those both essentially fell apart,” said Hampton.
In Ontario, unlike in Quebec, a coroner’s inquest requires a five-party jury that is representative of the public, much like in a criminal trial.
But, because there is a long-standing issue in Thunder Bay, that stems from inquests set up for two of the deceased NAN teens, whereby First Nations individuals are not being included in these juries. So all inquests and court trials that require juries are on hold and have been since March 10.
“Those two coroners’ inquests were called after the fourth and fifth teen died in the fall of 2007, and one of them was Reggie Bushie,” said Hampton.
At the time that Bushie’s inquest was set to begin in 2009; Hampton said NAN and the families of Bushie and the other student began to question just how representative the inquest juries would be.
Giving a bit of history about the situation, Hampton explained how in the past it was INAC that had handled handing over names to the Ontario courts for First Nations to serve on juries. However, it was deemed that due to privacy issues, INAC had no right doing so. The only problem was that the province didn’t pick up the slack when it came to including First Nations. This happened despite the fact that there are 15 reserves within Thunder Bay’s judicial district. It was later found that they only had names for individuals from two reserves.
“After INAC stopped submitting the lists, no one in INAC and no one in the provincial Ministry of the Attorney General saw anything wrong with First Nations basically being eliminated from the jury list,” said Hampton.
When NAN and the families tried to question the courts about jury representation in 2009, Hampton said they were told they didn’t have the right to inquire. While one inquest went ahead, the other inquest they sought judicial review on.
With the judicial review finally making its way into the Court of Appeals this past March, Hampton said the judge’s ruling indicated that there was no evidence that the jury pool was representative. For that matter, there is all kinds of evidence that this jury pool is not representative, as it was not deemed a jury of peers for the judicial district.
The Court of Appeals’ ruling also stipulated that the first inquiry was invalid and that both inquiries need to be reconstructed so to include First Nations within the jury pool.
In that the same argument was taken up within a murder trial this past winter because the judge presiding over the case also considered the jury to be unfit for the same reasoning, the supervising judge for the Thunder Bay judicial district has since written that no court process involving a jury can proceed until the matter of First Nations and jury pools is rectified.
At the same time, Hampton said he has been battling this issue within the Ontario Legislature but the office of the Attorney General keeps sending the same message, that they have heard from the Court of Appeals and so they can now proceed with the inquests and trials. The only problem is that nothing has changed and no, they cannot proceed.
“Again, despite the fact that this has been a problem since 2007, it ain’t fixed,” said Hampton.
While Hampton continues to battle it out in the Legislature (to no avail), three months without jury trials and jury inquests could lead to even greater fallout. Not only are the rights of every accused individual being violated because they are being deprived of speedy trials, by not providing the courts with representative juries for several years some cases could be overturned and criminals set free.
Getting back to NAN’s dead youth, Hampton said the general assumption about the seven tragedies is that it was being presumed that each of them had possibly fallen victim to their own misfortunes, possibly committing suicide, as a result of lack of support in a land of temptation. But, his problem with the situation is that whether that is true or not, he believes it is a serious situation when seven young people come to a city like Thunder Bay and all disappear only to turn up dead.
The fact that so many of them have died the same way is only too curious and whether someone was preying on them in any capacity is also another issue that needs to be addressed.
“If these seven young First Nations students had disappeared in London, Hamilton or Oshawa, in other words, closer to Toronto, there would have been several inquests and there might even have been a judicial inquiry. But, because this is in a smaller city in northern Ontario, because it involves young Native people from small, remote First Nations communities that most people in Ontario have never heard of and frankly because they are Native, this has gotten little attention,” said Hampton.
In that there has been no movement on the issue in months, Hampton believes that the families might now be best served by seeking out a judicial inquest into all seven deaths.
Not only could a thorough examination of all seven cases provide the families and NAN with the answers they so desperately need but the recommendations could also provide a framework for change so that other First Nations youth are not left so vulnerable.
For now however, the families of seven First Nations youth remain without justice or answers until Ontario makes the proper moves so that the inquires can begin.
“I know it’s nasty to say this but if these were white, middle-class kids from London, Ontario, you would have had a judicial inquiry started five years ago,” said Hampton.