After three months of testimony, an inquest into the deaths of seven indigenous youths in Thunder Bay while they were attending high school far from their remote reserves has adjourned until January 11, according to CBC News.
Racism against indigenous youth in Thunder Bay has been a recurring topic during the inquest into the deaths of seven First Nations high school students, ages 15 to 21, between 2000 and 2011. They died while attending high school in the northwestern Ontario city, with five of them found in waterways.
Over the last several weeks of the inquest, which began in early October, witnesses included former students, the victims’ friends and family members, police and medical experts. A number of people have brought up the ongoing issue of racism in Thunder Bay, and it is an old one, although various programs have tried to address it.
Alexis Turtle, who went to school with 15-year-old Reggie Bushie before he was found dead in a river in 2007, testified remotely in November from her home in Pikangikum First Nation. She told the inquest that she felt nervous and scared when she left her home community to go to high school Thunder Bay at age 16. She said she and a friend were once waiting at a bus stop when objects were thrown at them from a passing car.
Several other former students described similar experiences. Skye Kakekagumick, who came to Thunder Bay from Keewaywin First Nation when she was 15, told the inquest panel that she was called a “stupid savage” and had food thrown at her, CBC News reported.
“It’s very scary,” Kakekagumick said. “To them, we are just savages. They think it’s funny.”
Kakekagumick said that when she first came to the city, police caught her drinking with friends, and a male officer grabbed her by the hair and slammed her head into a police cruiser, according to CBC. Officers also taunted her with cartoon drawings of native people, the girl said, and added that she and other students turned to alcohol to cope with racism and loneliness.
It has been revealed in the inquest that several of the teens were drinking before they died.
Bushie’s aunt, who took him in when he was a baby, broke into tears when she told the inquest that she “didn’t want to let him go” to Thunder Bay for Grade 9. She said she knew the teen was experimenting with alcohol and was concerned about what might happen with his drinking.
“We loved him, and we really cared for him, and we did not want him to leave,” she said.
Their home community of Poplar Hill First Nation, with a population of about 500, only offers schooling up to Grade 8. She and Bushie’s mother, Rhoda, both testified that they didn’t recall hearing from police when the teen went missing or when he died.
Dora Morris—the aunt of Jethro Anderson, whose body was found in a river in 2000, when he was 15—previously testified that when she reported her nephew missing, an officer told her he was “just out there partying like any native kid.”
Police waited six days to investigate his death, CBC reported. The inquest heard that police announced no foul play was suspected in the death before an autopsy was complete. Although they had received a tip that Anderson had been murdered, they deemed it not credible and did not investigate.
The goal of the inquest is to find ways to prevent further deaths of students who come to the city from remote communities, and it is expected to continue into March and hear a total of about 200 witness testimonies.