Five of them — three of whom were 15 years old — are believed to have drowned in the waters running into Lake Superior. Two reportedly died of overdoses.
And now, after years of delays, the families of seven young Aboriginal students who mysteriously died while attending high schools hundreds of miles from their reserves in northern Ontario may finally get at least some answers.
They sat this week in a cramped Thunder Bay courtroom for the launch of a coroner's inquest — said to be the largest of its kind in Ontario, with testimony expected from 200 witnesses over the next five months.
The inquest was prompted by the deaths of the students who came from remote communities in the Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN). The deaths occurred from 2000 to 2011.
"All institutions that are implicated in this have to be accountable and have to fix themselves so this never happens again," Julian Falconer lawyer for NAN, told the courtroom Monday morning. "NAN's role is to recognize that it equally, like any institution here, has to recognize that it needs to improve itself."
Because there aren't enough schools near their homes, all of these students, like hundreds of their peers, were forced to make the long trek to the city to attend high school and live with strangers in boarding homes. Many of the seven who died had to move as far as 435 miles away from home to go to school in Thunder Bay.
As many First Nations leaders have noted, these deaths are eerily similar to those that happened during the residential school era in Canada and make long-held concerns over the lack of education services in remote communities across the country all the more urgent.
"Our students are in a vulnerable situation," Terry Waboose, deputy grand chief for the NAN, told CBC News in 2012. "We're the only people in the country that have to send our kids out to school."
This inquest, called at the chief coroner's discretion, will examine relevant circumstances that might have indirectly or directly caused the deaths. The jury will consider the evidence and come to recommendations to prevent similar tragedies from happening in the future.
The inquest was supposed to start in 2012, but was stalled because of various legal hurdles, including rules that ensure representation from First Nations people on juries.
Even though that has since been resolved, new issues arose Monday morning because of the lack of seating available in the courtroom for those who wanted to attend the hearing, including family members of teens who died.
"It effectively sends a signal that inquests are a second-rate form of justice, that public access isn't a priority and, most gratingly, that aboriginal lives appear to matter less," one National Post reporter wrote.
Alvin Fiddler, Grand Chief of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, tweeted his frustration. "You know we have lots of room for First Nations peoples in jail," he told the CBC, pointing to the statistic that indigenous people comprise more than 20 percent of Canada's prison population, despite representing only 4 percent of the entire population. "But when it comes to access to the courtroom, there's no room at all."
Earlier this summer, Canada's federal police force announced that it knew of nearly 1,200 cases of missing and murdered Aboriginal women in Canada since 1980. However, activists and community leaders say that number is likely much higher. Last year, Statistics Canada reported that 1,750 male aboriginal people have been killed in the last three decades.
Discussions about indigenous rights have largely been absent from the ongoing federal election campaign, but in their 2015 budget, the Conservatives pledged to direct $500 million over six years to schools located on First Nations reserves. The Liberals promised to invest $2.6 billion for those schools, and the NDP is slated to release its plan for First Nations education soon.
The hearing is scheduled to continue until March.
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