In summertime, the lazy McIntyre River, a tributary of Lake Superior, is a picturesque waterway that meanders through Thunder Bay's George Burke Park. An easy canoe paddle will give you a view of white and black spruce, birch and poplar, and a host of northern Ontario wildflowers.
However for 15-year-old Jethro Anderson; Curran Strang, 18; Reggie Bushie, 15; and Kyle Morrisseau, 17 -- all First Nations high school students -- the river was to be their final resting place. Three other First Nations students, Paul Panacheese, 17; Robyn Harper, 18; and 15-year-old Jordan Wabasse, were also First Nations students sent from their remote northern Ontario reserves to a high school in Thunder Bay, all (except the only girl Robyn Harper) were found dead in the waterways leading to Lake Superior.
It has been just over a year since the last body, that of Jordan Wabasse washed up onto shore. One year with still few answers.
This tragedy began Nov. 11, 2000, when Jethro Anderson's young body was recovered from the McIntyre River. There were signs that he had been drinking. Indeed, all these students whose bodies were pulled from the river showed signs of heavy drinking. Alcohol, Oxycoton and marijuana are the most common drugs young people turn to on the reserve.
Suicide is rampant and sometimes, young people just wander stoned, too high to judge the danger of trucks barreling down on them as they stagger on highways. So the opportunity to leave the reserve for cities such as Thunder Bay holds an almost romantic appeal.
While some students are boarded in good homes, there remains no real social network for them, no family or other support system. This often leads to the only "friend" these young people have known: drugs and alcohol.
The Dennis Cromarty High School in Thunder Bay is where most of the northern reserve teens attend because it offers these students options and opportunities. Sometimes, it works miracles.
Its principal, Jonathan Kakegamic, is a compassionate and sympathetic educator. He is haunted by the seven deaths. In a voiced choked with emotion, he told CBC's the Fifth Estate: "I'll never forget these kids. I can't comprehend what these parents are going through."
Kakegamic is no stranger to the pain and struggles of his students. For one, he realizes that he is dealing with first-year high school students who read at a third grade level. Yet, protecting these vulnerable First Nations children is his first concern. Each student from a northern Ontario reserve (there are about 18) is thoroughly screened. They are asked to identify any tattoos or unique birthmarks in order to identify them if the worst happens.
The school hired Robbie Kakegamic, a cousin of the principal, as a guide and mentor to these kids. Mostly, his job is to try and keep them safe. Along with the principal and other volunteers, Kakegamic patrols the banks of the McIntyre and Kaministiqua Rivers, especially under the William Street Bridge a favourite spot to drink and get stoned.
Kakegamic recalls a tearful request from the parent of one of the reserve children: "Take good care of my son." Can there be a more sincere plea?
And yet, sons and daughters have died. Jordan Wabasse went missing Feb. 7, 2011. He'd taken a bus to his usual stop, six blocks from the river's edge and only one block from his boarding house. His body washed up on the shores of the Kaministiqua River three months later.
The story repeated for many of the others. One student, a new arrival from Deep River reserve, told Kakegamic that Thunder Bay scared her. "So many eyes," she said. And so to blunt the staring, she, like many others, turned to pot and alcohol. "Smoking just makes the pain go away," she tells us, followed by a far-off stare, "but really it just makes it worse."
It seems to come down to one fact: There is simply a disproportionate lack of funds to First Nations schools. First Nations education is a federal responsibility, and with the failure of the 2005 Kelowna Accord that was to see a $5 billion plan to start a healing and building process on reserves, the fog of hopelessness continues.
Recently the federal budget committed $275 million to improving First Nations education -- $100 million for literacy and $175 million to build and maintain schools. Aboriginal leaders concede it is a start but a pittance of what is needed.
The province of Ontario has finally decided to take some action. The documentary by CBC's Fifth Estate, numerous articles including this one which appeared originally in the Ottawa Citizen last spring, and the fact that the parents of the victims never let this go has led Ontario's Chief Coroner to hold a joint inquest to all seven deaths. Though called last spring the inquest has yet to commence.
Aboriginal children have the right to an education equal to that of any child in this country. Whether properly funded schools are established on reserves where numbers warrant or in the alternative schools like the Cromarty school in Thunder Bay is funded adequately, we must act.
Until we understand and embrace this need, we can only pray that the young students heading from their reserve to the big city heed the admonition of Robbie Kakegamic, when he begs them, "Don't go under that bridge."
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