05/23/2012 02:20 EDT | Updated 07/23/2012 05:12 EDT

Ontario First Nations group calls for broader inquest into seven youth deaths

TORONTO - Their young lives and their dreams were similar — and so were their deaths.

Seven aboriginal teens left their families in various Northern Ontario reserves to pursue an education in the city. But their dream of gaining a high school diploma was cut short.

All seven were found dead in Thunder Bay over the past 11 years, many in eerily similar circumstances.

Now, their families and an Ontario First Nations group are asking the province's chief coroner to allow a broad inquest into the deaths to figure out just what went wrong.

"You're taking 14-, 15-, 16-year-olds, taking them away from their home community in order for them to have an education at an urban centre. We need to examine and come with answers as to what happened," Nishnawbe Aski Nation Deputy Grand Chief Terry Waboose told The Canadian Press.

"Having so many deaths over a short period of time is certainly concerning, troubling, to the First Nations, the leadership and most especially the families that have been affected by this."

Nishnawbe Aski Nation, or NAN, is a political territorial organization representing 49 First Nation communities in northern Ontario. The group has been pushing for a joint inquest into the deaths for months and made a formal request for one in court Wednesday.

The majority of the teens who died while away from their Northern Ontario communities drowned in rivers running through Thunder Bay, but the exact details of what led to their deaths is still unclear, said Waboose.

The families and the communities who lost young loved ones have held back from jumping to conclusions and are hoping a wide inquest will help answer some of the questions that have lingered for years.

"Obviously if you're a young student and you have to leave your family and go hundreds of kilometres away to go to school of course you're going to feel lonely, you're going to feel isolated, especially if you're taking a young person that's from a small community of hundreds," said Waboose.

"I can't comment on what others have ruled or not ruled. That's what's got to be investigated."

The joint inquest, if it goes ahead, would expand an existing one which focuses on just one case where a 15-year-old named Reggie Bushie was found dead in a river in Thunder Bay in 2007. That inquest was also meant to consider the deaths of four other aboriginal youth who died since 2000, but NAN now wants the proceedings deepened to cover the deaths of all seven teens.

The string of deaths began with Jethro Anderson, a 15-year-old from Kasabonika Lake First Nation who drowned in the McIntyre River on Nov. 11, 2000.

His death was followed by that of 18-year-old Curran Strang from Pikangikum First Nation, Paul Panacheese, 19, from Mishkeegogamang First Nation, Robyn Harper, 18, from Keewaywin First Nation, before the death of Bushie, who was from Poplar Hill First Nation.

Bushie's body was recovered from the McIntyre River in Thunder Bay in 2007 and the inquest into his death was opened in 2009. Since then, two more teens died under similar circumstances.

The body of 17-year-old Kyle Morrisseau — the grandson of famous aboriginal artist Norval Morrisseau — was found in the McIntyre River in November, 2009.

His death was followed by that of Jordan Wabasse, a 15-year-old from Webequie First Nation, who was found in the Kaministiquia River in May last year.

The inquest into Bushie's death was halted in September last year after the coroner ruled that the proceedings could not move forward because of a lack of aboriginal representation on jury rolls. A hearing on a new jury roll has now been postponed to allow the coroner to consider NAN's latest request on expanding the scope of the original inquest.

In addition to examining what caused their youth to die, NAN is also hoping a joint inquest will highlight what they call "systemic issues" in First Nations education and eventually lead to improvements.

"One has to wonder why for First Nations a simple high school education has to be so difficult for families so that they're torn apart," said NAN lawyer Julian Falconer.

"They're being treated as third-class citizens, there's simply no reason why they should be any less entitled to have their children close to home when they're being educated at the high school level."

A lack of answers around the seven deaths has also made some in First Nations communities reconsider sending their children away to get an education, said Falconer.

"You have a community, frankly, who at this point are deeply fearful and suspicious as to the causes of these deaths," he said. "They just aren't sure in sending their youth to school whether they're safe."

It's unclear just when Ontario's chief coroner will make a decision on whether to allow a joint inquest to proceed, but coroner's counsel Derry Millar said it likely won't take too long.

For NAN and its members, giving families a clear picture of what happened to their loved ones is the ultimate goal.

"Even to this day they don't know what happened to their sons and daughters," said Waboose. "They need to have some closure so that they can heal and move on with their lives."