THUNDER BAY – There are questions needing answers in the case of seven high school students who have gone missing and ended up dead in Thunder Bay. In the Ontario Legislature on Thursday, NDP MPP Howard Hampton rose during question period on the issue.
From the Hansard at Queen’s Park, here is the transcript of the exchange:
Mr. Howard Hampton: My question is for the Attorney General. Sadly, grade 9 student Jordan Wabasse’s body was found in the Kaministiquia River in Thunder Bay Tuesday night. Sadly, Jordan Wabasse is now the seventh First Nations high school student attending high school in Thunder Bay to disappear and die over the last 10 years.
When I asked you about this issue three days ago, you said that“an inquest is under way up north with respect to the deaths.” Minister, the inquest you referred to was to get under way in June 2009. It is now almost June 2011. Two years later, young First Nations students are still disappearing and still dying. How do you explain the two years of inactivity on the part of your government?
Hon. Christopher Bentley: It’s a terrible tragedy. All members of this House and all those outside have the greatest sympathy for the families of all of the victims. We all want to know what has happened to the disappeared and why. The police are very concerned, the community is very concerned, and the school, I’m sure, is very concerned.
The Premier actually met directly with the family of Jordan Wabasse several weeks ago. Our government expresses the greatest deal of sympathy, is very concerned, and wants to get answers, just like everybody else.
My friend knows that the inquest began—and I’ll defer questions on this to my colleague—several years ago in legal arguments, which have now been resolved—
The Speaker (Hon. Steve Peters): Thank you. Supplementary?
Mr. Howard Hampton: The minister also said, “We take any tragedy very seriously, and take the death of young people who travelled to school very seriously. We’re working through every ministry and every way to make sure that people are safe.”
The inquest was delayed for two years, and during that time, more young high school students from First Nations died.
Can you tell us, when you say that you’re doing everything you can, working in every way, what has been done over the last 10 years?
Hon. Christopher Bentley: I won’t speak about all of the 10 years—and I think the fact that it’s 10 years tells us something. It tells us that there are a lot of parties that need to come together.
The inquest, as my friend knows—he doesn’t state this in his question, but my friend knows—took time for legal arguments that had to be resolved. I understand that they have been resolved at the Court of Appeal, and that process will carry on.
Every ministry of this government that has touched this issue is deeply concerned with the issue.
The Premier’s call yesterday to the Prime Minister to bring all of the parties to the table at a First Ministers’ conference recognizes all the different jurisdictions. When you have the federal government responsible for funding First Nations education, a school in Thunder Bay that’s run by the First Nation in the province of Ontario, we need everybody at the table to resolve these—
The Speaker (Hon. Steve Peters): Thank you. Final supplementary.
Mr. Howard Hampton: The Attorney General refers to legal arguments. What’s clear is that what was holding up the inquest was the Attorney General’s inability to put together jury rosters that were representative of First Nations. I first asked you about that in 2008; it’s now 2011. I want to ask: What were you doing?
As well, the Deputy Grand Chief of NAN says, “While we do not yet know the full details” of the death, “we do know that youth from NAN territory often find themselves without an adequate network of social support in an unfamiliar environment….” That’s been going on for 10 years.
I ask again: What have you been doing while these young students have been dying in Thunder Bay?
Hon. Christopher Bentley: The question is a critically important one. We’ve been working very hard through the Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs and the other ministries of government, whether they’re health or education.
In stating the question, my friend outlines the challenge: Students come from an isolated community, often with no road access except in winter, to a school that’s run by the First Nation and that’s funded by the federal government, in a place they’re not familiar with. There are a lot of different issues there.
We need all of those responsible for the different jurisdictions at the table. The inquest, I know, will provide us with some answers, but there are broader issues as well. The Prime Minister could certainly show some leadership by calling the First Ministers’ conference on aboriginal issues and education that he referenced some years ago. We look forward to it.