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Local inquest response 'life-altering' for youth, principal says

Matawa Learning Centre principal tells council that direct actions of city employees and police have averted more potential tragedies.

THUNDER BAY – The principal of the Matawa Learning Centre describes the local response to the Seven Youth Inquest as “life-altering” that could have played a role in preventing the deaths of at least seven more students over the past two years.

Thunder Bay city council on Monday night was presented with the second annual report highlighting the city’s progress in implementing its recommendations, nearly two years after the conclusion of the examination into the deaths of seven students attending school in the city from remote Indigenous communities between 2000 and 2011.

The inquest resulted in 145 recommendations, with 31 of them directed to the city. The city identified 25 deemed to be short-term, with expected completion within one to two years. Of those, 20 are reported to having been implemented, four having already had the content or intent of the recommendation in place while another has had an alternate recommendation implemented.

Those have included the establishment of a sports equipment lending library for Indigenous students, a subsidized transit pass pilot project and providing students with information about the city prior to their arrival.

Matawa Learning Centre principal Brad Battiston told council that community members have made it clear they feel better about coming to Thunder Bay and can feel the support.

“I can tell you city transit and Thunder Bay police have been especially responsive in some very sensitive or potentially dangerous situations for our students. While I don’t know where it would have led to, there was an inquest for a reason. I know a lot of potential tragedies have been averted as a direct result of various city employees in different departments,” Battiston said.

“It’s been a game changer for our students and in a lot of ways a life-altering experience for the positive.”

The bodies of five of the youth that were the subject of the inquest were found in local waterways. Another two youth – Tammy Keeash and Josiah Begg – were found last May in the span of less than two weeks after they were each last seen the same weekend.

City police have since heightened patrols of waterways and through an initiative referred to as Project Floodway they have tracked the number of incidents in those high-risk areas, responding to more than 450 during a 13-month period, including 100 they deemed to be life-saving events.

“We’ve had students in the water this year that the police have rescued. If they weren’t there, it’s a whole different conversation,” Battiston said.

“I can say over the last two years, especially with the increased efforts the city has put into it and with the Thunder Bay Police Service, I’m going to say there are at least seven students that are here directly and we wouldn’t hear all the stories anyways.”

Jonathan Rudin, the lawyer representing six of the seven families, issued a report card last August grading the responding parties. The city was given a C+, but Rudin was optimistic the city would achieve an A the following year if it continued to show commitment.

“We have been successful at implementing the recommendations that we’ve sort of fully implemented through using partnership dollars by working together,” said Karen Lewis, the city’s director of corporate strategic services who is the inquest response lead. “Some of the larger recommendations we have left require funding.”

City administration classified the six remaining resolutions as medium-term, with targeted completion in two to four years.

Lewis said an application of about $1 million over five years has been made to the federal government for a Youth Inclusion Program, with the outcome of that ask expected in mid-July.

As well, the three local Indigenous education providers are working with the North West Local Health Integration Network for each to develop a facility for intoxicated youth, with the target of those being in place for September.

Matt Vis

About the Author: Matt Vis

Born and raised in Thunder Bay, Matt is honoured to tell the stories of his hometown.
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