Letter from INAC to Chief Coroner for Ontario

Dr. Dirk Huyer
Chief Coroner for Ontario
Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services

Dr. Huyer:

The Ontario Coroner's Inquest into the deaths of seven First Nation youth in Thunder Bay provided valuable insights and recommendations regarding the circumstances contributing to a terrible tragedy. I commend you, the presiding Coroner, Dr. Eden, and the jury for your efforts.

Since the release of the Verdict of the Coroner's Jury and accompanying recommendations, the Government of Canada has been actively working with partners on initiatives that respond to the recommendations. I would like to inform you that actions have been taken to improve the social and economic wellbeing of First Nation students and their families and to provide extra support to First Nation students in Northwestern Ontario to help ensure that they are safe.

Supporting Indigenous Communities

The Inquest highlighted a number of broad "structural issues" related to the Government of Canada's relationship with and support to First Nation communities. Many of these recommendations are consistent with the commitments made by the Government.

Budget 2016 provided $8.4 billion over five years, which included investments in elementary and secondary education, child and family services, and on-reserve infrastructure in order to improve the socioeconomic conditions of Indigenous Peoples and their communities and bring about transformational change. This included substantial new investments in elementary and secondary education, totaling $2.6 billion over five years. These investments are providing increased funding for the delivery of instructional services, as well as unprecedented additional investments in language and cultural programming, literacy and numeracy programs, and special needs education, and a further $969.4 million over five years is being invested in First Nations for education infrastructure on reserve.

These new investments in First Nation elementary and secondary education include $58.1 million in 2016–2017 and $136.4 million in 2017–2018 in new resources specifically for Ontario First Nation students. The Inquest highlighted how much needs to be done to ensure that students from northern Ontario First Nation communities are safe and well supported when they leave their community to complete their secondary studies. These investments include specific new funding to double the number of trips home for students during the school year and increases to the monthly accommodation rates for students in boarding homes, as well as supporting all First Nation schools to retain crucial guidance and counselling services for their students.

Recognizing the importance of early education in supporting the long-term success of children and families, the Government of Canada has committed to complementing its elementary and secondary education investments with $100 million from Budget 2016 for Indigenous Early Learning and Childcare. In further support of early education, the Government will also dedicate a portion of the $7 billion investment committed to in Budget 2017 for early learning and childcare programs for Indigenous children living on and off reserve. We are also engaging with Indigenous organizations and parents to determine the best approach to delivering high-quality early learning and child care on reserve as part of a proposed Indigenous Framework on Early Learning and Child Care.

Working to ensure that Indigenous students have the same opportunities for success as other Canadian students means ensuring that Indigenous high school graduates can access post-secondary education.

Budget 2017 proposes to increase funding for the Post-Secondary Student Support Program by $90 million, in order to provide financial assistance to more than 4,600 students over a two-year period. As part of Budget 2017, the Government of Canada will also undertake a comprehensive and collaborative review of all current federal programs with Indigenous partners to ensure that these programs meet the needs of students who wish to pursue post-secondary education.

As a fundamental part of reconciliation and the renewal of relationships with Indigenous Peoples, the Government of Canada is committed to a holistic approach to improving First Nation education and working with First Nations to develop and implement a new fiscal relationship. This theme was raised in the Inquest report recommendations, which called for predictable, sufficient, and sustainable needs-based funding for Indigenous students. In efforts to achieve this, the Government lifted the 2% funding cap for First Nation programs and is actively working to establish a new fiscal relationship. With the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding in July 2016, the Government has formally established a process with the Assembly of First Nations and will work to eliminate disparities and inequities in the socioeconomic gap between First Nations and other Canadians.

Beyond these investments, the Government of Canada is committed to working in collaboration with First Nation partners to advance the vital work of reconciliation in Canada. To this end, the Government fully supports, without qualification, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's Calls to Action. We are working in collaboration with other federal partners and Indigenous groups on how best to implement the principles of the Declaration and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's recommendations.

Support to First Nation Parties to the Inquest

The Government of Canada is firmly committed to the principle of First Nation control of First Nation education, and respects the role that the Nishnawbe Aski Nation has taken to coordinate and support a First Nation-led response to the Inquest's findings. To support these efforts, following the release of the recommendations, Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada has provided resources in 2016–2017 and 2017–2018 to enable the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, Keewaytinook Okimakanak, Northern Nishnawbe Education Council, and Matawa First Nations Management to each retain a full-time "Inquest coordinator" to coordinate their organizations' collective response to the Report and implement its recommendations. To this same end, Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada also provided funding to the Nishnawbe Aski Nation to allow it to host facilitated sessions with key parties and Government officials to discuss next steps.

In consideration of the Government of Canada's commitment to First Nation control of First Nation education, we continue to encourage the First Nation parties to the Inquest to identify what actions and supports they require from the Government of Canada in order to respond to the Inquest recommendations. Based on requests by First Nation organizations in northern Ontario, the Department has mobilized more than $5 million in funding through the Education Partnerships Program for a range of partnership initiatives, many of which directly support actions that respond to the Inquest recommendations. This includes support for training and certification of on-call workers, student safety initiatives, and a pilot for a student database. As well, a work planning discussion, facilitated by Nishnawbe Aski Nation, was held in May 2017 to help the First Nation parties to the Inquest to identify what actions they could take in advance of the 2017–2018 school year to help support students in Thunder Bay. The Department received workplans from Keewaytinook Okimakanak, Northern Nishnawbe Education Council, and Matawa First Nations Management after that discussion in May, and is working with the partner organizations to move forward with actions that they have identified.

In response to a proposal from the Mattawa Learning Centre for a care facility in Thunder Bay, Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada will be undertaking feasibility studies to assess infrastructure needs for the students who leave their communities to complete their secondary education in Thunder Bay and Sioux Lookout. The results of these studies will help inform discussions between the Government of Canada, the Government of Ontario, the City of Thunder Bay, and the First Nation parties to the Inquest on the construction, acquisition, or renovation of education facilities and student residences in Thunder Bay.

Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada has also provided $78,000 in funding to Nishnawbe Aski Nation to conduct Phase 1 of its research to assist in the reform of the child and family services funding methodology in Ontario. In March 2017, the Department signed the Terms of Reference for a Remoteness Quotient Table with the Nishnawbe Aski Nation to jointly develop a remoteness quotient. This work will benefit northern and remote communities across Ontario, and potentially nationally. This first phase is expected to be completed by July 2017.

This joint partnership is also contributing toward addressing one of the outstanding issues identified by the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal.

We want to create a system that is truly child centered and that meets the needs of First Nation communities, children, and families. We plan to do this work carefully, by listening and learning together at all levels. This exemplifies our new relationship in the spirit of reconciliation.

Health Supports to First Nation Partners

We know that no single sector or jurisdiction can support individuals and their families. That is why the Government of Canada has committed to improving coordination between health, social, and education programs and services, working together in a spirit of reconciliation to break down silos, consider different models of service delivery, and develop a coordinated action plan to support students and their families.

Together, Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada and Health Canada have committed to ensuring that First Nation youth receive access to necessary health and social supports both on and off reserve. For instance, federal and provincial governments are exploring models that will facilitate continuity of care and may include the implementation of tools such as Electronic Medical Records.

There are a number of recommendations that identify the need for funding for emotional and physical needs, special needs, school nurses, social workers, trauma counsellors, and addictions workers, as well as assessments and continuity of care. The Government of Canada is committed to working with education organizations, provincial ministries and First Nation partners to support the provision of mental health services in schools for September 2017, as well as to ensure that new services are connected to a broader system of supports for youth attending school away from home.

There are also a number of initiatives underway that facilitate improved access to mental health services and supports for students attending school in Thunder Bay, including addressing gaps in services through Jordan's Principle group requests, increasing the number of mental wellness teams and crisis supports available to First Nations, and the development of a suicide prevention strategy for Nishnawbe Aski Nation.

With regard to the recommendations on issues of addiction, aftercare, and treatment, the Government of Canada is aware that there is a need for changes to the current system of supports, including better alignment with provincial services. The Government of Canada and the Government of Ontario are working together with First Nation organizations to accelerate joint work on addictions, including identifying solutions to existing gaps as well as pursuing opportunities for joint funding of treatment centres.

In addition to strengthening a more coordinated system of care with the province for the treatment of addictions, the Government of Canada continues to advance a number of key initiatives on the community-based prevention and treatment programs that it funds in First Nation communities. The recent review of the National Native Alcohol and Drug Addiction program, led by the Ontario-based Joint Technical Working Group, identified investments required to provide adequate funding levels for sustainable addiction programming for both treatment centres and community-based supports. Following the success of the Suboxone Pilot Project at the Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School, which provided integrated treatment and supportive care to students, Health Canada is open to exploring this and other approaches at trilateral tables in collaboration with education organizations, provincial government, and federal departments.

The importance of culturally founded programs was emphasized in the Inquest recommendations and the Truth and Reconciliation Calls to Action. Through the implementation of the First Nations Mental Wellness Continuum Framework, the Government of Canada recognizes that traditional healers, Elders, and other cultural practitioners are integral to the workforce for the provision of training to develop cultural competency, to provide clinical supervision, and in direct client care.

This is recognized through current federal government programming, which draws on Indigenous culture in their design and delivery. Addiction treatment centres include a range of culturally relevant components, such as smudging ceremonies, sharing or sacred circles, sweat lodges, and sacred fire, as well as traditional and cultural teachings by visiting Elders. Many community-based health programs also involve Indigenous organizations that employ over 500 Elders and paraprofessional health support workers across the country to provide emotional and cultural support. Further, Budget 2017 is supporting culturally appropriate health care by investing $305 million over five years in the Non-Insured Health Benefit program. This funding will support access to culturally appropriate health care and mental health professionals, including Traditional Healers, and to expand the medical transportation benefit to support prenatal escorts.

The Inquest recommendations further call upon the federal government, in consultation with Indigenous organizations, to establish measurable goals to identify and close gaps in outcomes between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities. To achieve this goal, quality health and surveillance information is critical. This information is used for reporting on population health status and informing evidence-based policy and program development, as well as resource allocation. Health Canada has developed an Indicator Framework to track program success and to measure health outcomes. Indigenous organizations are providing ongoing advice and feedback on the framework and use of indicators. Health Canada also continues to invest in population-based surveys to measure health outcomes including the First Nations Regional Health Survey and the Aboriginal Peoples Survey, as well as community-based data collection efforts. At the Ontario regional level, First Nations and Inuit Health Branch is funding a Data Management project, which is exploring the feasibility of establishing a Northern Epi Centre. Partners involved in this project will continue to discuss the possibilities for broader health service integration in Northern Ontario.

Moving Forward

The Government of Canada recognizes that enhancing First Nation education and health is a fundamental part of renewing the relationship with Indigenous Peoples. First Nation children and youth deserve culturally appropriate, high-quality education and health supports that meet their needs, while respecting the principle of First Nation control over First Nation education and wellness. The new investments that the Government is making are only the first step.

The Government of Canada is working closely with the Assembly of First Nations, the Chiefs Committee on Education, and the National Indian Education Council to undertake an inclusive and comprehensive engagement process aimed at developing recommendations for strengthening First Nation education. This process has included support for community-level discussions led by First Nation organizations that are providing parents and community members with the opportunity to share their views on what needs to be done to ensure that all First Nation students receive a quality education that improves student success. Northern Ontario First Nations have received funding to hold these community-level discussions and First Nation representatives from northern Ontario are actively involved in the series of joint technical task teams that have been established by the Assembly of First Nations, the Chiefs Committee on Education, and Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada. The Department is also working with Chiefs of Ontario to undertake technical discussions at the regional level that will build on these national discussions and help validate regional priorities for transforming First Nation education and improving student outcomes, as well as options for improving the way that First Nation elementary and secondary education is funded. I am also pleased to hear of the renewed discussions between the Nishnawbe Aski Nation and the Government of Canada regarding the Nishnawbe Aski Nation vision of education self-government.

A number of partnership tables exist in Ontario where Health Canada is working with First Nation organizations and provincial and territorial governments to improve coordination and planning across jurisdictions. Integrating a response to the Inquest recommendations is part of the work of these tables. The Trilateral First Nation Health Senior Officials Committee, established in June 2011, provides a collaborative forum to identify opportunities for targeted activities in the following areas of mutual concern: public health, diabetes, data management, and mental health and addictions. The Joint Action Table was created in response to the February 24, 2016 Declaration of Health and Public Health Emergency. This table serves as an ongoing political process for Nishnawbe Aski Nation Chiefs, Sioux Lookout First Nations Health Authority, Chiefs Committee on Health, Mushkegowuk Tribal Council, and provincial and federal ministers to oversee increasing resources at the community level, addressing urgent needs and transforming the health care system for First Nations in northern, remote, and isolated communities. Minister Philpott, Minister Hoskins, and Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler have also formalized their commitment to transformative change by signing the Charter of Relationship Principles (June 2017). The Charter's principles commit the parties to a government-to-government relationship in actions to respond to the 2016 declaration of a public health emergency in Nishnawbe Aski Nation territory, and in the transformation of health services over the longer term.

These efforts are allowing First Nations in Ontario and the Government of Canada to define a shared vision for transforming education and health systems in support of strong outcomes for First Nation youth. The Government will continue to discuss, act, and respond to the recommendations in a collaborative and inclusive manner. The recent reports and the Calls to Action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission give us guidance on what is necessary and that addresses many of the root issues identified through the Inquest.

Again, my sincere thanks to you, your office, Dr. Eden, and the Jury for your efforts to explore the circumstances surrounding the deaths of Paul Panacheese, Robyn Harper, Jethro Anderson, Curran Strang, Reggie Bushie, Kyle Morrisseau, and Jordan Wabasse, and to draw attention to what can be done to avoid these tragedies in the future.

Yours sincerely,



Hélène Laurendeau

  • Families of Paul Panacheese, Robyn Harper, Jethro Anderson, Curran Strang, Reggie Bushie, Kyle Morrisseau, and Jordan Wabasse c/o Jonathan Rudin, Aboriginal Legal Services
  • Nishnawbe Aski Nation member First Nations
  • Nishnawbe Aski Nation
  • Northern Nishnawbe Education Council
  • Keewaytinook Okimakanak
  • Mushkegowuk Tribal Council
  • Mr. Simon Kennedy, Deputy Minister of Health Canada
  • The Honourable David Zimmer, M.P.P.
  • The Honourable Granville Anderson, M.P.P.
  • His Worship Keith Hobbs, Mayor of Thunder Bay
  • Ms. Sylvie Hauth, Acting Police Chief
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