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Fourth indigenous girl dies while in child protection

Toronto Star logo Toronto Star 2017-05-09 Tanya Talaga - Staff Reporter

The death of another indigenous teenage girl from a Thunder Bay group home has intensified demands by First Nations leaders for an inquest into why their children are dying while in child protection.

Seventeen-year-old Tammy Keeash failed to make her Saturday night curfew at her Thunder Bay group home. Her body was later discovered on Sunday evening in the Neebing-McIntyre Floodway, according to Nishnawbe Aski Nation, a political organization of 49 northern First Nations.

Keeash, who is from North Caribou First Nation about 500 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, was the fourth NAN child to die while under care in a group home since last October.

Amy Owen, 13, took her life on April 17 while in an Ottawa group home, and Courtney Scott, 16, died in a fire in an Orleans group home on April 21. Scott’s family says they have many unanswered questions as to what happened and why their daughter was unable to escape the blaze. On Oct. 29, 2016, Kanina Sue Turtle, 15, died in Sioux Lookout and her family is still waiting for answers.

Due to a lack of mental health and child protection services in northern Ontario, many youth are taken out of their communities and placed in group homes hundreds of kilometres away from their families. But NAN has inherent jurisdiction over their well-being regardless of where they live, said NAN Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler.

All of Ontario’s chiefs passed a resolution last week at a special assembly in Gatineau, Que., demanding an inquest be held because of the disparity in child welfare services for children who live on-reserve compared to kids who live in non-First Nations communities. When children are taken into care, communities often have no idea where they are or what their status is. The chiefs say the entire system must change and services should be equal for all children, no matter where they live.

Fiddler heard about the recovery of the teen girl’s body just as he was heading to Timmins for NAN’s spring meeting.

“The police couldn’t identify who it was so we tried to make inquiries about any missing persons’ reports at any of our communities and anywhere in Thunder Bay. We were informed that no such report was filed in the last few days. We were obviously concerned another deceased body was found and we didn’t know who it was,” Fiddler said.

“We know she was at some sort of a group home in Thunder Bay, with conditions . . . . Apparently she missed the curfew on Saturday evening so the staff member called the police,” he said.

Besides the four First Nations children who died, Provincial Child Advocate Irwin Elman pointed out that last Feb. 27, there was a group home fire in Kawartha Lakes where a staff member, Andrea Reid, and a 14-year-old resident, died in a fire. A female youth is facing charges related to the fire and the deaths.

Put it all together and what is happening in child protection is beyond alarming, said Elman. “These are human lives. They are people with families and communities. These are people who have potential. It is a huge loss and they die on Ontario’s watch,” Elman said.

“If that is not frightening to the people of Ontario, I don’t know what is. We need a response from government that is equal to that concern and immediately.”

Keeash was under the care of Tikinagan Child & Family Services, which operates in 30 northern First Nations communities, including Thunder Bay. Tikinagan’s communications director Irene Dube said they were unable to respond to media questions on Tuesday.

Fiddler said Tikinagan made another call on Sunday afternoon to Thunder Bay police.

Chris Adams, Thunder Bay Police Service’s director of communications, confirmed they were contacted Saturday night by Keeash’s guardian “regarding a matter that we cannot discuss. This was not a report of a missing person.”

“We were contacted a second time by the guardian on Sunday May 8 at 1:28 p.m. to ask that we check the welfare of Tammy at a specific address. Tammy could not be located at that location. Tammy was then reported as missing by the guardian at 2:23 p.m. to our service. At this point this became an active missing person investigation,” Adams said.

Fiddler is frustrated NAN was not informed a young indigenous person was missing — especially in light of the 145 recommendations coming out of the inquest into the deaths of seven First Nations students from 2000 to 2011. One of the recommendations was for the Thunder Bay Police and the communities to work together to develop a better missing persons protocol, especially concerning youth.

“We just didn’t hear about it. I think that is what we are concerned about, we didn’t hear anything about a young person missing in Thunder Bay,” Fiddler said.

Five of the students — Jethro Anderson, Curran Strang, Reggie Bushie, Kyle Morrisseau and Jordan Wabasse — were found in the waters surrounding Thunder Bay.

Fiddler said he had hoped that work would have been done by now so that whenever a youth goes missing in Thunder Bay automatic measures kick in.

Adams said “changes were made to our missing person policy prior to the inquest” and that they “continue to review and revise as appropriate.”

Meanwhile, police are searching for Josiah Begg, 13, a First Nations boy who was last seen at the Marina Park skateboard at 6 p.m. on Saturday. He is described as 5-foot-5, about 120 pounds, short brown hair and brown eyes, and wearing a red ball cap.

Tammy Keeash is being remembered as an artist who loved to draw, said North Caribou Chief Dinah Kanate. Tammy was in and out of care for a number of years. Her grandfather, Josiah Keeash, died recently and the burial was last Monday in North Caribou, a community of 1,100, Kanate said.

“I went to visit her last summer when she was home. She was really bright, a nice girl . . . . We had been trying to help her, people were trying to go see her,” Kanate said. “She had hopes, dreams, she wanted to play the guitar.”

Scott’s parents, who live in Timmins, took their daughter back for burial at her Fort Albany First Nation home on James Bay on Tuesday but they plan to be back in Timmins on Wednesday to attend the NAN chiefs meeting, said Fiddler. Also expected Wednesday is Minister of Children and Youth Michael Coteau. He is expected to update them on the new blueprint for child and youth residential services reform.

When asked about Tammy Keeash’s death and the inquest call, a spokesperson said the minister does not have the power to call an inquest or direct the Office of the Chief Coroner to do so.

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