Kenora—Last month, the Ontario Coroner’s office confirmed that it was delaying making a decision regarding the request for an inquest into the in-custody death of 14 year old Grassy Narrows girl Azraya Ackabee-Kokopenace, following a letter written from the family’s legal team to the Regional Supervising Coroner. The Grassy Narrows Youth Organization (GNYO) has obtained permission from the Ackabee-Kokopenace family to publicly release and discuss sections of those letters.
Yesterday in Ottawa, NDP MP for Timmins-James Bay, Charlie Angus delivered an impassioned speech on the floor of Parliament, calling on the government to comply with the historic ruling of the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ordering the end of discrimination against First Nations children. The motion will be voted on today.
Angus talked about the story of Azraya Ackabee-Kokopenace’s death being one of the “stories that connect the broken child welfare system to the hopelessness and deaths of children… Under the broken child welfare system, they didn’t help her and her family, they took her.”
Azraya was taken to live in the custody of Anishinaabe Abinoojii Family Services, a child welfare agency in Kenora, since April 7th of this year, less than two weeks before she died. On the night she went missing, eight days later, Azraya had been apprehended by the police and taken to the hospital. Even with these three agencies engaged with Azraya, and purporting to assist her, Azraya somehow died nonetheless.
Despite the obvious injustice and tragedy of her case, a September 28 letter from Regional Supervising Coroner, North Region, Dr. Michael Wilson stated that a “full investigation has been completed”, but further delayed the decision to call an inquest because “[t]he involvement of Child Protection Services adds additional elements to our investigation that may require additional time.”
The September letter from the lawyers for the Ackabee-Kokopenace family clearly indicates an expectation that there will be a mandatory inquest called in this case.
“Based on the information that has been made available, the family’s position is that Azraya’s death is a situation where an inquest is mandatory under the provisions of s. 10(4.6) of the Coroners Act,” says the letter.
The Ackabee-Kokopenace family’s position is that “[t]he available facts demonstrate that Azraya was, as a matter of law, in police custody at the time of her death”, having been taken into custody by the police for the purpose of taking her to the Lake of the Woods District Hospital for a psychiatric assessment.
The Ackabee-Kokopenace family stressed to the Regional Supervising Coroner that, “it is highly desirable that the public be fully informed of how two topics of national importance: mental health and the well-being of First Nations youth, intersected and culminated in Azraya’s death.” Further, “it is also highly desirable that the public be fully informed of the circumstances in which these events ended in the death of a young woman from the Grassy Narrows First Nation, given the disturbing and persistent high rates of death among First Nations youth.”
Azraya’s family has repeatedly stressed that there are many questions that remain unanswered surrounding their daughter’s death, given that she was living with a state agency, apprehended by the police and taken to the hospital, only to be found dead across the road from the hospital, two days later.[iii] The important questions that the Ackabee-Kokopenace family have advised the Coroner’s Office that they would expect an inquest to attempt to answer include issues of training and education for police, hospital and service agency staff and particular challenges First Nations youth face; enhanced mental health services for First Nations youth on reserve or otherwise accessible; the ways family and community are engaged when social agencies are working with First Nations youth; and the relationships of police to First Nations youth such as Azraya, and the ways those relationships impact the decisions they make when engaging those youth in crisis.
The letter from the Ackabee-Kokopenace family to the Coroner’s Office also asks if, “given the clear impact on her of her brother’s death, due to complications of mercury poisoning and muscular dystrophy… did the legacy of mercury poisoning of the waterways of the Grassy Narrows First Nation contribute to the deterioration of Azraya’s mental health? Would a resolution of that persistent issue prevent the deaths of other youth from Grassy Narrows First Nation?”
In addition, the Grassy Narrows Youth Organization has expressed concerns that an historic pattern of systemic racism in both the Kenora hospital and the Kenora police are issues that likely contributed to Azraya’s death and should also be topics for the inquest, suggesting these agencies are just as responsible and as in need of systemic change (as the Child Welfare agencies).
Similarly, systemic factors leading to the vast overrepresentation of Indigenous Youth in Child Protection Services, and the chronic underfunding of education, healthcare and mental health services, and social services for Indigenous Youth and First Nations communities, should also be a topic of discussion at the Inquest, according to the Grassy Narrows Youth Organization—a position similar to that which has been emphasised on this matter previously by NDP Indigenous and Northern Affairs Critic, MP Charlie Angus[iv], who yesterday said clearly, “this what systemic racist discrimination looks like.”
The letter from the Ackabee-Kokopenace family concludes with the following, “The situation, unfortunately, comes down to this: there remain many unanswered questions in relation to the factors that contributed to Azraya’s death. It is not only desirable but essential that the public be informed of the circumstances of Azraya’s death through an inquest so that these issues can be considered and discussed in a public forum. It is only through such discussions that meaningful responses can be found. The recommendations that may be made by a jury through an inquest would be an invaluable contribution to that dialogue. The inquest process and the recommendations flowing from it are essential if future deaths of First Nations youth, in circumstances inevitably similar to Azraya’s, are to be avoided.”
It should be noted that an inquest into Azraya’s death has already been supported publicly by MPP Sarah Campbell[v], MP Charlie Angus, Ogichidaa Francis Kavanaugh (Grand Council Treaty #3, Chief), Chief Isadore Day (Chiefs of Ontario), Chief Simon Fobister (Grassy Narrows First Nation), the Grassy Narrows Youth Organization, Irwin Elman (Provincial Youth Advocate) and Bernie Farber (Mosaic Institute).