First Nations family pushes for inquest on anniversary of teen's mysterious death

First Nations family pushes for inquest on anniversary of teen's mysterious death

One year is too long to wait to launch an inquest into the death of a child, says the lawyer representing the family of Azraya Ackabee-Kokopenace, whose body was found in Kenora, Ont., on April 17, 2016.

The 14-year-old girl from Grassy Narrows First Nation was last seen two days after walking away from the Lake of the Woods Hospital, where she'd been taken by provincial police. Her body was found by a volunteer searcher in a wooded area nearby.

The coroner has concluded Ackabee-Kokopenace died by suicide, but that's a "very narrow answer to a very narrow question," said Glen Stuart, the lawyer for the teen's family.

An inquest would provide answers to wider questions about how so many agencies — from police to health-care providers to child welfare workers — failed to help a teen in obvious distress, he said. 

Ackabee-Kokopenace left her home in Grassy Narrows First Nation to seek help for the grief she was experiencing after her brother Calvin's death in 2015, according to her aunt Lorenda Kokopenace.

Calvin, 17, died from health complications, including mercury poisoning, which is endemic in the First Nation, located about 100 kilometres north of Kenora, after the river that flows through the community was contaminated with industrial pollution.

A few weeks before her death, Ackabee-Kokopenace had an altercation with a provincial police officer. Police have refused to comment on the nature of any of their contact with the teen in the days and weeks leading up to her disappearance.

A spokesperson for Ontario Provincial Police told CBC News that no internal investigations have resulted from any officer's conduct involving Ackabee-Kokopenace, but wouldn't say if the teen was in custody on the night she disappeared.

It's a critical point, because deaths in custody result in mandatory inquests in Ontario

The coroner's office has yet to make a decision on whether to call an inquest into Ackabee-Kokopenace's death.

"Is it mandatory? The decision is pending," said regional supervising coroner Dr. Michael Wilson. "We're aware of many of the concerns. It's a very complex situation with a number of agencies involved."

Lawyer Glen Stuart, however, said police were clearly involved with Ackabee-Kokopenace on the night she was last seen, which should be enough to trigger an inquest.

It's unusual and unacceptable for the coroner's decision to take so long, he said, as memories of people involved begin to fade and evidence can become obscured by time.

"It's always best done sooner rather than later, and to the extent that other [agencies] are trying to find out answers, that should all be taking place in the inquest process where it's transparent to the public," he said.

Both police and hospital officials say the ongoing coroner's investigation prevents them from commenting on their involvement with Ackabee-Kokopenace on the night she disappeared.

Her aunt says an inquest would help identify the gaps in social services for First Nations youth and help keep them alive.

Stuart said many of the circumstances that led to the teen's death are familiar to families of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

"It's a bigger issue for Indigenous women, it's a bigger issue for Indigenous youth, and I think that's why having some discussion in a public forum is important," he said.

To honour Ackabee-Kokopenace and mark the one-year anniversary of their friend's death on Monday, the Grassy Narrows Youth Organization is hosting a vigil in Kenora, starting at 4 p.m. at Knox United Church.