Inquest probing drug deaths of five inmates in eastern Ontario jail begins

TORONTO — A coroner's inquest into the drug-related deaths of five inmates at an Ontario jail heard Monday that one of them used to "self medicate" with drugs to cope with mental illness and tragedy in his life.

The mother of Steven Frenette wrote in a statement read to the inquest that her son struggled with drug addiction for years.

"Steven battled a lifelong illness of chronic depression, high anxiety disorder and PTSD, which led him to self medicate with drugs to try and cope with the world that is so often ... thoughtless (toward) people who have a mental illness," Irma Van Oirschot wrote in her statement, which was read out by a lawyer.

The inquest is examining the circumstances of the five inmates' deaths at the Central East Correctional Centre in Lindsay, Ont. The deaths took place at various times between October 2018 and April 2019.

Frenette, 35, died on Sept. 20, 2018, the inquest heard.

His mother said her son "never wavered" in his love for her or the rest of his family. She noted that he turned to drugs to help forget the losses of those he loved deeply.

"He had much tragedy that would be a big setback from getting clean,” she said. "His dad died in 2000. Friends that he loved died. His beloved grandpa died in 2015."

Presiding Coroner Dr. Bob Reddoch said the inquest will look at issues of drug overdoses at the correctional facility where Frenette and the other inmates were held.

The inquest jury will hear evidence that will help them reach findings on the details of the deaths, he said, and jurors can make recommendations on how to prevent similar deaths in the future.

"You, the jury, have a critical role to play in the success of this inquest," he said.

In addition to Frenette, the inquest is examining the deaths of Daniel Foreman, 39, who died on Oct. 3, 2018; David Bullen, 50, who died on Dec. 29, 2018; Jonathan McConnell, 36, who died on April 28, 2019; and Susan Borja, 50, who died on Aug. 10, 2019.

Jai Dhar, a lawyer for the Ontario Coroner's office, said the inquest team has been in touch with the families of the inmates and some didn't want to participate in the inquest.

"Their families are still suffering from their losses, a loss that they're likely not going to recover from," he said. "We're going to respect their wishes and we'll communicate the results of the inquest to them if they want."

Reddoch said he granted standing in the inquest to Bullen's father, who will be able to ask questions to witnesses during the inquest.

The inquest is expected to last 15 days and hear from about 25 witnesses.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 14, 2022.

Maan Alhmidi, The Canadian Press