Ontario First Nations call for mandatory inquests when children die in child welfare system

Chiefs from across Ontario are backing a call for mandatory inquests when children die while in the care of the child welfare system.

It comes after two girls from remote First Nations died within days of each other in separate incidents in the Ottawa area where the girls had been taken after being removed from their families.

Amy Owen, 13, from Poplar Hil First Nation died on April 17 after being in care in a group home in Prescott, Ont. There is not yet an official cause of her death. It is also not clear where she was when she died. Courtney Scott, 16, from Fort Albany First Nation, died in a house fire at her foster home in Orléans on April 21.

The Chiefs of Ontario passed a motion at a special assembly in Ottawa on Tuesday that echoed the Nishnawbe Aski Nation's call for inquests earlier this week.

"We were dismayed to learn that an inquest in these cases is not mandatory under the Coroners Act," said Nishnawbe Aski Nation Deputy Grand Chief Anna Betty Achneepineskum, in a news release on Tuesday.

Owen's father, Jeffrey Owen, was told his daughter died by suicide, according to the release. That leaves the grieving father with many questions.

"Amy was supposed to have one-on-one care with 24-hour supervision," Owen said. "How could she take her own life if she was under constant supervision?"

Prescott is more than 1,500 kilometres away from Poplar Hill First Nation. 

Achneepineskum said First Nations leaders have been lobbying for years to have services for children closer to their home communities.

"We've lost too many children in this inadequate system," she said. "The policies discriminate against our children and their well-being."

Investigation continues

The Office of the Chief Coroner in Ontario told CBC News the investigations into both deaths are ongoing and a decision on whether to hold an inquest in the circumstances of either death has not yet been made.

"Please note that a discretionary inquest is considered in all death investigations we conduct on an annual basis (approximately 15,000), where an inquest is not mandatory under the Coroners Act," said spokesperson Cheryl Mahyr.

Requiring mandatory inquests for deaths of children in the child welfare system would constitute a change to the Coroners Act — something that is up to legislators, she added.

Clarification : A previous version of this story said that Amy Owen died in Prescott, Ont. It is not clear where the teen was when she died.(May 04, 2017 9:01 AM)