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Innu boy's death in N.L. group home renews calls for delayed inquiry

ST. JOHN'S, N.L. — The death of a 15-year-old Innu boy while in the care of Newfoundland and Labrador child protection services has renewed calls from the Innu Nation for an inquiry promised by the provincial government three years ago.

The child died by suicide at a government-approved group home in Happy Valley-Goose Bay on May 22, according to a statement Thursday from Innu Nation Grand Chief Gregory Rich.

He was buried this week in his home town of Natuashish in Labrador, the Innu community relocated from Davis Inlet.

Rich noted that he is not the first child to die in the child protection system, which he said has repeatedly failed Innu families.

He said an inquiry is essential to learning the circumstances of the death, as well as the untold stories of other children who have attempted suicide or died while in the system or after leaving.

In July 2017, the Newfoundland and Labrador government and Innu leaders formally agreed to hold an inquiry into Innu children's treatment, experiences and outcomes in the child protection system. The federal government later committed to participate and support the inquiry financially.

The agreement followed the death of 16-year-old Thunderheart Tshakapesh, who died by suicide in May 2017.

On Thursday, Rich also remembered James Poker and Kirby Mistenapeo, youths who died after spending time in the system.

"It was their deaths that contributed to our call three years ago for an inquiry into the treatment of Innu in the child protection system. Innu people are still waiting for that inquiry," Rich said in a statement.

"In the meantime, Innu lives continue to be lost."

He said people fear that the latest death is "the tip of the iceberg" about what happens to children in provincial government care. 

He said changes have been made towards overhauling the system, but the inquiry is an outstanding piece that must be addressed.

In a statement, Premier Dwight Ball expressed condolences to the boy's family and the community.

Ball said the government is working with Innu leadership to launch the inquiry. The statement said the terms of reference have been finalized and commissioners are being identified, with the inquiry expected to be established this year.

"We share the Innu desire to commence the inquiry and we are committed to continue working with our Indigenous and federal partners to reduce the number of Indigenous children in care," the statement read.

Rich said the Innu Nation has made progress with the federal and provincial governments to improve the situation for Innu children, but said "the progress we have made will not take away the need for answers" and accountability.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 4, 2020.

The Canadian Press

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