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Lawsuit against coroner after death of Indigenous child should proceed: appeal court

The Ontario Court of Appeal is seen in Toronto on April 8, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Colin Perkel

TORONTO — A lawsuit filed by the family of a four-year-old Indigenous boy against the coroner tasked with investigating his death will be allowed to proceed after Ontario’s top court found a judge erred in dismissing it before trial.

In a unanimous decision released this week, the Court of Appeal for Ontario said the motion judge erred in analyzing two of the grounds of the lawsuit, and the claim should be permitted to go ahead on allegations of misfeasance of public office and breach of charter rights.

The motion judge failed to consider the allegation that the coroner “knowingly perpetuated” a pattern of discrimination against Indigenous people by conducting an inadequate investigation into the death of Brody Meekis, who died in the remote Sandy Lake First Nation in northwestern Ontario of complications from strep throat in May 2014, the appeal court found.

Read more: Coroner role before Ontario’s top court after strep throat death of Indigenous child

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If proven, that would constitute an exercise of discretion for an improper purpose and satisfy the criteria for misfeasance, the three-judge appeal panel said.

The claim also contains enough material to support allegations of a breach of equality rights under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the court found.

“If the investigating coroner’s conduct in Brody’s case is proved to be part of a ‘blanket’ policy of coronial non-attendance in places like Sandy Lake First Nation, this would amount to an effective denial of the benefit of coronial services available elsewhere in the province,” the ruling said.

“Put another way, requiring on-reserve Indigenous peoples to live without adequate coronial services could arguably amount to a burden imposed on individuals of a historically disadvantaged group, a burden which is not imposed on non-members of that group.”

Read more: More needs to be done to protect kids in Ontario’s child welfare system: Coroner

Brody’s parents, Fraser Meekis and Wawa Keno, welcomed the ruling in a statement, adding they look forward to having their day in court.

“This is an important day for us and our family,” they said.

“We continue to bear the grief of the loss of our son Brody, who died from the treatable illness of strep throat in 2014. The nightmare of his death was made all the worse by a system that doesn’t care and by coroners who don’t do their jobs.

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“Our lawsuit is meant to ensure that First Nations families living on-reserve will finally get a measure of equality and accountability.”

The lawsuit targets the investigating coroner, his superiors and the province.

Read more: Fire deaths 10 times more likely for Ontario First Nations residents: report

Court has heard nurses at the community’s nursing station had refused to give Brody an appointment for days, and instead told his mother to give him Tylenol.

After Brody’s death, the coroner did not go to Sandy Lake to investigate in person, nor did he interview the boy’s family or the nurses, despite guidelines on the matter. He also did not call for an inquest to further examine Brody’s death.

Court heard he did, however, ask local police to look into possible drug or alcohol abuse in the family.

A lower court threw out the case in April 2019 before it went to trial, ruling that it had no reasonable chance of success. It found the coroner had acted within his discretion and was not under any legal obligation to attend in person, essentially agreeing with the province.

The family appealed that ruling.

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