Attawapiskat family facing ‘agonizing’ wait for answers months after death of 13-year-old girl



(Sheridan Hookimaw, 13. Photo courtesy of family.)

Jorge Barrera
APTN National News
The family of a 13-year-old Attawapiskat First Nation girl whose body was found outdoors by a patrolling local police officer in October is still waiting for a final report on the cause of death from the Ontario coroner’s office.

Sheridan Hookimaw’s body was found by a Nishnawbe-Aski Police Service (NAPS) officer while on patrol near an area known locally as the “first rapids” on Oct. 19.

Since then, the family has been waiting for the final coroner’s report on how Sheridan died. They are also waiting for the return of Sheridan’s belongings including her purse and an iPod she used to record a final goodbye to her family.

“The waiting period is very agonizing,” said aunt Jackie Hookimaw-Witt, in a telephone interview from Attawapiskat.

While Sheridan has been buried in the community, Hookimaw-Witt said there are still questions about how she died that the family wants answered.

“If it is suicide we will accept it, but we need to know for certain,” said Hookimaw-Witt.

Dr. Michael Wilson, the regional supervising coroner based out of Thunder Bay, Ont., said Sheridan’s case has not been put on the “back burner,” but faced delays caused by “resource challenges” felt province-wide.

“This is longer than ideal and longer than we’d like, but not a completely unheard of length of time,” said Wilson.

Wilson said he is waiting on a final report from the pathologist who is also still waiting for a toxicology report.

“We have to make sure any reports we give are absolutely iron clad,” he said.

Wilson said he expects to get the pathologist’s report sometime next week. He then plans to travel to Attawapiskat to meet with the family and discuss the results in his report. Wilson also plans to meet with the band council.

Wilson, who will be accompanied by a NAPS officer during the meetings, said the girl’s personal items will also be returned at that time.

NDP MP Charlie Angus, whose riding includes Attawapiskat, has been helping the girl’s family through the seemingly labyrinthine coroner’s process.

“For the family, they just want closure so they can get on with their grieving,” he said.

Angus said Sheridan’s story is heartrendingly familiar for many First Nation communities in northern Ontario.

“Canadians need to know what is happening to these young people,” said Angus. “Sheridan is just one of 600-plus Cree youth in my region who have thought about, attempted or succeeded in suicide since 2009. And this is from the inquiry the communities had to do themselves to find answers.”

Angus said Indigenous Affairs and Health Canada often deny requests for suicide and mental health counselling from these communities.

Despite sitting a mere 90 kilometres from a De Beers diamond mine, Attawapiskat is one of the country’s poorest First Nation communities. The First Nation, which sits near where the Attawapiskat River flows into James Bay, has made national headlines in the past over the dire state of its housing.

Sheridan suffered from several medical ailments, including asthma, which were aggravated by mold in her home, according to records obtained by APTN National News.

In the winter of 2014 the sewage link-up to her home failed, triggering a backup that made the home unlivable despite attempts to contain the smell and disinfect the premises using air fresheners and bleach. The backup also aggravated the mold and Sheridan was hospitalized in Timmins, Ont., where she was given Ventolin and steroid medication, according to records.

The house was condemned that summer and the family was forced to live in a two-bedroom nurse’s residence as a temporary solution. The empty house was then burned down by young arsonists.

A converted school trailer was promised to the family, but they remain in the nurse’s residence.

Jackie Hookimaw-Witt said there are mattresses in every room of the residence which sometimes has up to 20 people living and sleeping inside.

“There are mattresses all over the place, in the living room too, because those two small rooms are not enough for people to sleep in,” said Hookimaw-Witt.

Sheridan was adopted by the sister of her biological mother and she rarely saw her biological father, said Hookimaw-Witt.

Hookimaw-Witt said Sheridan’s grandfather became a father figure to her and the young girl was devastated when she found out he had been diagnosed with cancer.

“She cried, ‘Oh my god, what am I going to do without you dad?’” said Hookimaw-Witt.

Doctors then found troubling signs in Sheridan’s kidneys and the family feared that it could be cancer, said Hookimaw-Witt.

Sheridan was scheduled to fly out for more tests in Timmins the week she was found dead.

The family was given only a brief time to view video Sheridan recorded on her iPod before she died because the device was taken by police as evidence. In the video Sheridan said she was “scared” and that she was “tired of being sick,” said Hookimaw-Witt.

She also bid her family goodbye, said Hookimaw-Witt.

A rope taken from Sheridan’s home was found at the scene and Sheridan’s arms were found to have marks on them, said Hookimaw-Witt. One of Sheridan’s sister also found a knife in the area a short time after the body was recovered, said Hookimaw-Witt. The knife was turned over to police, she said.

Hookimaw-Witt said police found Sheridan’s body because officers were searching for a “gas sniffer” in the area that day.

“That is another thing where the family got confused because the video seemed positioned as if somebody was holding the iPod and she kept saying I am scared,” said Hookimaw-Witt. “The family wonders if there was somebody there.”

jbarrera@aptn.ca

@JorgeBarrera

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