Ceremony helps acknowledge system that failed Seth Maclean

31-year-old, who died of a drug overdose last summer, was buried months before next-of-kin was notified of his death

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There’s a memorial ceremony this week outside Dixon Hall, the shelter on George Street where Seth Maclean died last summer.

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The ceremony was organized by the police.

Maclean’s family will attend.

Seth Maclean was found dead of a fentanyl overdose at the shelter last year on July 12.

He had been dead for many hours, lying the floor on a mattress surrounded by drug paraphernalia, when he was discovered by another shelter resident.

After a cursory attempt to locate his next of kin, authorities buried Seth Maclean in a Pickering potter’s field some 40 km. away from where his mother lives.

His death and a burial that happened without his family’s knowledge came about because a lot of people failed to do their job.

Maclean had been arrested many times. At least one of the officers who showed up when his body was found knew exactly who he was. The Office of the Public Guardian and Trustee handled Seth’s disability cheques and also had his information — it would have been easy for police or the coroner’s office to find next of kin.

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But they didn’t.

For Nerissa Maclean, the anguish over her son’s burial is unrelenting.

She and her brother Tyson — Seth’s uncle — had questions for the shelter, the police, the coroner’s office and everyone else involved. But they couldn’t get answers.

They had to file complaints with the Office of the Independent Police Review Director (OIPRD,) with the city and with the ombudsman; they met with the Coroner’s office and with police and corresponded with higher-ups in the shelter system.

Seth Maclean was diagnosed at 16 with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

At 23 he stopped taking his medication and began a descent into addiction and crime.

Due to his mental illness, his police record and possibly his race, Seth was stigmatized, said his uncle, Tyson Maclean.

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“He was stigmatized in life and in death,” said Tyson.

“What happened to Seth was total disregard for a human life.”

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The Maclean family tried for years to get help for Seth.

He’d been arrested twice for stabbing people.

“But he still wasn’t institutionalized,” said Tyson.

“He was just put back on the street no matter what he’d done. It was like he was stuck in a fight he could never get out of. It was almost as if it was set up to end the way it did.”

Nerissa Maclean had been looking for her son all last summer.

In September, she went to 51 Division to ask for her help finding Seth.

That’s where she learned he was dead.

It was September 10 — what would have been Seth’s 32nd birthday.

Seth’s younger brother Lamar made the identification through autopsy photographs.

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Nerissa Maclean says no other parent should have to go through what she went through.

“What can I change so no other child will buried that way? So no other mother has to go through this? Don’t just tell me, ‘Your kid was buried’ and not spend five minutes trying to find me!

“I would have liked to have touched him one last time. To kiss him goodbye.”

Nerissa, her children Lamar and Taliyah, and her brother Tyson persisted in asking the difficult questions, and as a result changes have been made: in how the coroner’s office and police gather next of kin information, in how the shelters operate.

Their efforts have carved some good out of this tragedy.

It wasn’t easy.

Tyson Maclean has spent a year fighting for his nephew.

He has no time for the city’s shelter system, where he feels there’s no oversight and no accountability.

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But he praises Det. Jeff Gough, “the most understanding and compassionate officer I’ve ever spoken to,” for helping him, and credits Ontario’s Chief Coroner, Dr. Dirk Huyer, for making changes to help ensure every person’s family is found.

(Huyer confirmed the hiring of four new staff members devoted to finding next of kin. He also praised the Macleans for their courage and their efforts to affect change and help others. Changes were indeed made, said Huyer, “And I called those changes Seth’s Revisions.”)

Detective Gough likewise speaks of the Macleans with respect and compassion; new initiatives at 51 Division will help police gather next of kin information.

Recently, Tyson Maclean had an email updating the actions Shelter, Support and Housing (SSHA) has taken since Seth’s death: ways to improve the gathering of next of kin information, and increased safeguards around harm reduction.

The email reads, “I hope you will derive some comfort from knowing that these initiatives and system improvements will be your nephew’s legacy.”

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