The Yukon Supreme Court’s order for a coroner’s inquest into the 2013 death of Cynthia Blackjack, a Yukon First Nations woman who died while being medevaced from Carmacks, is valid, the Yukon Court of Appeal has ruled.
In a 30-page decision released Oct. 24, Justice Gail Dickson, supported by Justices Elizabeth Bennett and Louise Charbonneau, rejected an appeal by the Yukon’s chief coroner that claimed the Yukon Supreme Court did not have the authority or jurisdiction to order the inquest.
Blackjack died on Nov. 7, 2013 while being medevaced from the Carmacks health centre after days of complaining to the centre about a toothache, abdominal pain and vomiting.
On Nov. 6, 2013, Blackjack had gone to the centre in person and was tentatively diagnosed with alcohol-induced gastritis. Staff told her to go to Whitehorse General Hospital but were unable to arrange a ride for her, telling her to return the next day if she couldn’t find her own way there.
Blackjack’s friend called the health centre the next morning saying that Blackjack was screaming in pain. Medical personnel made the decision to medevac her to Whitehorse at 11 a.m., but due to a series of mistakes and equipment issues, the process was delayed for six hours.
Blackjack died at 6 p.m., minutes before the medevac landed in Whitehorse.
Yukon’s chief coroner at the time, Kirsten Macdonald, investigated Blackjack’s death and released a report making eight recommendations for the Department of Health and Social Services. However, she declined to hold a public inquest despite requests from Little Salmon Carmacks First Nation and Blackjack’s mother, who said Blackjack’s death illustrated the systemic discrimination First Nations people face when trying to access health care.
The matter went to the Yukon Supreme Court, with Justice Ron Veale siding last year with the First Nation and Blackjack’s mother.
Macdonald appealed the decision before going on leave, arguing that Veale did not have the authority to order an inquest under the Coroners Act. The appeal being carried forward by then-acting chief coroner Heather Jones. Jones has since been appointed chief coroner.
In her decision, Dickson wrote that, while the act “is not a model of ideal legislative draftsmanship” and is “worded awkwardly” in some sections, Macdonald took a “strained interpretation” of the sections regarding jurisdiction. She also wrote that she found no errors in the way Veale interpretated the act.
“Taking into account the statutory criteria and the surrounding circumstances, in my view it was reasonable for the judge to order an inquest,” she wrote.
“An order requiring an inquest was justified to serve the public-interest function of assuring Ms. Blackjack’s family, friends and community that the circumstances surrounding her death would be fully and appropriately scrutinized.
“This is particularly apparent given her possible vulnerability as a First Nation citizen and the nature of the care she received in the period preceding her death, regardless of whether a causal link was established between those circumstances and the medical cause of her death.”
Dickson also awarded legal costs to Little Salmon Carmacks First Nation.
With files from Pierre Chauvin
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