Court rules First Nation can challenge coroner’s decision in 2013 death

The Little Salmon Carmacks First Nation will be able to challenge a decision by Yukon’s Chief Coroner not to hold an inquest in the death of Cynthia Blackjack in 2013.

The Little Salmon Carmacks First Nation will be able to challenge a decision by Yukon’s Chief Coroner not to hold an inquest in the death of Cynthia Blackjack in 2013.

In a written decision released Oct. 7, Justice Ron Veale ruled the self-governed First Nation could ask for judicial review.

Blackjack died in November 2013.

Chief Coroner Kirsten Macdonald issued a report in September 2014 about Blackjack’s death, examining why it took six hours to medevac her from Carmacks to Whitehorse.

Macdonald issued a series of recommendations directed at the Yukon government, urging the government to review how patients are medevaced out of communities.

In March 2015 LSCFN asked for a public inquest.

Macdonald told the First Nation she determined an inquest wasn’t necessary.

The First Nation expressed concerns about systemic issues that could affect its citizens and argued Macdonald’s report didn’t address those.

In a petition filed last year in court LSCFN also claimed Macdonald didn’t consult them when she was preparing her report.

“The Chief Coroner made no recommendations to address the root causes of deficiencies and inequalities in the provision of health care services to members of our First Nation,” wrote Rachel Byers, LSCFN’s director of health and social program, in an affidavit filed to the court.

The Chief Coroner argued in court the First Nation couldn’t challenge her decision. Instead, it could pressure the Yukon government or hold its own inquest, her lawyer said.

That’s simply not realistic, Veale ruled, because the coroner has broad powers when it comes to a public inquest, such as search and seizure and compelling witnesses to attend.

“Without such powers, an inquest could not thoroughly investigate a death and accomplish its ends,” Veale wrote.

“As well, the Chief Coroner’s submission places too great an onus on any individual or organization that feels they have been denied justice through an administrative decision and could largely immunize decision-makers from judicial review.”

LSCFN has standing, meaning it can challenge the Chief Coroner’s decision, because it’s a serious matter of public interest. The First Nation has a real stake, Veale ruled, and a judicial review is a reasonable way to deal with it.

“LSCFN, as a self-governing First Nation, is necessarily concerned with the possibility that systematic failures in the health care system played a role in the death of a LSCFN citizen, especially given its obligations under the LSCFN Constitution,” he wrote.

The Coroners Act itself, Veale noted, allows a court to compel an inquest. But it doesn’t provide any other mechanisms to challenge the Chief Coroner’s decision not to hold an inquest.

The court will now have to rule on whether Macdonald should have called for an inquest.

Blackjack called the Carmacks Health Centre on Nov. 4 and 5, 2013 to complain about dental pain. On Nov. 6 she went the health centre and was told to go to Whitehorse or come back if she couldn’t find a ride.

On Nov. 7 her relatives called the health centre because Blackjack was “yelling out of pain” according to the coroner’s report.

It took six hours to medevac Blackjack from Carmacks to Whitehorse, because of equipment failure. Blackjack died on the flight, 10 minutes outside of Whitehorse.

Macdonald ruled the cause of death as multiple organ failure secondary to liver failure.

Contact Pierre Chauvin at pierre.chauvin@yukon-news.com

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