Learning from a tragic lesson

The Yukon government is offering its condolences to those affected by the recent death of five Whitehorse residents, but it is not offering much else.

The Yukon government is offering its condolences to those affected by the recent death of five Whitehorse residents, but it is not offering much else.

It will not consider any change to regulations – such as making carbon monoxide detectors mandatory in all homes – until the investigation is completed, said Cathrine Morginn, spokesperson for Community Services.

That includes the toxicology reports which are expected to confirm the five died from carbon monoxide poisoning.

When firefighters discovered the bodies of Bradley and Valerie Rusk, their children, Rebekah and Gabriel, and a man who boarded at their home, Donald McNamee, the carbon monoxide levels in the Porter Creek home were 10 times the level that would have set off a carbon monoxide detector.

The fire marshal has focused his investigation on the oil-fired boiler that heated the home at 1606 Centennial Street.

Oil-burner mechanic John Matheson said it’s common for new appliances to be hooked up to old chimneys in the territory. This can clog chimneys and result in carbon monoxide leaks.

A stainless steel liner can be put inside an old chimney for about $1,000 to $1,200, and newer appliances can come with a $150 pressure switch, called a blocked-flue sensor, which shuts off the system when it notices the chimney is clogged, he said.

But in the Yukon, these precautions are rarely taken.

The Yukon government has been aware of this problem for nearly five years.

In 2007, and then again in 2008, the Yukon Housing Corporation commissioned studies into the territory’s oil-lit equipment. Improper installation plagued well over the majority of sites assessed.

Other problems, like poor maintenance, dirty filters, improper tank slope and crowded furnaces filled out the lists of at least five code infractions found at every single one of the furnaces inspected in 2007 and 2008.

Those studies included recommendations to improve the situation. While work has been done on most of them, the two that required legislative changes were shelved.

One demanded oil-burner mechanics be regulated, the other would regulate the oil-burning industry.

Morginn couldn’t comment about why the government has ignored these recommendations.

But Matheson sees a direct link between the lack of regulation in his field and the likelihood of tragedy.

“You don’t have to be licensed to do what I do (in the Yukon),” he said.

The government tried to step in and offer an oil-burner course at Yukon College, said Matheson.

Although it was designed for people already working in the field, it has been accepting students who have never seen a furnace before, he said.

“It’s pretty scary what they’re passing off as oil-burner mechanics in Whitehorse now,” he said.

This lack of expertise then trickles down to home and building inspectors who are trusted to “catch” these problems but may not, he said.

“Way too much stuff is getting past in city inspections,” said Matheson. “I’m not pointing fingers. It’s a safety issue.”

The home where the Rusks and McNamee lived is one of the original Porter Creek lots. It is owned by 10785 Yukon Ltd. The company’s directors are Fae Jamieson and Geraldine Tuton.

Calls to Jamieson and Tuton for comment were not returned.

The Landlord and Tenant Act spells out the responsibilities of both owners and renters.

Although the tenant is expected to repair any damages caused, it’s the responsibility of the landlord to “provide and maintain in a good, safe, healthy and tenantable state of repair the rented premises, common areas and the property … the services and facilities agreed to be provided by the landlord under a written or unwritten tenancy agreement (and) to comply with health, safety, maintenance and occupancy standards established by law.”

Amending the act is a priority for the Yukon government, Morginn confirmed. The public will have a chance for input before changes are finalized.

RCMP Sgt. Don Rogers told reporters earlier this week the house’s heating system had been inspected recently, but he could not provide the dates.

Rogers said no criminality or foul play is suspected in the deaths, including negligence by the property owner.

A memorial service will be held on Saturday at Vanier Catholic Secondary School, beginning at 2:30 p.m.

Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at