Potvin inquest will go ahead

A territorial court decision will allow an inquest into the death of Mayo RCMP Const. Michael Potvin. The 26-year-old policeman drowned in the Stewart River in July 2010.

A territorial court decision will allow an inquest into the death of Mayo RCMP Const. Michael Potvin.

The 26-year-old policeman drowned in the Stewart River in July 2010. He and his supervisor, Cpl. Brent Chapman, were testing one of the detachment’s older aluminum boats when it began taking on water and capsized. Chapman stayed with the boat and was rescued while Potvin tried to swim to safety, submerging only 10 metres from the shore. Neither was wearing a life-jacket. Potvin’s body was found about two weeks later, nearly 60 kilometres downstream.

Originally, the coroner’s office thought an inquest was unnecessary, according to Judge Karen Ruddy’s 17-page decision on Friday.

Ruddy was asked to act as coroner in this case when an inquest was called and the attorney general of Canada argued against it.

Despite a local contract, the RCMP is a federal body outside of territorial jurisdiction, meaning that the coroner’s jury doesn’t have the authority to make non-binding recommendations on the “administration, operation or management of the RCMP,” Ruddy’s decision reiterates referring to the federal argument. As well, an inquest would be redundant, the federal force’s lawyers argued.

Immediately after Potvin’s death, the aged boat he and Chapman were in was retired from service, and at least eight independent and internal reviews recommended many changes to the force’s policies and water protocol.

Any further investigation would simply be repetitive, alleged the federal argument.

Ruddy disagreed.

While those investigations were thorough, they were not public, her decision says.

There is a public interest in Potvin’s death and it is the coroner’s job to investigate on the public’s behalf, she says. The federal government and national force did those reviews for themselves, not for the public – and some parts of the investigations are not even open to the public, she notes.

Mayo is a small community and Potvin was a part of it, her decision reads.

As well, “The community has a clear interest in ensuring that boats and other equipment used by the RCMP are in good working order and that policing practices are safe and effective,” she says. The boat Potvin and Chapman were testing could just as easily been called into action for a search and rescue of a public resident, she offers as an example.

The public cannot “take comfort” or get the “same level of reassurance” from those reviews, as it can from a coroner’s inquest, she says. And despite being a federal body, the RCMP is open to the inquest’s scrutiny so long as it is considered important for the public, Ruddy adds.

In other words, the attorney general’s argument, that because the RCMP is federal it is protected from territorial investigations, does not stand.

In fact, “It seems to me that all public institutions would be interested in hearing recommendations from a coroner’s jury and at least considering their applicability and feasibility,” she says, noting again that the RCMP cannot be forced to adopt any of the non-binding recommendations.

But Ruddy wants the Mounties’ handling of the boat, including all maintenance and modifications, to be a focus of the inquest, she says.

The reason is to help prevent deaths like this in the future, not lay blame.

The judge-cum-coroner encourages both the attorney general and the coroner’s office to work together in ensuring the witnesses called, evidence submitted and arguments made during the inquest are focused and efficient with taxpayers’ money, she adds.

One thing the attorney general did bring to Rudy’s attention was that the Yukon’s Coroner’s Act hasn’t really changed since it was enacted in 1954, her decision notes. The law technically doesn’t allow the coroner’s jury to make any recommendations, but cases in the past have made these recommendations a lawful thing, she says.

“It is undisputed in my view that the scope and purpose of a coroner’s inquest here and throughout Canada are broader than what is set out in the somewhat anachronistic Yukon legislation,” her decision says.

Potvin’s family, represented by his father Mark Potvin, also argued to see an inquest held, without limiting its scope, Ruddy’s decision says.

The inquest is tentatively scheduled for this fall, but no specific dates have been finalized.

Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at

roxannes@yukon-news.com