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UPDATED: Problems still plague health centre in Carmacks, say witnesses at Blackjack inquest

The inquest began Jan. 20
The Carmacks Recreation Centre where the first two days of the inquest into the death of Cynthia Blackjack are being held. (Julien Gignac/Yukon News)

The inquest into the 2013 death of Cynthia Blackjack laid bare possible health service issues in Carmacks, with some saying that problems persist years later.

Eight witnesses were called on to testify Jan. 20 and 21. Many knew Blackjack personally. They spoke of her sharp sense of humour, kind heart and love for her family.

Some said that the health centre in town turns people away, that they tend to write it off as a place they don’t always expect to receive care. A lawyer representing the Yukon government suggested the health centre does help because community members return.

These are some of the issues the inquest is seeking to address, systemic problems that could have contributed to Blackjack’s death on Nov. 7, 2013. Peter Chisholm, the chief judge of the territorial court, is the coroner of the inquest. Lawyers representing Little Salmon/Carmacks First Nation and the Council of Yukon First Nations were also on hand.

The 29-year-old died minutes before touching down in Whitehorse via medevac. She had contacted the Carmacks health centre in the days leading up to her death complaining of dental pain, and the day before she died, gone to the centre in person, where she was tentatively diagnosed with alcohol-induced gastritis.

According to friends and family, Blackjack had been staying with her grandmother, Irene, around the time of her death.

Selena Cheater, who was working the phones at the centre then, said she made several calls to the house in order to reschedule an appointment later in the day of Nov. 6. She said no one answered and Blackjack didn’t come back.

Vanessa Charlie, a family friend, was there the day Blackjack died.

“I could hear someone yelling and screaming from the outside and I ran in and saw Cynthia laying on the couch,” she said, noting that it was around 9:30 a.m.

She said she called an ambulance about 30 minutes later. Charlie said it arrived close to “lunchtime.”

Charlie said she helped an attendant put Blackjack into the ambulance.

“They had problem with the stretcher. It wasn’t working.”

According to an ambulance logbook , volunteer attendant Lorraine Graham arrived at the house at 10 a.m.

Graham said there were no problems with the stretcher, that she and her partner assisted Blackjack into the ambulance while she walked onto it.

“She looked like she was suffering,” said Graham, adding that she was non-verbal.

The ambulance arrived at the health centre at 10:19 a.m., according to the logbook. Blackjack was being assessed one minute later.

Graham said Blackjack’s skin was yellow. She was agitated, she said, lashing out at nurses and digging her nails into one.

Blackjack and accompanying medical staff were transported to the airport sometime after 4 p.m., Graham said.

Charlie said she didn’t hear from anyone at the health centre after Blackjack was transported away.

She has felt “targeted” by staff after the events that occurred that day, she said.

Charlie said she once waited for 45 minutes to see a doctor — which are available at the health centre six days per month — after being attacked by a dog.

“I was bleeding lots down my leg,” she said, noting that she returned the next day in order to receive treatment.

“I was extremely upset.”

Charlie recounted another instance of having stomach pains to the degree she was hunched over.

“They told me there was nothing wrong with me, to go home,” she said, adding that she travelled to Whitehorse — where staff ran assessments for three or four days — instead.

Dacia Tulk, a cousin, saw Blackjack the day before she died.

“She could barely walk,” said Tulk, noting that her stomach and face were swollen.

Tulk said she then gave Blackjack pills — roughly six Tylenol and two Gravol.

Cindy Freedman, a lawyer representing the Yukon government, asked why, if Blackjack was going to the health centre, she would give her pills.

“Because we know we’re not gonna get any help there,” said Tulk, adding that Blackjack had been turned away “a few times.”

Tulk said nurses help her “sometimes,” but inadequate service continues to happen.

“Alcoholics should be treated the same way as other people,” she said. “Treat everyone equal, that they care. We’re all the same.”

Zachary Cochrane said he visits the health centre roughly five times a year, adding that it’s good in general but it can be “hit or miss.”

“I’ve had some nurses, just how I perceived them, that were very biased towards me, had a lot of presumptions towards me without knowing me at all,” he said. “They usually look at me and assume I’m drunk, currently drunk or a drug addict seeking drugs. …”

“I personally tend to stay away from the health centre unless it’s an emergency … just because of these experiences.”

Rachel Byers, who’s the director of health for the First Nation, testified on Jan. 21, providing several recommendations, including more education for medical staff regarding intergenerational trauma and getting more First Nations people into health care positions.

She wants the inquest to help improve accessibility for First Nations people seeking health care. There’s breakdown of trust right now, Byers said.

Freedman asked whether Byers thinks rumours have contributed to a high turnover rate among nurses, that they could be preventing people from going to the health centre.

“I’ve never heard anybody tell me they didn’t want to go to the nursing station because they heard the nurse wasn’t really good or whatever,” Byers said. “They told me they don’t want to go because they’re not going to be taken seriously. They don’t want to be treated like that, as a (second-class) citizen.”

Freedman asked whether citizens might perceive things incorrectly. She suggested that it doesn’t matter the legitimacy of those concerns because they could still strike fear in people, deterring them from getting the help they need.

“Sometimes you really feel racism,” Byers said. “It’s something I can’t explain to you (Freedman appears to be white). If someone comes to me and tells me that’s how they feel, I know that feeling.

“The people that talk to me talk about their own experience, not about other people’s experience. A lot of people feel previous experience that they’ve gotten deters them from returning.”

The inquest continues throughout the week, relocating to the Kwanlin Dün Cultural Centre.

With files from Jackie Hong

Contact Julien Gignac at