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‘We are quite sorry’: Emergency shelter staffer apologizes during inquest

A coroner’s inquest into four women’s deaths at the shelter in 2022 and 2023 is underway in Whitehorse
The Whitehorse Emergency Shelter at 405 Alexander St. Four deaths that occurred in the shelter in 2022 and 2023 are currently part of a coroner’s inquest happening in Whitehorse. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News files)

The following story contains details which some readers may find distressing. See the bottom of this story for information on available supports.

A program coordinator who was working at the Whitehorse Emergency Shelter at the time of Darla Skookum’s death in April 2023 gave a brief apology during the proceedings of a coroner’s inquest on April 18.

The coroner’s inquest began on April 8 in Whitehorse and is anticipated to go on for three weeks. The inquest is probing the deaths of four Indigenous women from the Yukon who died at the Whitehorse Emergency Shelter in 2022 and 2023.

The shelter program coordinator, whose identity is protected under a publication ban, was on shift on the night of April 15-16, 2023, when Skookum passed away in an overflow sleeping room at the shelter.

He said the first time he saw Skookum was around 7:30 p.m. on the evening of April 15, 2023, when he was putting “some chairs into the room where she was sitting.”

Surveillance footage captured inside the shelter on the night in question was aired during the inquest. It shows that Skookum was moved by wheelchair from a lounge area to an overflow sleeping room around 9:45 p.m.

The program coordinator spoke at length about getting Skookum off the wheelchair and onto a mattress on the floor. He noted that, while moving her to the mattress, she resisted the staff’s assistance in getting her laid down.

A lawyer involved in the inquest asked him why shelter staff were making Skookum lie down on the mattress if she didn’t want to, to which he replied, “We wanted her to sleep.”

The program coordinator said that he and other staffers had done their best to make Skookum comfortable on the mattress, so he took her boots off.

In the surveillance footage, shelter workers can be seen laying Skookum on her stomach on the mattress. Shortly after she is lying down, her head is face down on the pillow.

The program coordinator noted that the staff intended to leave Skookum lying in a comfortable position with her head facing sideways.

“This is one of the issues that was baffling to us because…at that time, I straightened her head to face sideways. But when I watched the video, we noticed that it appears her chin was on the pillow, this was not the best position to have left her,” he said, before issuing a brief apology: “We are quite sorry in that respect.”

In response to a question about why Skookum was left to sleep on her stomach, the program coordinator told the inquest that if “she is going to choke, or something like that, that position is better.” He later confirmed during cross-examination that putting shelter clients to bed on their stomachs was normal.

A lawyer then asked the program coordinator if, following the incident, he received any feedback or training about how Skookum was placed in bed on the night she died. The program coordinator stated that Skookum was placed in a sleeping position and that there was nothing he would have done differently.

The program coordinator additionally noted that he received no special training about putting intoxicated people to sleep and which positions are best.

Earlier this week, the inquest heard from a forensic pathologist who said that lying a person in the “recovery position” (on their side) will allow them to breathe better than lying them on their stomach, which could cause breathing difficulties.

The program coordinator said he did not prepare a report following Skookum’s death about how she was laid to bed that night.

He could not recall if he had a conversation with his supervisors about writing such a report.

However, in response to a question from a legal counsellor participating in the inquest, the program coordinator confirmed that at least one policy change followed Skookum’s death — the implementation of three nightly checks at 11 p.m., 2 a.m. and 5 a.m.

The program coordinator explained that shelter staff perform the checks, entering sleeping spaces with a light and confirming that clients are breathing. He added that if staff become aware that a shelter client is not doing okay, these checks could be stepped up to once every 30 minutes or one hour, depending on the situation.

On the night of Skookum’s death, footage shows that she did not noticeably move after being laid on the mattress by shelter staff. She remained in the same position for roughly 12 hours.

The footage also shows staff coming and going from the overflow sleeping room throughout the night, although none check on Skookum.

Skookum was discovered unresponsive by shelter staff slightly before 10:10 a.m. on April 16, 2023.

The coroner’s inquest began on April 8 and is anticipated to last three weeks. The inquest is also looking into the deaths of Cassandra Warville, 35, and Myranda Aleisha Dawn Tizya-Charlie, 34, who both died at the shelter on Jan. 19, 2022.

Rapid access counselling is available in the Yukon from Mental Wellness and Substance Use Services by calling 867-456-3838. Additional support includes the Suicide Crisis Helpline (call or text 988), Hope for Wellness (1-855-242-3310) and the 24-Hour Residential School Survivor Crisis Line (1-866-925-4419). The Selkirk First Nation, the Little Salmon/Carmacks First Nation and the Vuntut Gwitchin Government are offering counselling and support specifically for their citizens.

Contact Matthew Bossons at