Yukon appoints new coroner

The territory has a new chief coroner. Kirsten Macdonald took over the top spot after her predecessor, Sharon Hanley, retired after 13 years earlier this month.

The territory has a new chief coroner.

Kirsten Macdonald took over the top spot after her predecessor, Sharon Hanley, retired after 13 years earlier this month.

“She had a wonderful career and she gave so much to the service,” said Macdonald. “I truly learnt at the seat of the master.”

For now, Macdonald will only be in the position for a short term, ending in March 2013.

The Department of Justice is currently reviewing the position and its legislation to see if a different model, like ones that have judges preside over inquests, would be better, said spokesman Dan Cable.

It’s the chief coroner’s job to investigate human deaths and determine their cause. She can also call inquests and preside over them like a judge.

But a lot may happen within a year.

Many Yukoners may wonder whether Macdonald will call an inquest into January’s carbon monoxide tragedy. But she won’t say.

“That decision hasn’t been made yet but it is the chief coroner’s to make,” said Macdonald.

A family of four and their renter died of carbon monoxide in their Porter Creek home this winter.

According to the fire marshal’s report, a crumbling chimney and poorly installed oil furnace at 1606 Centennial Street caused the chimney to plug with ice. This caused exhaust to fill the home and kill 45-year-old Bradley Rusk, his wife, Valerie, 37, their two children, Gabriel, 13, and Rebekah, 11, and their boarder Donald McNamee, 47.

The Rusks rented the home from 10785 Yukon Ltd., a company with Fae Jamieson and Geraldine Tuton named as its directors. Neither woman has spoken publicly about the incident, but an inquest could potentially put them on the stand.

An inquest could also offer more clues as to why the territorial government has done little to improve residential furnace safety, after a raft of studies it commissioned over the last five years gave dismal grades to the oil-burning industry.

There are also two looming court decisions that could affect Macdonald’s job.

One involves the death of Raymond Silverfox while in police custody, and the coroner’s inquest that followed. Susanna Roothman, the lawyer representing Silverfox’s family, asserts that the inquest was done improperly.

Hanley should have conducted her own investigation, instead of accepting the one conducted by B.C. RCMP investigators, said Roothman. Silverfox died from acute pneumonia, after hours of lying in his own vomit and excrement, while guards looked on and mocked him.

Justice Ron Veale heard the arguments for the judicial review in late May.

The other case will decide whether Macdonald can hold an inquest into the death of Const. Michael Potvin.

The 26-year-old Mountie drowned after the RCMP boat he was testing capsized on the Stewart River in July 2010.

Potvin wasn’t wearing a lifejacket. An investigation found the aging boat had malfunctioned.

The RCMP insists that the coroner doesn’t have jurisdiction over the matter, because they’re a federal body. Judge Karen Ruddy will decide whether an inquest will be held.

Macdonald brings a background in justice to her new job.

After completing a Royal Roads degree in criminology and northern justice, the born-and-raised Yukoner has spent much of her career working in the communities supporting local, restorative justice programs. Macdonald has also done time on the administrative side of the coroner’s service and eventually became a community coroner before coming back to Whitehorse for the top spot.

“It was time to step up and follow this path,” she said. “It is such an important service. I truly am honoured to be given this opportunity.

“I’m going to be here (in Yukon) for a long, long time. And at the end of the day, I just really believe in the principles and values of the coroner service. I enjoy being able to support families and provide answers and when obviously tragic things happen, it is a gift and an honour to be able to work with families and provide those answers. It’s very important to me. I’m here for my entire life and my kids are going to be here for a long time. It’s important.”

Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at

roxannes@yukon-news.com