A Yukon court is expected to hear arguments Nov. 22 on an appeal filed by the territory’s acting chief coroner over a Supreme Court order for an inquest into the death of Cynthia Blackjack, a First Nations woman who died in 2013 as she was being medevaced from Carmacks to Whitehorse.
Yukon Chief Justice Ron Veale ordered a public inquest in March of this year after finding Yukon Chief Coroner Kirsten Macdonald’s investigation into Blackjack’s death did not address allegations of systemic failures by the territory’s health care system against First Nations citizens.
Blackjack died en route from Carmacks to Whitehorse during a medevac, which had happened six hours after it was ordered due to a series of mistakes and problems with equipment. In her 2014 report on the case, Macdonald identified a number of issues and made eight recommendations to the Department of Health and Social Services, but wrote that she found no reason to hold a public inquest. The decision was challenged by Little Salmon/Carmacks First Nation and Blackjack’s mother, Theresa.
Macdonald has since gone on extended leave. Acting chief coroner Heather Jones filed an appeal to Veale’s order in late March, later arguing, that under the Coroners Act, Veale had no jurisdiction to override Macdonald’s decision.
In court documents filed last month, Theresa Blackjack’s lawyer, Vincent Larochelle, wrote that the chief coroner’s refusal to hold an inquest “has poured oil onto the fire of the public’s imagination of the state of health care services in the Yukon’s communities.”
“With all due respect, this case is not about the chief coroner’s office. It is about Cynthia Blackjack…. It is about (her community’s) concern that the death of Ms. Blackjack is an illustration of the systemic discrimination they believe they face on a daily basis in the health care system,” Larochelle wrote.
“If anything has eroded the credibility and effectiveness of the chief coroner’s office, it is the appellant’s obstinate refusal to order an inquest into the serious and persistent concerns raised by these stakeholders.”
Documents filed on behalf of Little Salmon Carmacks First Nation by lawyer Susan Roothman were equally scathing, accusing the coroner’s office of being “out of step with the law developing in Canada as far as the broad purpose of inquests are concerned.”
“(The Coroners Act) does not make the chief coroner untouchable,” Roothman wrote, accusing the coroner’s office of taking advantage of certain parts of the act while ignoring others.
“The Appellant’s intricate foot work in this Court, dancing around sections … of the Act, does not alleviate the bunion of her repetitive section 8-point dance for the respondents and the court below,” Roothman continued.
“The chief coroner’s dealing with the matter of Blackjack’s death, pushing it out of the public eye by relentlessly opposing an inquest by all means possible, does not hold the public imagination in check.”
Both Larochelle and Roothman are asking for the appeal to be dismissed.
Lawyer Richard Buchan, counsel for the coroner’s office, submitted a response refuting their claims.
“In their respective factums, both respondents imply that the appellant’s interpretation of the Act is intended to deprive bereaved families and the public of an inquest, regardless of a coroner’s view of the criteria appropriate for holding an inquest. Framing the point in this way has no place in properly interpreting a statute,” Buchan wrote.
“The appellant’s position is that the criteria informing her decision whether to hold an inquest must be derived from the legislation, not from generalized views about what the purpose of inquests should be, nor based upon sentimental appeals not supported by the legislation, as suggested by the respondents.”
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