The Yukon NDP is putting pressure on the territorial government to call a coroner’s inquest after two women died at the Whitehorse Emergency Shelter on Jan. 19.
On Jan. 20, the government declared a substance use health emergency following what it calls a “drastic increase in overdose-related deaths” in the territory.
In a news release issued March 17, the Yukon Coroner’s Service confirmed 24 opioid-related deaths took place in 2021, as well as nine opioid-related deaths between Jan. 5 and Feb. 22, with a 10th death awaiting full toxicological analysis at the time. Since the declaration, emergency measures and medical services staff have been increased at the shelter, according to the release.
NDP MLA Emily Tredger brought up the government’s silence on the January shelter deaths during question period on April 28, the final day of the 2022 spring sitting of the legislative assembly.
“This government is responsible for keeping people at government facilities safe. The community wants to know how and why they died. We need a coroner’s inquest so that no one else dies at the shelter,” Tredger said.
In response, Health and Social Services Minister Tracy-Anne McPhee said chief coroner Heather Jones is responsible for investigating the situation, and the government will “be pleased” to hear the coroner’s direction.
“I think it’s incredibly important that we recognize and acknowledge the community harm and pain that is suffered when individuals pass as a result of opioid or drug use,” McPhee said.
“I’m being careful with respect to this answer, because, of course, we must respect the coroner’s jurisdiction with respect to — and her decisions about – what matters she determines are appropriate for an inquest and otherwise.”
McPhee said the government supports and co-operates with the coroner’s office, allowing Jones to do her work independently and make recommendations as a result of investigations done by her office.
Tredger said both the coroner and the minister have the power to trigger an inquest.
Tredger quoted section 44 of the Coroners Act which states: “The minister may direct that an inquest be held into a death of a person … if the minister determines that it is in the public interest that an inquest be held.”
“Knowing how to prevent this from happening again is absolutely of public interest,” Tredger said.
“Let me be clear: This is not an attack on shelter workers. We know that they are understaffed. We know that they are kept in temporary positions. We know that this government won’t give them training or programming or resources. Maybe that is why this government hasn’t called an inquest: They don’t want to risk exposing the ways that they are failing vulnerable Yukoners.”
On the Yukon Coroner’s Service website, inquests are held to determine the facts and circumstances of a death. The chief coroner will order an inquest when mandatory under section 41 of the Coroners Act, for example if the deceased was detained or in custody, or if the coroner has reason to believe a death occurred as a result of violence, unfair means, negligence, misconduct or malpractice.
Yukoners grieving a loss can receive support from Hospice Yukon at 867-667-7429 or at 409 Jarvis Street in Whitehorse.
Rapid access counselling is available at 867-456-3838.
The National Overdose Response Service, where a non-judgmental volunteer will stay on the line as a safety monitor while the caller uses drugs, is available at 1-888-688-6677.
Contact Dana Hatherly at firstname.lastname@example.org