Calgary

Their sister died in December and was buried in January. Why weren't they notified?

The province has a process in place to make sure people aren't buried without notifying their next of kin. But the family of Courtney Wheeler says that process failed them.

Wheeler family says Alberta's process for finding next of kin failed them

Chrissy Wheeler, left, and Candice Wheeler, right, hold family photos of their middle sister, Courtney, who died in December 2021. The sisters are searching for answers as to why Courtney was buried the next month without their knowledge. (Paula Duhatschek/CBC)

It breaks Candice Wheeler's heart to know she missed her big sister's funeral in January. It's not that she didn't want to be there — she simply didn't know it was happening. 

Now, Candice and her family in Calgary are searching for answers about how authorities failed to notify them when Courtney Wheeler died in December 2021 and was buried the next month.

"There was nobody there, and no flowers … and it just implies that nobody cared," said Wheeler, 36.

"She was very loved, and she deserved better." 

The family of Courtney Wheeler wants to know why they weren't notified before her burial in January of this year. (Submitted by Candice Wheeler)

In most cases, when a person dies unidentified or unclaimed, the office of the chief medical examiner can identify and locate their next of kin within hours, the province says.

If not, the province says the office will continue to search until all efforts have been "exhausted."

But the Wheelers say they didn't learn about Courtney's death until months after it happened, and even then, they didn't get the news from officials. Instead, they found out about her passing through social media. 

That's left them to wonder how diligent the search for Courtney's next of kin really was.

Chrissy Wheeler said the unanswered questions about her sister's death have made it hard to find closure. (Paula Duhatschek/CBC)

It's particularly concerning, they say, as it appears to be the second similar case in Calgary within the span of just a few months. In February, Tara Niptanatiak died and was buried in the city the next month, unbeknownst at the time to her family in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut. 

"Who's allowing this to happen?" said Chrissy Wheeler, 44, who is Courtney's older sister.

Family learned of death through Facebook

When Candice Wheeler first learned of Courtney's death, it had been months since she'd last heard from her middle sister. 

That wasn't unprecedented. In the years before her death, Courtney struggled with homelessness and escalating addiction, and was known to fall off the map for weeks or even months before resurfacing.

But in late May, Candice received a Facebook message from a friend of Courtney's who'd learned about her death after another friend stumbled on a brief online obituary, posted by the funeral home that arranged the burial. 

Candice Wheeler, whose family is part of the Cumberland House Cree Nation, believes authorities may have been more lax in their search for her sister because she was an Indigenous woman. (Paula Duhatschek/CBC)

Concerned, Candice called the police non-emergency number. She was redirected to the office of the chief medical examiner, which confirmed her sister's death.

Candice said she was told Courtney and a friend had apparently been smoking when they both fell asleep. The friend woke up; Courtney didn't.

Candice said she was also told there had been a month-long search for Courtney's next of kin before her case was passed on to the office of the public guardian and trustee. That office works with local funeral homes to arrange burials for those whose families can't be found.

But the Wheelers say they shouldn't have been that hard to find.

'Some stranger found us,' so why didn't officials?

Candice, Chrissy and their mother, Marie, all share a last name. They live in the same city and haven't moved or changed phone numbers in years.

Candice believes police would have had her information on file from a past missing persons report she filed for her sister in 2019. (At the time, Courtney was located shortly afterward). Courtney was known to addiction treatment facilities in Calgary, which would have had Marie's information on file as a family contact.

All three women were also listed on Courtney's Facebook page as her family members, which was how Courtney's friend got ahold of them in the first place. 

"Some stranger we don't even know found us to let us know that she had passed away," said Chrissy. "If some stranger could find us, why didn't the police find us, or whoever [is in charge]?" 

In response to questions from CBC Calgary, the Calgary Police Service said it can't comment on specific, non-criminal cases due to privacy legislation. 

The service said that when deaths are attended by Calgary police, it's generally the purview of the office of the chief medical examiner to identify and locate next of kin, with help from police and other organizations.

Courtney Wheeler, right, is pictured with her mother, Marie. (Submitted by Candice Wheeler)

Privacy legislation also restricts the office of the chief medical examiner and the office of the public guardian and trustee from disclosing information about specific cases to the media, according to the Ministry of Justice and Solicitor General. 

In a statement, a spokesperson said the medical examiner's office will work with police, RCMP, government and non-government organizations to identify next of kin and will search until all efforts have been "exhausted."

"Unfortunately, at times it is not always possible to locate family members in a timely manner, particularly if the deceased has no ID, there is family estrangement, names have changed, or family live in other jurisdictions in Canada or internationally," said spokesperson Katherine Thompson.

Thompson said the ministry is looking for ways to improve the process of identifying next of kin, including establishing agreements with other Canadian jurisdictions.

Courtney Wheeler is pictured in childhood family photos. (Submitted by Candice Wheeler)

'Somebody does care'

The Wheelers say the province's process for finding next of kin sounds like a good one. They just don't believe it was followed in their case. 

And while the family hopes to learn more about how the search unfolded and why authorities weren't able to find them, they suspect they may already know. 

Candice Wheeler believes Courtney was stereotyped as a homeless Indigenous woman, and that authorities were lax because they assumed no one cared about her. 

"In fact, somebody did and does care," she said. "We want to make sure that they know that now."

They hope that by sharing their story, they can keep this situation from happening again. Candice noted the problem isn't confined to Alberta. In 2020, a Toronto man named Seth MacLean died of an overdose in a shelter and was buried in nearby Pickering while his family searched frantically to find him. 

"It's happening too much. Families are being deprived of the ability to say goodbye to a loved one," said Candice. 

Since learning of Courtney's death, the Wheelers have hosted a small memorial service to say goodbye. It helped somewhat, but they say there's still a lot of pain. 

"It's hard to move on normally through grief when you have all these unanswered questions," said Chrissy.

Growing up, Courtney Wheeler loved to ride horses at her aunt's ranch. (Submitted by Candice Wheeler)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Paula Duhatschek

Reporter/Editor

Paula Duhatschek is a reporter with CBC Calgary who previously worked for CBC News in Kitchener and in London, Ont. You can reach her at paula.duhatschek@cbc.ca.

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