Yukon appeals court upholds order for inquest into death of Cynthia Blackjack

Allegations of systemic discrimination were raised by the Little Salmon Carmacks First Nation after delays in arranging ambulance service for Blackjack, who died in 2013 of liver failure.

First Nation alleged systemic discrimination played a role in Blackjack's death in 2013

Cynthia Blackjack, 29, died while being medevaced to Whitehorse from Carmacks on Nov 7, 2013. (Facebook)

The Court of Appeal of Yukon has upheld a lower court order that an inquest be held into the 2013 death of Carmacks, Yukon, resident Cynthia Blackjack.

Blackjack was 29 years old when she died during an approximately 150 kilometre medevac flight to Whitehorse.

The unanimous decision from three judges on Yukon's appeal court rejected an appeal by the former chief coroner of the territory, who did not want an inquest.

Wednesday's judgment from the appeal court noted that in the days leading to her death, Blackjack had been in frequent contact with the Carmacks Health Centre complaining of abdominal pain.

The day before she died, she was told by the health centre to go to the Whitehorse hospital — a two hour drive away — and that she would have to find her own way there.

The next day, Blackjack's condition worsened, but there was a delay in getting an ambulance to bring her back to the Carmacks Health Centre and then another delay in getting her on a medevac flight to Whitehorse. 

The cause of her death was later determined to be liver failure.

The Yukon appeals court is upholding a Yukon Supreme Court order that an inquest should be held into Blackjack's death. (Karen McColl/CBC)

A former chief coroner, Kirsten Macdonald, refused requests from Blackjack's family and the Little Salmon Carmacks First Nation for an inquest.

Systemic failures, First Nation says

The First Nation argued there were public interest issues to address and allegations of systemic failures in the provision of health care services to First Nation citizens.

It filed a petition last year with the Yukon Supreme Court asking it to order an inquest be held.

Macdonald told the court there was no evidence of racial discrimination in Blackjack's death and that she did not consider the First Nation to have any formal standing in relation to the investigation.

She also argued the Yukon Supreme Court did not have the jurisdiction to order an inquest into Cynthia Blackjack's death.

Chief Justice Ron Veale, however, found that Macdonald should not have refused the requests from Blackjack's family and the Little Salmon Carmacks First Nation.

He determined the problems with the ambulance service alone justified holding an inquest.

The Yukon appeal court agreed.

"This is particularly apparent given her [Blackjack's] possible vulnerability as a First Nation citizen and the nature of the care she received in the period preceding her death, regardless of whether a causal link was established between those circumstances and the medical cause of her death," the appeal court judgment says.

Yukon's current chief coroner, Heather Jones, won't comment on the decision or whether it will be appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada.