Yukon coroner can't investigate racism in Cynthia Blackjack case, appeals court hears

A mother who lost her 31-year-old daughter says a coroner's inquest should examine systemic racism in Yukon. The territory's chief coroner disagrees saying it's too broad a question to investigate.

Supreme Court ordered coroner to hold inquest; coroner's lawyer says the issue is too broad

Cynthia Blackjack, 31, died while being medevaced to Whitehorse from Carmacks on Nov 7, 2013. Her mother wants an inquest into the role systemic racism played her death. The coroner has refused. Now an appeals court will decide. (Facebook)

The Yukon Court of Appeal has reserved its decision after a hearing into the case of Cynthia Blackjack, a 31-year-old woman who died while on a medevac flight from Carmacks to Whitehorse in 2013.

Blackjack's cause of death was determined to be multi-organ failure due to liver failure, according to the Yukon Coroner's Service.

But Cynthia Blackjack's mother, Theresa Anne Blackjack, alleges systemic racism played a role in her death and says Indigenous people receive a lower standard of care in Yukon.

Theresa Anne Blackjack and the Little Salmon Carmacks First Nation have both called for an inquiry that would consider systemic racism as a factor in Cynthia Blackjack's death, saying it would shed light on discrimination in Yukon.

Kirsten Macdonald, the chief coroner, has declined to hold such an inquest. The family recently appealed that decision and won.

In March, the Yukon Supreme Court ordered an inquest to examine those allegations as factors in Blackjack's death.

Justice Ron Veale's decision cited evidence that Blackjack received inadequate ambulance service in the hours before her death and says an inquest should consider "alleged systemic failures of the Carmacks health services to First Nation citizens."

Coroners don't investigate social issues, lawyer says

The matter went this week before the B.C./Yukon Court of Appeal, as it is unclear if the Supreme Court verdict has the power to overrule the chief coroner.

On Wednesday, Macdonald's attorney Richard Buchan argued to the three Court of Appeal justices that the scope of the proposed inquest would be too vague.

Buchan argued it's not within "reasonable parameters" to expect the chief coroner to investigate larger social issues such as racism.

Yukon chief coroner Kirsten Macdonald has declined to hold an inquest. Her lawyer argued that it's not within 'reasonable parameters' to expect the chief coroner to investigate larger social issues such as racism. (Nancy Thomson/CBC)

He said Macdonald's role is to investigate medical causes of death, which in Blackjack's case has already been done.

Macdonald reviewed Blackjack's death in 2013. The review found some problems with medevac equipment and recommended changes in procedure.

But in an affidavit filed in 2015, Theresa Anne Blackjack questioned why it took so long for her daughter to be taken to hospital in Whitehorse, and suggested the Carmacks nursing station treated First Nations citizens differently.

In court, Buchan said the family's claims of discrimination amounted to "hearsay and inference" and said Macdonald had already looked into the matter, but "couldn't find anything solid" that pointed to racism.

"There was nothing to suggest that outside sources had a causal role in Ms. Blackjack's death," he told the court.

A statement filed to the Yukon Court of Appeal by Theresa Anne Blackjack's attorney says "Ms. Blackjack's death is an illustration of the systemic discrimination [Indigenous people] believe they face on a daily basis in the health-care system."

The three justices, who sat side-by-side to hear arguments, will now decide if the chief coroner's decision not to hold an inquest was final, or whether Veale's ruling will stand.

Inquiry would give 'voice to the dead' 

Attorney Vincent Larochelle is representing Cynthia Blackjack's mother Theresa Anne Blackjack.

He acknowledged discrimination is "notoriously hard to prove." However he said the question is worth examining.

"How can you prove there is a causal link between discrimination and the death? You cannot expect the petitioner [the family] to do that. You need resources to do that. That is why we need an inquest. There is a genuine concern from the [Little Salmon Carmacks] First Nation," he said.

Larochelle added that coroners' inquests are "vital to our health-care system, to ensure we improve the way we treat people. To give a voice to the dead."

Relatives of Cynthia Blackjack did not attend Wednesday's hearing.