Coroner's Inquest sees footage of lifeless body ignored for more than 12 hours

Whitehore Emergency Shelter (Photo by Panebi Wilson)

The on-site paramedic called the incident of Darla Skookum's death “bizarre” because she had obviously passed away many hours earlier.

The paramedic who discovered 52-year-old Darla Skookum lifeless in her bed described the situation as “bizarre” and the RCMP officer who attended the scene said "the smell of death" was overwhelming when she entered the room where Whitehorse Emergency Shelter staff had laid Skookum face down on a mattress more than 12 hours earlier.

The Coroner’s Inquest into the deaths of four Yukon First Nation women at the homeless shelter at 405 Alexander Street in Whitehorse.

When he entered the women's overflow room after 10am that morning, the first paramedic observed Skookum laying face down, her face buried in a pillow. There was blood and vomit on her face when he rolled her over, he said.

The RCMP Constable who arrived shortly afterward, said upon entering the women's overflow room "the smell of death" nearly overwhelmed her. It was obvious that someone had been dead for a long time, she said, adding that she had experienced countless deaths in her 25 years of service, and had known Skookum since 2008, as well as other clients at the shelter. She had known many shelter clients and had attended to their drug overdoses; some of them several times.

The inquest heard that Skookum was put to bed by shelter staff at 9:45pm and that she was discovered lifeless after 10 am the next day. At the time, there were no paramedics working at night.

The inquest revealed that most clients in the shelter are in an altered state of consciousness. It has also heard that drug testing strips are available, but that more complex drug testing is avoided by shelter clients because it requires assistance and therefore is not private. One shelter paramedic testified that there is a punishment of "cutting off fingers" of a drug user if they divulge information that leads to the dealer, which acts as a major deterrent to drug testing. Earlier testimony heard that some clients prefer the effects of fentanyl, a deadly substance that is often considered a contaminant of the drug being tested.

Between April 2021 and April 2023, only two paramedics worked in the shelter from 8am - 6:45pm. After the deaths of Skookum in February 2023 and Josephine Hager in April 2023, the shelter brought on a third medic to work the night shift.

On October 1, 2022, operation of the Whitehorse Emergency Shelter was transferred from the Government of Yukon to the non-profit Connective and the Council of Yukon First Nations.

Connective's website says the Whitehorse Emergency Shelter ensures that Yukoners experiencing homelessness can take shelter, and receive “person-centered and culturally appropriate care”.

Shelter staff however seem to lack training to deal with emergency situations which are constant, the inquest has heard.

In-person and virtual rapid access counselling appointments can be made by calling 867-456-3838, or toll-free at 1-866-456-3838. In-person counselling will be available in Whitehorse, as well as in Carmacks from April 17-19 and April 22-23, and Pelly Crossing from April 10-12.

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