First Nations woman died at shelter after being placed face down inquest hears

Whitehorse shelter inquest

An inquest into the deaths of four Indigenous women at a Whitehorse shelter is taking place over the next three weeks. Photo: APTN.

A First Nations woman died at the Whitehorse emergency shelter last year after staff put her to bed lying face down on her stomach an inquest into her death learned.

Darla Skookum, 52, a member of the Little Salmon/Carmacks First Nation, died while accessing services at the shelter. She was pronounced dead on April 16, 2023.

Her death, along with three other First Nations women, are the focus of an inquest underway this month.

Family members described Skookum as a kind, generous person who loved her children and family.

“Darla loved life and treated everyone with respect and kindness no matter who they were. She loved everyone,” said her sister Veronica Burgess. “She always had a smile on her face.”

CCTV footage from the evening of Skookum’s death shows her sitting in a lounge along with other shelter clients.

RCMP Const. Derek Kirsten, who investigated Skookum’s death, narrated the events leading up to her death.

He described how earlier in the evening, Skookum appeared to be coherent, at times covering her head with her jacket, eating, drinking and talking with her partner.

At one point, she and her partner appear to pass a small bottle of alcohol to each other. Later, they place her jacket over their both their heads for a brief moment, obstructing the camera’s view.

After some time passes, footage shows Skookum laying upright with her eyes closed and her mouth open. She can also be seen collapsing to the ground after another shelter user tries to help her to stand.

The footage then shows three staff members and other shelter clients helping place Skookum in a wheelchair. Her eyes do not appear to open at all during the interaction.

Around 9:45 p.m. the staff members place Skookum face down in her pillow on a mat in an overflow sleeping room. Skookum does not move again from that point on, despite frequent comings and goings from other guests throughout the night.

None of the staff that help Skookum to bed return to the room to check on her.

Approximately 12 hours later, at 10 a.m., another staff member is shown checking on Skookum. A paramedic on site rolls Skookum over, and yellow bodily fluids can be seen on her pillow, as well as other fluids on the mat.

Skookum appears motionless, with blood noticeably pooled in her ankles.

Cause of death confirmed

On Tuesday, pathologist Dr. Elizabeth McKinnon discussed the cause of death for each of the four women. She said Skookum died from acute alcohol toxicity with contributions from cocaine and hydromorphone. She said Skookum’s autopsy also found she had other serious underlying medical issues, such as cirrhosis of the liver and nephrons sclerosis of the kidneys.

McKinnon said the bodily fluids on Skookum’s pillow was likely purge fluid, a mix of stomach acid and other fluids commonly released from the body after death.

She explained during cross examination that being placed in a position lying face down can contribute to or exacerbate respiratory depression, which is a slow, shallow breathing rate.

“Her positioning could be an additional variable for causing respiratory compromise,” she said.

McKinnon said Josephine Hager, 38, died at shelter in early 2023 from a combination of alcohol and morphine. The substances caused Hager to have a pulmonary edema, a condition where too much fluid accumulates in the lungs.

Hager was also found to have  a “compromised organ system,” and her autopsy showed evidence of fatty liver disease, advanced kidney disease and reduced liver function – all of which contributed to her death.

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Cassandra Warville, 35, and Myranda Tizya-Charlie, 34, died at the shelter in January 2022. Both women were using drugs together the night of their death and were left unattended in a shower room before being discovered by a staff member hours later.

McKinnion said Tizya-Charlie died from complications of combined drug and alcohol intoxication, which included fentanyl. Cocaine was also a contributing factor in her death.

Warville similarly died from complications of alcohol and fentanyl intoxication, with cocaine use as a contributing factor.

McKinnion said the drug combinations caused respiratory depression, which may have come on quickly. She said that might have been why neither women answered a knock on the door earlier in the night.

She also noted it likely wouldn’t have mattered how quickly naloxone was administered, as the women’s systems were “severely compromised.”

Toxicology reports show Tizya-Charlie had a higher percentage of fentanyl in her system than Warville.

Toxicologist Dr. Aaron Shapiro said despite the two women having differing levels of fentanyl, the combinations of drugs in their bodies was sufficient enough to cause death.

This week the inquest is expected to hear from staff who were on duty the night of Skookum’s death.

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