‘My heart’s very heavy’: Inquest into deaths of 4 Indigenous women begins in Whitehorse

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.

The first few days of an inquest into the deaths of four Indigenous women at the Whitehorse Emergency Shelter has proven to be highly emotional for the loved ones of the deceased.

Cassandra Warville, 35, and Myranda Tizya-Charlie, 34, died at the shelter in January 2022. Josephine Elizabeth Hager, 38, and Darla Skookum, 52, died in early 2023.

All of the women were accessing services at the shelter at the time of their deaths.

An inquest is being held over the next three weeks in Whitehorse to determine the circumstances surrounding their deaths and what recommendations can be implemented to prevent similar deaths in the future.

The first two days of the inquest focused on the deaths of Warville and Tizya-Charlie, both members of the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation.

The two women were pronounced dead in the early morning hours of Jan. 19 after overdosing from toxic illicit drugs in a shower room at the shelter.

Dana Lore, the sister of Warville, described her as a devoted mother who cared deeply for others.

Tizya-Charlie’s mother, Bella Tizya, remembered her daughter as an athlete, junior ranger and youth worker who was excited about life.

She became emotional while explaining how she couldn’t handle the pain of knowing how exactly her daughter died from a drug overdose.

“My heart’s very heavy,” she said.

Const. Andrew Imrie, an RCMP officer who reviewed CCTV footage of Warville and Tizya-Charlie as part of an investigation into their deaths, explained how they were last seen entering the shower room the night of Jan. 18.

The women were not discovered until 3 1/2 hours later. Both were unconscious and unresponsive.

Footage of Bunning dragging the women to the shelter’s lobby in order to have more space for medical intervention was shown to those in attendance. Many in the room shrieked and yelled after viewing the footage and the proceedings were briefly adjourned by presiding coroner Michael Egilson.

Staff testify

The inquest also heard from the three staff members on duty the night of the women’s deaths. At the time of their deaths, Yukon government was responsible for the shelter’s operation.

Brian Bunning, a former supervisor, opened the locked shower room for the two women and assumed they had gone to bed. It was only hours later while walking by the shower room and noticing a sensor indicating the room was still occupied that he discovered their lifeless bodies.

The beginning of his testimony was again met with commotion from the room and another adjournment.

Bunning said he written an email to the shelter’s manager expressing concern about the lack of staff assigned to night shift.

He said other issues at the time included faulty shower room sensors and staff sometimes leaving the front desk unattended. He also noted some staff members weren’t doing an adequate job, at times missing checks or failing to confront certain shelter users because they were intimidated by them.

Bunning said the women’s deaths didn’t result in any new policies besides the minimum number of night shift staff being raised from three to four.

The deaths, he noted, left him traumatized.

Two other support workers on duty likewise testified while they had been instructed on how to administer Naloxone, they had little training when it came to accessing people on drugs or practising drills using a defibrillator machine, nor did they observe any new policies after the women’s deaths.

Timothy Milsom-Lebreux, a paramedic who attended the scene, walked the inquest through the life saving measures EMS and other medical support staff preformed. That included administering large doses of Narcan to both women as a last-chance attempt to revive them.

He believed Warville was already dead by the time life saving measures were preformed, though Tizya-Charlie still had a faint pulse in her neck. Despite medical personnel working on both women for several minutes, both were later pronounced dead at the scene.

A police recording of another shelter client was also played for the jury. The woman, who is believed to be one of the last people to see the women alive, claimed another shelter client gave the women crack intended for herself.

She claimed Warville and Tizya-Charlie, who she believed were not fentanyl users, unknowingly consumed crack laced with fentanyl.

The inquest will hear from other witnesses Wednesday, including the former acting manager of the shelter at the time of the women’s deaths.

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