‘We have room for improvement’: Management testifies at Whitehorse inquest

Coroner’s inquest into shelter deaths wraps up.


The inquest is being held at the Best Western in downtown Whitehorse. Photo: Sara Connors/APTN

Upper management for a non-profit that operates the Whitehorse emergency shelter said it’s often up to frontline staff to use their own judgement when assisting shelter clientele who are intoxicated or under the influence of drugs.

Senior staff for B.C. based non-profit Connective testified earlier this week at an inquest into the deaths of four First Nations women who died while accessing services at the shelter.

The organization took over the day-to-day operations of the shelter from Yukon government in the fall of 2022.

Much of the inquest has focused on the death of Darla Skookum, 52, a citizen of the Little Salmon/Carmacks First Nation.

Skookum, who was unable to stand or walk in the time leading up to her death, died after staff put her to bed on her stomach. Video footage shows Skookum was positioned with her face in her pillow.

Frontline staff testified they put Skookum to bed as she appeared to be intoxicated but not showing signs of medical distress. When Skookum was unable to move, staff helped lift her from the floor onto a wheelchair.

A senior manager with the shelter, who can’t be named due to a publication ban, said upon learning the details of Skookum’s death, frontline staff shouldn’t have “transferred” Skookum into the wheelchair as they’re not trained to do so.

“In hindsight, we recognize that there was an opportunity to direct the staff about the specific transfer that occurred. That was my mistake. And I take responsibility and I apologize for that,” she said.

She also said there was a “missed opportunity” to debrief with staff after Skookum’s death.

Chris Kinch, Connective’s vice-president of service delivery for northern B.C. and Yukon, said staff likely should have called EMS, though he felt they “made judgments the best they could in the moment.”

When asked if staff had made errors when putting Skookum to bed, Kinch said there were “opportunities for feedback.”

“I think we’ve identified that there are areas where we have room for improvement,” he said.

Access of care

In recent days, much of the inquest has touched on the scope of care frontline staff are able to provide to shelter clients. Several staff members testified the shelter provides limited training, such as basic first aid and naloxone administration.

The senior manager said it’s not uncommon for shelter guests to require care beyond what frontline shelter staff can provide but they often refuse medical assistance.

Kinch said the shelter currently doesn’t have an access of care policy in place, leaving frontline staff to use their discretion at times when assisting guests who are intoxicated, under the influence of drugs, or exhibiting mental health issues.

Many frontline and senior staff noted that written policies don’t always reflect the reality of working in a shelter.

Kinch said providing a place for guests to go outside of a short shelter stay would go beyond the scope of what Connective is currently able to offer. He said additional programs, like a sobering space or detox, would require funding from Yukon government.

He noted Connective is working on an access of care policy and that it’s “a complex issue.”

Training and safe space

Connective’s regional director for Yukon, Gigi McKee, said staff are provided with regular check-ins with management and monthly refresher courses on naloxone and de-escalation training. Formal trauma-informed training, she said, is not currently available.

Kinch said he was open to providing a higher level of first aid to staff, though that would depend on government funding and Connective’s ability to offer training on a sustainable, ongoing basis.

He noted the organization also tries its best to provide a culturally safe space for shelter guests, though it’s not a “one-stop-shop that fits all sizes.”

The shelter currently provides First Nations 101 to staff, a course that takes a few hours to complete. Kinch said the organization is currently looking at having more First Nations programs but hasn’t settled on anything yet.

He also said it’s difficult finding permanent staff to work at the shelter and that it heavily relies on casuals, most of which aren’t Indigenous.

‘Very unfortunate incidents’

Friends, family and supporters wore red shawls at the inquest on April 19 to honour the four women who died while accessing services at the Whitehorse emergency shelter, as well as those that have died in the territory from substance use. Photo: Sara Connors/APTN

A lawyer for the inquest said there have been eight deaths at the shelter since 2020, seven of which took place between January 2022 to April 2023.

While Kinch wasn’t aware of the number of deaths prior to 2022, he said the first six months of operation were “a challenging time of adjustment.”

“We had some very unfortunate incidents that occurred during that time,” he said.

Kinch confirmed one shelter user died in December 2023, though their death is not thought to be related to substance use.

Staff also testified another unnamed woman had overdosed at the shelter in late 2022, and that frequent bathroom checks had not yet been implemented at the time of her death.

Witnesses have revealed between 2020 to 2022 there were 144 overdoses at the shelter, three of which resulted in death. Since Connective took over in October 2022, there have been 55 overdoses, three of which resulted in death.

The inquest wrapped up on Wednesday. The jury will start deliberations today.

Contribute Button