The death watch
Northern coroners are essentially volunteers

by Chris Meyers Almey
Northern News Services

NNSL (Apr 28/97) - It's a tough enough job that pays next to nothing. Sometimes it's even heart-wrenching.

And because most of the NWT's coroners live in small communities, it's not uncommon for them to investigate the deaths of friends or relatives.

"That is a very difficult position to be in," says deputy justice minister Don Cooper.

There are about 150 coroners in the North, mostly volunteers providing an invaluable service, he says.

"They get a $50 fee for investigating a death scene and are quite often called out in the middle of the night."

Or they might go out onto the tundra in -40 C weather and spend a few days there examining an airplane crash.

Their investigations might take a few hours, or several days to complete, but still they are only paid $50 a case.

"That is incredibly low and we have got to take a look at changing the fee schedule," Cooper says. "It is so low a lot of them don't even ask for the $50. They are basically a volunteer service."

A volunteer service that just lost its head. Chief coroner Jo MacQuarrie resigned last week after five years in the post. A replacement hasn't been found yet.

The coroners in the communities seem to know what do, though. Tim Neily in Iqaluit describes his role as "representing the person who died -- of course we are representing the living, to protect them, too."

Neily has been a coroner for about a dozen years and investigated maybe 70 cases. Over the years, the cases start to blur together, he says.

And when asked if he's ever been involved with any murders, he replies: "I can think of a couple that were not murder, but maybe manslaughter."

Cases like that are handled a little differently to make sure no one steps out of bounds and prejudices a trial.

He's never had to deal with a plane crash, but he has dealt with multiple deaths.

Like the three kayakers who ended up in the water and died and the eight men who died in a water accident three years ago. Others have gone through the ice and died.

And then there are other types of accidental deaths. "I would have to say most of the ones, unfortunately, that we see are suicides. They're at times quite difficult," Neily says.

One thing foremost on a coroner's mind is the fear of making a mistake, Neily says.

So they end up putting in those extra hours.

Sometimes that's 30, 40, 50 or 60 hours, he says. Whatever it takes until the file is closed.

"Unfortunately most deaths occur at night or on weekends. The remuneration barely covers the telephone bills."

Neily is an instructor for Nunavut Arctic College, where he teaches math and science. "Having a science background does quite often help in what you're doing as a coroner."

Now there are six coroners in Iqaluit, three of whom are past students of Neily, so he is running an extra training program for them. They get called out in the night to "do a number of ride-alongs."

Last November a coroner's workshop was held for Nunavut coroners in Iqaluit and this month a workshop was held in Yellowknife for Western Arctic coroners.

Territorial Justice Minister Kelvin Ng, who was once a coroner himself, met with the coroners.

The workshop was conducted primarily by British Columbia coroner Larry Campbell, who has assisted his NWT counterparts for years.

Also on hand was Dr. Graeme Dowling, chief medical examiner for Alberta.

There were several other contributors at the workshop, RCMP officers, territorial chief medical officer Dr. Ian Gilchrist and Eric Bussey, director of emergency services for the NWT.

The coroners heard lectures on cutting and stabbing wounds and blood-pattern splatters -- the "meat and potatoes for a coroner," as Cooper says.

The coroners discussed death scenes and crime scenes, the need for postmortem examinations and an autopsy, techniques for establishing a time of death and the principles of sudden-death investigation.

"It is interesting work for the average person who is a little bit gutsy," Cooper says.