Email this articleE-mail this story  Discuss this articleWrite letter to editor  Discuss this articleOrder a classified ad
Dealing with death

The coroner system in the NWT is simple. There are 40 fee-for-service coroners in the territories and instead of police officers or doctors they are simply working community members. That is the way it has worked for hundreds of years in some parts of the world; that is the way it has to work up here; and that is the way it works best, according to chief coroner Percy

Dawn Ostrem
Northern News Services

Yellowknife (Dec 10/01) - There are about 40 fee-for-service coroners in the Northwest Territories that make working with the dead their business.

NNSL Photo

Percy Kinney loads the body into a van to take to the airport.

He has been a fee-for-service lay coroner for about two years. His full-time jobs include publishing and working in security at BHP Diamonds. When he is on time-off from the mine he is on call. His cell phone rang while he was driving his kids to school one day. After dropping them off he sped to the hospital to talk to the family and doctors of the deceased. He called chief coroner Percy Kinney for advice. This was the third death Dahl worked on.

"Being in this job helps you keep everything in perspective," he said.

Dahl took on the job after his three-and-a-half-month-old daughter died of natural, but undetermined, causes.

"She just got sick and went into the hospital that night and then she was gone," he explained. "An elder told me once that she was a spirit that wanted to know what love was, for three-and-a-half months she did and then it was her time to go."

While Dahl and Kinney were in the morgue at Stanton Regional Hospital, snapping on plastic gloves beside a stretcher and a body, the phone rang.

"We are sending for an autopsy," he said briskly into the receiver to the RCMP on the other end of the line. "If there is anything in that autopsy report we will let you know right away."

In this case, Kinney said, there was likely no need for police involvement but the cause of death was hazy. That meant the coroner's had to make a decision to send the body to Edmonton where a pathologist would do an autopsy.

Dahl said the family was being co-operative in this case but "you have to be very sensitive to what they are going through but at the same time they have to know this has to follow proper procedure.

"You have to approach it how you would like to be treated in this situation."

Dahl would know.

What makes the job a little tougher is fee-for-service coroners in most communities know the people they must eventually take samples off and slip into body bags. In this case Dahl knew the person, only to see them.

"These people are dealing with people they know and that does not happen very much," Kinney said about lay coroners in small Northern communities.

In most provinces the chief coroner is either a doctor or former police officer. Other coroners in the south may have more substantive professional credentials but that would not make a difference here, Kinney said.

The coroners here are members of the community, they know the people and speak the language. They know how to get such a sensitive, needed job completed by gathering information to determine the cause and manner of death in a report.

A coroner may also decide to do a more in depth investigation fact-finding, not fault-finding -- and make recommendations on how to prevent further deaths.

He or she may also hold an inquest, vaulting that process into public view, and allow a jury to determine cause and manner of death as well as make recommendations.

In this case, those steps could not be made until the autopsy results were available.

Kinney and Dahl wheeled the body in a silver box down the hospital corridor, loaded it into a van and took it to shipping at First Air.

On the way to the airport the box moved around a bit and made a lot of creaking sounds. Kinney described how he was driving back from a community with a body late one night in the dark. The box slipped off the trolley, making a crashing sound and frightened the burly and tough-looking chief coroner.

He chuckled as he told the story.

"You tend to develop a dark sense of humour," he said.