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Q & A with Percy Kinney
Kicking death in the teeth

Jennifer Obleman
Northern News Services
Wednesday, August 8, 2007

YELLOWKNIFE - Percy Kinney's number one career objective is to save lives.

As a coroner since 1993 and chief coroner for the Northwest Territories since 1998, Kinney has been investigating death with the goal of stopping similar fatalities from happening in the future.

NNSL Photo/Graphic

Chief Coroner Percy Kinney will leave his post at the end of September and move to his home province of Ontario to be closer to family. In almost 10 years on the job, Kinney has crusaded for new snow machine legislation, better air support for search and rescue, and a dive rescue program in Yellowknife. - Jennifer Obleman/NNSL photo

After years of advocating for changes such as better air support for search and rescue and helmet legislation for snowmobilers, Kinney is ready to pass the torch.

At the end of September, Kinney will leave this job and this city to be nearer family in Ontario.

Off the job, Kinney, 52, is a hard-drumming, songwriting, NASCAR-watching army veteran with a 19-year-old son and an affinity for sports cars. On the job, Kinney is dead serious about preventing death and injury. Yellowknifer spoke with Kinney recently about his triumphs and frustrations in more than a decade as chief coroner.

Yellowknifer: How did you become chief coroner?

Percy Kinney: I began as a fee-for-service field coroner here in Yellowknife in 1993. In 1998, the chief job became open. I applied for it and here I am. Before that I was in broadcasting. I always make the joke I went from dead air to just dead.

Yellowknifer: And you're planning to leave this fall? Percy Kinney: Yes, at the end of September I'm moving to Ontario. I'm originally from there, and my mom's getting up in age. She's 87, and I'd like to spend some time with her.

Yellowknifer: What exactly does the chief coroner do?Percy Kinney: The chief responsibility of the coroner's office is to investigate all sudden and unexpected deaths with a focus on making recommendations to preventing similar deaths in the future.

Yellowknifer: Do you feel you've been successful in that?Percy Kinney: There are some disappointments. I've been 10 years trying to get snow machine legislation in place, helmet laws, things like that. I haven't been persuasive enough to get that done. I think there have been some successes in my position in this office but there have been some disappointments, too.

Yellowknifer: You lobbied for a dive rescue program after an inmate drowned at Fred Henne Territorial Park a few years back. That program has now gone by the wayside. What are your thoughts on that?Percy Kinney: If someone goes in the water you've only got a very short period of time to be able to get there and retrieve them and revive them. We had a lot of cases where float planes had flipped over or people had went under the water, broken through the ice and what have you. We held an inquest and the jury thought that it was a requirement for the city to have that capability. The City did put it together and maintained it for a year or so and then let it go. I would like to have seen it maintained... but they let it go, the funding's gone, the equipment's all been sold off so it would be hard to reinvent the wheel again.

Yellowknifer: I understand you've also been calling for better air support for searches.

Percy Kinney: When you have aircraft go down, when a plane crashes, the Department of National Defence is responsible for conducting the searches for downed aircraft, and the Rescue Co-ordination Centre in Trenton, Ont., is tasked with the job. We have airplanes that go down here at 40 below, and it takes nine hours before they're here looking for them. We've had cases where people have survived the crash, only to succumb to the cold because they can't hang on.

Yellowknifer: One ongoing case the coroner's office is involved in is the death of two Yellowknife firefighters in 2005. Will an inquest be held?

Percy Kinney: I think it's going to be left up to my successor now. I don't think this office is going to get the WCB stuff until later this year, fall or winter. If all the holes in the system are filled, are plugged, are changed, then maybe we can just close it with a coroner's report. But if there are still open issues that need to be resolved, then I would suggest that a coroner's inquest would be a better tool.

Yellowknifer: What kind of training did you need to do this work?Percy Kinney: The only accreditation agency is in the U.S. so I went to St. Louis University School of Medicine. For four years, I would go down and do academic there and come back and do practical, and then after four years I wrote a gruelling six-hour exam. I am now board certified as a medical legal death investigator in the U.S. because you can't get board certification in Canada... I did most of my forensic training at the FBI academy at Quantico. It's a fantastic facility. We trained alongside FBI recruits.

Yellowknifer: Does the coroner perform autopsies? Percy Kinney: The coroners in our system don't perform the autopsies, they order the autopsies to be done. In our case they are done by a forensic pathologist who resides in Edmonton.

Yellowknifer: So you're not a doctor? Percy Kinney: There are only three jurisdictions in Canada that use a coroner's service where you have to be a physician: that's Ontario, Prince Edward Island, and in Quebec, you have to be a physician or a lawyer. All of the other ones that use a coroner's service use a lay coroner's service, like this, where we're not doctors - B.C., New Brunswick, here. And then there are four provinces that use a completely different system called a medical examiner system, and that's Alberta, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Manitoba.

Yellowknifer: Do you think there's a need to standardize the system?Percy Kinney: I think you have to have the system that works in that area. For instance, a physician-based coroner's system in the North would not work. It's hard enough to get doctors up here to be doctors, let alone to be a coroner. It just wouldn't work.

Yellowknifer: How often are you involved with inquests?Percy Kinney: They're relatively rare. Inquests are mandatory in our system for all deaths in custody, and all other inquests are at the coroner's discretion. We might see one, maybe two inquests in a year, sometimes none. It's a public court proceeding that looks at who died, where, when, the cause of death, by what means, which is the manner of death. There are thousands of causes, but there are only five manners, which is homicide, suicide, accident, natural or undetermined. The difference between what we would do as the coroner in an investigation, is that in an inquest we present it all to a jury and they come back with the cause and manner of death and recommendations to prevent future deaths. It's a much more public way of dealing with a death.

Yellowknifer: Why is the NWT coroner's service contracted by the government?Percy Kinney: To keep an arm's length from the government, I'm not a government employee. People have to know that the person in this office may from time to time be critical of the government and make recommendations to government that they change this or change that or spend this or spend that.

Yellowknifer: What are some of the most common deaths you've investigated?

Percy Kinney: Well, cold exposure's fairly frequent, and drowning and snow machine accidents. Alcohol-related deaths are all too frequent. A couple of years ago, we did a report that showed 75 per cent of our accidental deaths were alcohol-related.

Yellowknifer: Has there ever been a case you walked away from thinking, I don't know if I can do this job anymore?

Percy Kinney: No, I get more the other way... I started this job in February 1998 and in March I had to go to Kugluktuk, that's back before Nunavut was created, for a triple murder-suicide. The father had come home and his wife had gone away with her boyfriend. He came home and killed his three kids and then himself with a shotgun. A 13-year-old girl, a seven-year old girl and a four-year-old boy were shot point blank. But that makes me angry. It makes me want to do it more. You look at that and you go, how can we fix that? It turned out this guy had been to jail three or four times for beating up his wife, and charged once with beating up his kids, but the charge was dropped, a whole bunch of stuff. And social services never had a child welfare file... I took them to task.

Yellowknifer: Have you ever had to investigate the death of someone you knew?

Percy Kinney: I have only ever had to go to one death where the person was a friend of mine. He was killed at a mine, squashed between two pieces of equipment. He had supper at my place the night before. He left at quarter to midnight Sunday night. Noon Monday he was dead. It was very tough. But my community coroners do that all the time.

Yellowknifer: To what extent does this job take its toll on you, mentally and emotionally? Percy Kinney: We all like to think we're macho and tough and this job doesn't bother you. Well, that's probably true on the surface, but you really don't know how much it affects you on the inside. There's no question in my mind that to do this job properly, this job has a shelf life. I think it's very difficult to go in and do this job forever. There's two things: one is, it's going to take its toll on you in time; second, if you stay long enough, you become ineffective at it. I beat the drum and bitch about the things I bitch about, and I've been doing it for 10 years. A lot of it now falls on deaf ears. It's "Oh, that's Percy and his rhetoric again." It's time for someone new to come. They're probably going to bitch about the same things, but they'll do it in a different way and with a different voice.