Coroner's inquest looks at surveillance video on night of woman's death at Whitehorse emergency shelter

The shelter is located at 405 Alexander Street. It provides temporary emergency housing to community members in need of a bed, hot meal, shower, laundry and access to medical aid.  (Philippe Morin/CBC - image credit)
The shelter is located at 405 Alexander Street. It provides temporary emergency housing to community members in need of a bed, hot meal, shower, laundry and access to medical aid. (Philippe Morin/CBC - image credit)

Footage from the Whitehorse emergency shelter's security camera shown at a coroner's inquest on Thursday provided more information about the night Josephine Hager died.

Hager, who was a member of the Selkirk First Nation, is among the four Indigenous women who died at the shelter in 2022 and 2023.

The first few days of the inquest looking into their deaths focused on Myranda Tizya-Charlie, 34, and Cassandra Warville, 35, who were reported dead on January 19, 2022. Both were members of the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation, in Old Crow. While Warville and Tizya-Charlie's deaths had been confirmed by the chief coroner to be the result of toxic illicit drugs, little information was ever revealed about what happened to Hager, 38, who was reported dead on Feb. 1, 2023.

A statement written by Hager's family described her as a "powerful force" and that her energy was boundless and "drumming was her happy place."

"She didn't have an easy life but she chose love," the statement read.

At the time of her death, Hager was living at 405 Alexander Street — the emergency shelter — in the housing units.

On Thursday, the inquest heard from lawyers that she might have experienced an overdose a few days before the night she died. Staff's testimonies later alleged that not everyone was aware of it, and that while the shelter had a "safety plan" procedure to ensure clients were provided extra attention after such an incident, nothing was done or communicated.

On Thursday, security camera footage captured on the night she died showed Hager hanging out with other guests in the smoking area, the dinning room and at the front desk.

The video also showed the guests sharing cups and smoking.

At one point, Hager fell outside in the smoking area before another guest helped her into a wheelchair.

That guest testified that Hager had mentioned earlier in the day that she wasn't feeling well, but that she didn't want to go to the hospital.

"We were best friends, we were with each other each day," the woman testified.

"I don't want it to happen ever again."

A publication ban was issued by presiding coroner Michael Egilson on Thursday to protect some of the witness names.

The footage later showed Hager walking alone across one the shelter's corridors toward the smoking area before she stopped. She then crouched and lay on the floor, appearing to be motionless in the middle of the hallway over a period of time.

Staff, as well as other shelter clients, were seen briefly checking on Hager a few times — without moving her.

She remained unattended on the floor until a client started to perform CPR before staff took over.

It's unclear how long it took for staff to call paramedics while she was motionless.

Shelter staff response

The video and testimony from staff and shelter clients focused on a lack of procedure to monitor intoxicated clients.

Staff testified that Hager was often seen sitting in staircases, or laying on the ground.

"Based on what I knew about Josephine … I never had great concern about her … that night … nothing out of the ordinary … almost a routine for her."

The video showed the employee walking by Hager lying on the floor. He said he was able to see her breathing from standing above her.

He added that it, "depended on the situation" whether they would call paramedics for medical assistance. He said there was no clear policy or procedure on when exactly to call for help, adding that paramedics and 911 dispatchers even discouraged staff to call about intoxicated guests.

Meanwhile, the shelter client who performed CPR on Hager testified that staff never helped Hager or assessed her.

"She was just laying there," he said.

He said staff were "all rude toward natives, but kind to foreigners."

"We need more support and people to watch us ... they gotta be more respectful toward us."

Change in leadership

Hager's death came at a time when Connective — a social services organization operating in B.C. and the Yukon — had recently taken over the shelter's operations from the Yukon government. Connective had been running the shelter in partnership with the Council of Yukon First Nations since October 2022.

One staff member testified he saw a "big change" when Connective took over.

"And it was for the worse," he said.

"Our clients were excited that CYFN were involved ... but it became a much more social environment ... with a higher presence of drugs."

The employee said he didn't believe Connective provided him with proper training, directions or support on-site to respond to what happened the night Hager died.

His testimony echoed what the inquest had heard earlier this week, about the shelter being understaffed and lacking clear procedures to follow.

Lawyers representing Connective, as well as the Yukon government, introduced several policy and procedure documents at the inquest.

But some staff testified the documents were "vague" and that there wasn't a policy review performed whenever a new one was introduced.

"A lot of our policy changed," one staff member claimed.

Some staff also said there was a gap between policy and the reality of working on the floor.

As an example, one staff member testified that it was common to have intoxicated guests use the wheelchair for assistance.

The shelter's policy stated that guests that were beyond the capacity of the shelter's level of care, including being unable to walk on their own, should be referred to other services such as paramedics.

An employee also testified there was no debrief after Hager's death, and that no additional training — including additional information on alcohol and intoxication — was offered.

One employee said he never received training on how to file an incident report.

The inquest is expected to take two more weeks.

It will continue to focus in the coming days on the deaths of Hager, but also on Darla Skookum, 52, who also died at the shelter in 2023.

The Yukon government says additional counselling supports will be available during the inquest.

In-person and virtual rapid access counselling appointments can be made by calling 867-456-3838, or toll-free at 1-866-456-3838. In-person counselling will be available in Whitehorse, as well as in Carmacks from April 17-19 and April 22-23, and Pelly Crossing from April 10-12.