When Yukon Supreme Court Justice Ron Veale ordered an inquest into Cynthia Blackjack's 2013 death last month, it looked like Blackjack's family and community would finally get what they'd been pushing for — an explanation of how and why the young woman died.
They also want to know whether Blackjack, 31, was a victim of systemic racism in Yukon's health care system.
But the Office of the Chief Coroner doesn't want an inquest — and is asking the Yukon Court of Appeal to overturn Veale's order and uphold the coroner's earlier decision to forgo an inquest.
The Acting Chief Coroner filed a notice of appeal on Friday.
"I don't know whether we're surprised or not," said Ed Schultz, deputy chief of the Little Salmon Carmacks First Nation, of which Blackjack was a citizen.
"I do think that we're alarmed that official agencies are not prepared to look into fundamental questions that speak to the health services that should be available to a community."
Coroner offers no reasons for appeal
Blackjack visited the Carmacks nursing station the day before she died in November 2013, complaining of toothache, abdominal pain and vomiting. She was given a tentative diagnosis and treatment, then sent home and told to find her way to the Whitehorse hospital, a two-hour drive away, or come back at the end of the day.
Blackjack did not go to Whitehorse or return to the nursing station that day. The next morning her health had deteriorated. Her family called for an ambulance, but waited about 90 minutes for it to arrive. Blackjack was eventually medevaced to Whitehorse, but court documents say her vital signs were lost before the plane landed.
Chief Coroner Kirsten MacDonald's original judgement of inquiry reported the cause of death as multi-organ failure, due to liver failure.
Veale, however, ruled that MacDonald's inquiry was too narrow in focus. He ordered an inquest to consider, "alleged systemic failures of the Carmacks health services to First Nation citizens."
The notice of appeal does not offer reasons to overturn Veale's decision, but simply asks the Court of Appeal to uphold MacDonald's earlier ruling on Blackjack's death.
Ongoing issue, deputy chief says
Schultz believes an inquest is the best way to address questions of systemic racism. He wants the coroner's appeal thrown out, so that "we can get on with this inquest, which we are not ... prepared to walk away from."
Schultz says First Nations people — and especially those who suffer drug and alcohol addictions — are often not given the medical care and attention they need and deserve.
"We think this is something that's been ongoing for many, many years. We know that it happens in other communities, we know that it happens in Whitehorse.
"It is our responsibility under Constitutional oaths to ensure that there is adequate services, equivalent to other Canadians, available for all our citizens," he said.
It's not clear when the Coroner's appeal might be heard, nor has an inquest date been set.