Indigenous woman who died at Whitehorse shelter was left lying face down on mattress by staff, inquest hears

The Whitehorse emergency shelter at 405 Alexander Street. (Cheryl Kawaja/CBC - image credit)
The Whitehorse emergency shelter at 405 Alexander Street. (Cheryl Kawaja/CBC - image credit)

Warning: this story contains distressing details.

Footage from the Whitehorse Emergency Shelter's security camera shown at a coroner's inquest on Monday showed that hours before Darla Skookum was reported dead, staff placed her on a mattress on the floor, directly on her stomach, as she appeared motionless.

Video also showed her unable to stand or walk on her own earlier that night, on April 15, 2023. She was reported dead the morning after.

Skookum, who was member of Little Salmon Carmacks First Nation, is one of four Indigenous women who are the focus of the inquest. All four died while accessing services at the shelter.

Last week, the first days of the inquest looked into the deaths of 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. The inquest also looked at Josephine Elizabeth Hager's death, who was reported dead on Feb.1, 2023. She was a member of Selkirk First Nation.

Warville and Tizya-Charlie's deaths have been confirmed by the chief coroner to be the result of toxic illicit drugs. However, Hager and Skookum's cause of death have yet to be confirmed.

On Monday, the inquest focused on Skookum.

"We were a very close-knit family," one family member told the inquest.

"She always had a hug for anyone who needed it ... she loved everyone and would give her last money to someone in need."

Presiding coroner Michael Egilson and the jury spent all day reviewing video surveillance taken a year ago, on the night Skookum died.

The inquest also heard from RCMP Const. Derek Kirstein, the lead investigator of Skookum's death who reviewed the footage captured on the night she died.

The video played at the inquest showed Skookum hanging out in the shelter's lounge area, appearing to be drinking from a cup with her partner at some point.

She later seemed unable to stand or walk on her own. That's when the shelter staff moved her with a wheelchair to the overflow area, where guests can sleep for the night. The video showed that three staff members transferred Skookum onto a floor mattress around 9:45 p.m., placing her directly on her stomach.

Skookum appeared motionless in the video, lying with her face directly in a pillow for more than 12 hours.

Staff were seen coming in and out of the room, helping other guests to settle in for the night. But the video surveillance revealed no employee appeared to check directly on Skookum.

The video, however, didn't provide any sounds, including conversations among staff and guests.

Shortly after 10 a.m., footage showed one staff member performing checks in the overflow room, and assessed Skookum. He moved her onto her back, revealing a puddle of bodily fluid on the mattress and pillow.

Kirstein testified police were called around that time. He also said some video footage from that night was missing, or never obtained — including video of the corridor during her transfer from the lounge area to the overflow room.

The inquest is expected to hear from shelter staff this week.

Jurors will have the chance to make recommendations at the end of the inquest, however their job is not to find legal or criminal responsibility.

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.