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'We are deeply sorry': Yukon premier apologizes ahead of inquest

WHITEHORSE — Yukon's premier is apologizing ahead of an inquest into the deaths of four Indigenous women who were accessing services at the Whitehorse emergency shelter.

WHITEHORSE — Yukon's premier is apologizing ahead of an inquest into the deaths of four Indigenous women who were accessing services at the Whitehorse emergency shelter.

Ranj Pillai said governments have a responsibility to ensure the safety, well-being and dignity of everyone looking for help.

"The premature loss of life under any circumstance is unacceptable. Cassandra, Myranda, Josephine and Darla were seeking our help, and their lives still ended too soon. For this, we are deeply sorry," he said at a news conference Friday.

Cassandra Warville, Myranda Tizya-Charlie, Josephine Elizabeth Hagar and Darla Skookum died between January 2022 and April 2023 when the shelter was being run either by the government or a non-profit organization.

When chief coroner Heather Jones first announced the inquest in 2022 for Warville and Tizya-Charlie, she said the deaths where "found to be the result of toxic illicit drugs." 

The cause of deaths for the other two women have not been released. 

The territory has been hit particularly hard by toxic drugs. In 2022, Yukon led the country in the per-capita rate of illicit drug-related deaths.

The territorial government operated the shelter from 2019 until 2022 when the non-profit, Connective, and the Council of Yukon First Nations took over operations. 

A report published in 2023 found the shelter is meeting people's basic needs but pointed out a number of concerns including that some women, in particular, are not accessing the shelter due to concerns related to safety.

Deputy premier Jeanie McLean said at the news conference on Friday that the government is providing funding for community members to travel to Whitehorse to be with the families during the inquest.

There will be increased access to counselling, she said. 

McLean said the way the women died was "neither dignified nor just," and while the inquest will be focused on Whitehorse, the issues are not specific to the city.

"We see vulnerable people, vulnerable women, vulnerable Indigenous people, die from drug poisoning, from suicide, from the impacts of colonization every day across Canada," she said. 

Coroner's inquests do not place blame, but juries are given the chance to provide recommendations for how to prevent similar deaths in the future.

Pillai acknowledged that many people want to have conversations, beyond the scope of the inquest, about the systemic forces at play in the women's deaths.

"Many people want to focus on a bigger conversation because we know that we've lost a lot of Yukoners in the last number of years. We know that we've lost a lot of Canadians," he said.

"We know that people have passed on throughout this country because of what's happening with a toxic drug supply, more than we've ever seen, and the impacts of that."

Pillai, a former college instructor who had one of the women as a student, said he is committed to put recommendations from the inquest into action.

"I think it's fair to say we have to understand how substantial they are, but we're ready to work with the report that comes our way," he said.

"It's the right thing to do." 

The inquest is expected to last a few weeks. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 5, 2024. 

The Canadian Press