The life of a coroner
Getting to the bottom of things
Yellowknife (May 10/00) - Slight of frame and soft in voice, Nunavut's chief coroner knows all to well the ins and outs of investigating deaths and examining bodies.
"Coroners appreciate life," says Elizabeth Copland, the territory's first chief coroner and the first Inuk woman to have the job.
"People will ask me why I want to do this or how can I do it. In most cases, people fear death, but doing this work takes that fear away."
Copland, who spent six years working as a coroner in Whale Cove before being chosen for her new position in September 1999, says the role of the coroner is widely misunderstood.
"We seek to understand why a person died and what they died from -- coroners speak for the dead to protect the living," she said.
"When we go to the doctors we can tell them we don't feel well, but a dead person can't and that is what the coroner does."
In fact, Copland says the biggest challenge of her job is making the public aware of exactly what it is a coroner does.
"One topic the public isn't particularly supportive of is autopsies -- especially in Nunavut," she says.
"Families don't want the body to be taken away and they've heard horror stories about the wrong body coming back or they believe it isn't whole anymore, but that isn't true because it will help the family understand why the person died."
Autopsies are still preformed out of the territory and Copland says they are done quickly and efficiently.
"Before I order an autopsy the body is examined, circumstances leading up to the death are investigated, recommendations are made and the family is talked to.
"As chief coroner I receive all calls from coroners in the communities, talk over the cause of death and order an autopsy.
"My family and I are getting used to the late night calls," she says, referring to her four children and her husband.
Nunavut currently has less than 40 coroners to serve 26 communities and Copland says that simply isn't enough.
"A coroner's job is very demanding with a lot of responsibilities -- there should be more than one coroner per community. In small communities it's likely the coroner could be related to the deceased.
"One person can't always deal with the body and the family, we need support to do our jobs," she said.
Copland, who was in Iqaluit for a two-day coroner's workshop recently, says Nunavut should have at least 50 coroners.
"We're recruiting coroners right now, we need more."