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Q&A with Percy Kinney

Dawn Ostrem
Northern News Services

Yellowknife (Sept 03/01) - Percy Kinney is trained to put some incredibly gruesome situations into perspective as the Northwest Territories' chief coroner.

He was on the job a month when he worked on a Kugluktuk murder-suicide in which a man killed himself and three children. It was his responsibility to make recommendations to the government in the aftermath.

Percy Kinney has been the Northwest Territories' chief coroner for three and a half years.

Since then, he has conducted many investigations, several inquests and determined countless causes of death.

News/North: How does a former journalist become a chief coroner?

Percy Kinney: I started at CJCD and I also worked at CKLB and CBC and then I became a fee-for-service coroner.

In the communities, we have fee-for-service coroners and they get paid when they get called out so I became one of those for Yellowknife. It subsequently snowballed from there to where I am now.

N/N: How is being a coroner different here from other places in Canada or the United States?

PK: It would depend on the jurisdiction ... In Ontario ... you have to be a doctor. In B.C. it is the same as here. In Alberta you have to be a medical examiner. They have investigators that would be more comparable to what we do. In the U.S. a lot of the coroners are elected but you have to be board-certified.

N/N: Do you find people don't necessarily understand what your role is?

PK: Yeah, there's a lot of misconceptions of what a coroner does and it is not only in the general public, it happens in the world of forensic medicine and medical death investigation. I attended a course in Ontario and they sent me a diploma that says Dr. Kinney on it because they just assumed I had to be a doctor.

The basic job of a coroner is to investigate all sudden and unexpected death. Some people think it is the RCMP's job to investigate death. It is the RCMP's job to investigate crime.

In our system, the coroner has the responsibility of determining the cause of the death and for that he can order an autopsy to be done. What is equally important for the coroner to determine -- that the pathologist won't be able to determine-- is the manner of death. You could have someone who has died of a drug overdose but the manner of death deals with if it is a suicide, a homicide, an accident...

N/N: Do you think the role you play is sufficient in the NWT?

PK: I think we have one of the best systems in Canada. It's not a big system, but it is the only kind of system that would work here. It is based on the community coroner. When a death occurs in community X of the Northwest Territories it is of incredible value to have somebody there who lives there, who speaks the language ... Sure you can parachute me in there or the deputy chief coroner Cathy Menard, but we are just another outsider coming in there to rustle the bushes.

I think the system is adequate now. (After the territories -- NWT and Nunavut -- split, we now have) less numbers of cases and we can spend more time doing what I think is the most important part of a coroner's service, that is, working towards making recommendations in preventing future deaths. That's the reason I do this job, it's not to go to the icky scenes. That is difficult.

N/N: And recommendations are what come out of coroners' inquests?

PK: Or investigations. Inquests are relatively rare but they are the same concept of a coroner's investigation. A coroner's investigation finds out the circumstances, makes a determination of cause and manner of death and then hopefully makes recommendations to prevent future deaths.

An inquest does the same thing only it is a public process where the information is put forth to a jury, they decide the cause and manner of death and they make recommendations.

One of the big misconceptions that the public has is that the coroner's office can determine fault or liability. The coroner's office is a fact-finding, not a fault-finding agency ... We cannot make conclusions of law.

N/N: Which 85-odd deaths this year have affected you the most?

PK: They are all difficult. Since January, I think the recent Diavik one because there seems to be a lot of unanswered questions, and certainly, the bear attack was a very difficult case to have to deal with because it was not a common event.

The suicides are always tough, too.

N/N: And since the beginning of your career?

PK: The part I have a tough time dealing with are the totally preventable deaths ... the snowmobile deaths, the drownings, the suicides, the alcohol-related deaths -- all the things we see, that y'know, a twist here, a turn there, and they could have been preventable ... and when you see it repeated over and over again.

N/N: Has there ever been scenes that you went to, perhaps earlier on in your career, where you had to force yourself to be strong-stomached?

PK: Being able to stomach it has not really been a problem because you get wrapped up in the job and what has to be done.

The emotional reaction to what you are dealing with, for me, comes after. One of the things that really brought that to light for me early on is when we take photos ... the photos are always more graphic than I remember the scene being ... it is because the photograph is a focus on a particular issue that you are looking at ... when you are at the crisis you are looking at it 360 degrees.

I think what really gets to me is not so much gore -- sometimes there is gore involved -- but when you are dealing with deaths involving children. That is tough to take especially if it is a really violent death. We have had some involving murder-suicides and things similar to that. Those are extremely tough.

Any time there is something that involves trauma to the body you are going to get the gore. That is not a big issue for me. I understand the fascination about those things, but it is not like the movies. I can tell you that right now. Movies do not do it justice.

N/N: Do you ever have a hard time separating your job from home? Do you ever have nightmares?

PK: I don't have nightmares that I remember ... I do at times have a hard time sleeping. I am a firm believer in stress-debriefing. Obviously, in my job, you can't go out to every scene and then do a debriefing, but when we deal with fairly horrific or involved ones (cases), I try to make sure we get diffused properly.

N/N: How are you regarded by the GNWT since its actions or inactions are often highlighted in your work?

PK: I am not an employee of the GNWT. I am a contractor. I work hours, send an invoice and they pay me. This job used to be an employee relationship and I personally do not believe that is the best way to have it because I have to be able to make recommendations, very often to government, without having a real fear, or imaginary fear, or perception, that they are my employer so I have to be careful with what I say.

I have to say that was one of my chief worries in taking this job: the possibility of political interference. I am delighted to say I have never once had anybody pressure me or try to steer me in one way or another in recommendations I have made. I answer to them financially and administratively.

N/N: What is an example of recommendations that might be made to the GNWT?

PK: We had a gentleman commit suicide in one of the territorial correctional centres and there was a number of recommendations that came out of that, a lot of them to the Department of Justice, which also administers this program, on changes to the facility. Some on changing infrastructure, sone on changing policy and how they do things.

N/N: You and everyone in this office have always been really good with the media whereas a lot of other coroners or death investigators are not. Why is that?

PK: I think it has to do with having worked in the media ... I know that is important.

I need the media to do my job. If my inquest jury or I make recommendations and I want those recommendations public and questions asked it is the media that is going to do that. If they don't do it in my interest they are going to do it in their own or in the public's interest. If they don't, then my reports just sit in a file.