Nunatsiaq Online
NEWS: Nunavut November 17, 2016 - 7:00 am

Key witness could be absent from Nunavut baby death inquest

Authorities unable to locate Deborah McKeown, duty nurse at time of Baby Makibi's death

THOMAS ROHNER
A long-awaited inquest into the 2012 death of three-month-old Makibi Timilak Akesuk in Cape Dorset gets underway next week, on Nov. 21. Residents are invited to a drop-in at the community hall Nov. 20, from 3:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. to ask questions about the inquest process. But officials will be unable to answer questions about Baby Makibi's death or evidence to be presented. (FILE PHOTO)
A long-awaited inquest into the 2012 death of three-month-old Makibi Timilak Akesuk in Cape Dorset gets underway next week, on Nov. 21. Residents are invited to a drop-in at the community hall Nov. 20, from 3:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. to ask questions about the inquest process. But officials will be unable to answer questions about Baby Makibi's death or evidence to be presented. (FILE PHOTO)

A coroner’s inquest into the 2012 death of three-month-old Makibi Olayuk Akesuk in Cape Dorset is set to get underway in the south Baffin community Nov. 22.

But the inquest, scheduled to run four days at the local community hall, might be without one of its most “necessary” witnesses.

Deborah McKeown, the nurse on duty at the local health centre the night Baby Makibi died, has not been summonsed because she cannot be located, the lawyer representing Nunavut’s coroner told Nunatsiaq News Nov. 15.

A summons is a mandatory court order to appear at a judicial proceeding, such as an inquest, and must be served directly to the person it applies to.

“Despite our best efforts, we have so far been unable to locate Ms. McKeown to serve her a summons,” Amy Groothuis told Nunatsiaq News recently.

Groothuis said she has employed an Ontario law firm to help serve McKeown’s summons because McKeown’s primary residence is in Ontario.

“We have asked the law firm to make best efforts to locate and serve her. They have an investigator they normally use to assist them in these cases. We continue to make efforts to find and serve Ms. McKeown.”

The Government of Nunavut called an inquest into Baby Makibi’s death in February.

But that announcement only came after mounting pressure from the infant’s parents and an independent report that identified the government’s failings in the death.

Baby Makibi died in April 2012 a few hours after his parents called the local health centre saying their infant was unwell.

McKeown provided advice over the phone to Makibi’s parents who say the nurse told them to bathe their infant and put him to bed.

That advice is contrary to two different GN nursing policies that say infants with any symptoms must be assessed in-person at the health centre.

When CBC originally broke the story in 2014 about Makibi’s death, the story implied the infant died of a treatable lung infection.

Nunavut’s coroner, Padma Suramala, initially concluded that Baby Makibi’s cause of death was Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, or SIDS.

The cause of SIDS is unknown, but scientists have linked a number of risk factors to SIDS such as baby’s sleeping on their stomachs.

But autopsy pathologists and Suramala changed their findings several times.

Pathologists eventually concluded that Baby Makibi could not have died of a lung infection.

And as a result of evolving professional opinions, Suramala changed the cause of death from SIDS to a lung infection and then back to SIDS.

The confusion and hurt left in the wake of the death has affected the community’s trust in its health care providers, the independent report into the death said.

Groothuis said the inquest’s jury, to be selected on the first day, will hear testimony from RCMP officers, nurses, government employees and pathologists.

Baby Makibi’s family will also be able to give testimony if they choose, Groothuis said.

And there will be a public drop-in meeting prior to the inquest on Nov. 21 for community members wanting to know more about the inquest process.

From 3:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. that day, Cape Dorset residents can drop by the community hall to ask questions about how the inquest will unfold, but not about Baby Makibi’s death, Groothuis said.

Grief counselors and interpreters will be on hand throughout the inquest, including at the public meeting, said the lawyer.

Suramala will not testify at the inquest, Groothuis said.

That’s because the jury’s job is basically to re-write the chief coroner’s report of Baby Makibi’s death.

It could bias the jury to present them with the chief coroner’s conclusions—and the chief coroner does not have any direct evidence on the death to provide either, Groothuis said.

And although McKeown might not be at the inquest to provide testimony, the jury will be presented with the best available evidence.

Documents at the Nunavut Court of Justice show that a summons was issued for McKeown on Sept. 13 by Garth Eggenberger of the Northwest Territories, who will preside over the inquest.

Those documents say McKeown’s testimony at the inquest is “necessary… reasonable and essential to the administration of justice in Nunavut.”

Documents from the Ontario Superior Court in Thunder Bay show that Eggenberger’s summons was made enforceable in Ontario on Oct. 21.

Court documents also say that if McKeown were to testify, the Nunavut court could not use anything she says against her in any other proceeding.

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