Nunatsiaq News
NEWS: Nunavut March 19, 2015 - 8:32 am

Retired lawyer Peterson starts review into death of Nunavut baby

“Inform myself, inform myself, inform myself as I go”

THOMAS ROHNER
The retired Yellowknife lawyer, Katherine Peterson, at the Caribrew Café in Iqaluit March 17. Peterson was to have visited Cape Dorset March 18 and March 19 and return to Iqaluit March 20. “It may be like an onion. Maybe the more I peel it, the more complicated it gets. But I’ll try to follow my nose best I can,” she said of her review into the circumstances surrounding the 2012 death of a three-month-old baby. (PHOTO BY THOMAS ROHNER)
The retired Yellowknife lawyer, Katherine Peterson, at the Caribrew Café in Iqaluit March 17. Peterson was to have visited Cape Dorset March 18 and March 19 and return to Iqaluit March 20. “It may be like an onion. Maybe the more I peel it, the more complicated it gets. But I’ll try to follow my nose best I can,” she said of her review into the circumstances surrounding the 2012 death of a three-month-old baby. (PHOTO BY THOMAS ROHNER)

On the eve of her first trip to Cape Dorset after her appointment to review a 2012 nursing scandal involving the death of a three-month old baby, Katherine Peterson says she has her work cut out.

“Inform myself, inform myself, inform myself as I go,” Peterson said during a March 17 interview with Nunatsiaq News at Iqaluit’s Caribrew Café.

“I feel like I’m still on a pretty steep learning curve.”

Peterson said she planned to visit Cape Dorset March 18 and March 19, before returning to Iqaluit to meet with medical professionals March 20.

Health Minister Paul Okalik announced in the legislative assembly Feb. 24 that Peterson — a retired lawyer with a long career in northern Canada — would conduct an external review to determine whether steps taken by the Government of Nunavut following the death of the baby, Makibi Timilak, were appropriate in the circumstances.

The infant died April 5, 2012 of a treatable viral infection in his lungs.

A CBC News story, published online and broadcast last October, alleged that an on-call nurse at the Cape Dorset health centre, Debbie McKeown, refused to see the baby hours before he died.

McKeown told the infant’s mother, who called into the health centre, to bathe her baby instead of bringing him into the health centre, the story alleges.

According to a GN policy, health centre nurses must see all infants less than a year old if contacted after regular health centre hours.

South Baffin MLA David Joanasie, who tabled the CBC story in the legislative assembly last November, will accompany Peterson on her two-day Cape Dorset trip, Peterson said.

“This will be a different kind of experience, because I won’t be talking to bureaucrats or medical people,” Peterson said.

So far, Peterson said she has spoken with the current minister and deputy ministers of the health department, the deputy minister of health in 2012, Peter Ma, as well as with people at the GN’s employee relations unit who worked there in 2012.

And Peterson said she has already “waded through a mountain of paper” — mostly documents produced by the GN in response to access to information requests related to the scandal.

Those documents have helped Peterson start piecing together a chronology of events around the baby’s death.

Peterson said she’s also spent time studying Nunavut legislation, processes within the Department of Health, how nursing stations work, and the body that governs nurses in the territory — the Registered Nursing Association of the Northwest Territories and Nunavut.

But once in Cape Dorset, Peterson said she plans to speak with community members, municipal officials and nurses at the health centre, with Joanasie acting as a sort of guide over her two-day visit.

“It’s not a very long time, and in all likelihood I’ll probably go back to the community again for people to have a chance to digest what’s going on, and decide what their comfort level is in terms of speaking to me,” Peterson said.

Peterson doesn’t know if she will get a chance to talk to the parents or grandparents of Makibi on this trip, but said she “very much” hopes she will.

“One thing I learned a long time ago is you can ask people to speak, but unless they want to, they won’t,” Peterson said.

“You kind of hope that as you work through something like this, you gain some credibility in the process and that that allows you to get the best possible information.”

Peterson said she does not have the power to issue subpoenas — which means any oral evidence she gathers will be voluntary.

Spending time with nurses at the health centre will help in understanding some of the challenges of “outpost nursing,” Peterson said. 

“Nurses in isolated communities have a huge scope of practice. It’s a very challenging job and takes a very special kind of person to do it… so I have lots to learn from them,” Peterson said.

“I don’t think we can talk about this whole issue without understanding that as well.”

The terms of reference of the review, tabled by Okalik in the assembly Feb. 24, have been criticized for not including events leading up to Makibi’s death.

Those events include numerous harassment complaints filed against McKeown by whistle-blowing nurse Gwen Slade.

“I know there’s been a lot of concern about the terms of reference,” Peterson said, adding that she is interpreting the terms “fairly broadly.”

“I can’t properly do this review unless I understand what happened… I have to understand the dynamics, I have to understand the facts, who was there and what happened,” Peterson said.

But her focus will be forward-looking, Peterson said, without “marginalizing” how important the events leading up to Makibi’s death are.

“We have to figure out what went wrong here, but not in a way that sort of is judgmental,” Peterson said.

“There’s some fact-finding, there’s maybe saying this could’ve, should’ve been done differently. That’s part of the process… but where do we go from there? Let’s not focus on finger-pointing, let’s focus on making it better.”

In addition to another trip to Cape Dorset, Peterson plans to visit the regional heath office in Pangnirtung and to speak to health workers from that office who worked there in 2012.

Her budget, submitted to the GN as part of the terms of reference, provides for four Arctic trips, Peterson said. Her submitted budget did not include the hiring of any assistants.

Peterson may visit other community health centres as well, “particularly ones where people feel the health centre is working well.”

“What about them is distinguishing them as well-functioning units?” Peterson asked.

An interim report is due from Peterson by Oct. 31, Okalik said in the legislative assembly in February — a deadline that Peterson said is “certainly possible.”

Peterson identified three main areas in relation to health centres and nursing that her review will focus on:

“How are competencies assessed? How is workplace conflict resolved? And how does the government respond to concerns of the public?

“I think I can get a handle on some of those questions and some possible answers before October,” Peterson said.

“It may be like an onion: maybe the more I peel it the more complicated it gets. But I’ll try to follow my nose best I can.”

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