Family members of three people who died this summer while living in a rundown Whitehorse hotel are speaking out about their loved ones’ hard lives and early deaths.
The deaths are not suspicious, but they are indicative of a greater societal problem – a lack of appropriate housing for vulnerable people.
Sudden deaths occur across the city, in various locations, but the Chilkoot Trail Inn, where Liz,* Dan,* and Harry,* all social assistance clients, died, is the hotel that houses the most clients on a monthly basis.
The stories of these three people’s lives form part one of a three-part series. Subsequent instalments will be published Monday and Tuesday.
Liz was tiny, about five foot nothing, but she was tough.
The only girl in a family of six boys, she had to learn early to stick up for herself.
Her only daughter, Emily,* says since Liz’s death, friends have told her how feisty her mother was.
“I remember when your mom used to help me out in residential school,” one person told her. “She’d always have my back even though she was the smallest one there, beating all the boys up.”
And as an adult, Liz would go over to the Salvation Army in downtown Whitehorse to get food for her and her partner, who had bad back pain.
Because it’s against the rules to take food outside the centre, Liz would grab a plate and run, Emily recalls with a laugh, the small woman flying down the street, her fingers laden with the rings she always wore.
Liz, 53, died at Whitehorse General Hospital on June 19. She was staying at the Chilkoot Trail Inn with her partner, Dan, when she fell in his room early in the morning and hit her head.
She was on social assistance at the time.
Liz had a hard life, but she was close with her children – Emily and her three brothers.
A member of a Yukon First Nation, she grew up doing the family’s laundry in the river and looking after the house.
Liz’s parents drank a lot, Emily says, and her brothers picked on her.
“Just always being bullied, having to stand her ground all the time,” Emily says. “That’s why she had to be tough.”
Liz went to residential school for a time, but she never talked to her daughter about it.
Emily’s father was deported to the U.S. when she was two. Then he moved to Alaska, and the kids would take a bus to visit him.
Liz worked for years as a custodian and caretaker in her community. She’d let the kids sit on the waxer as she pushed it around the floor.
But an epidural Liz had while giving birth left her with some back problems and it got harder and harder for her to work, lifting heavy buckets of water and pushing a big mop.
“One day, she just wasn’t working and she started drinking lots,” Emily says.
That in turn affected Emily’s life.
She spent some of her teen years at the Young Offenders Facility and when she got out, she’d go to her mom’s house and drink.
Once she was no longer a minor, she was sent to the Whitehorse Correctional Centre.
“I realized there’s consequences for my actions and it’s going to keep happening if I consume alcohol,” Emily says. “I’ve been to more funerals than I can count birthdays so I just thought, ‘Why drink?’”
Emily stopped drinking, got a job and driver’s licence and bought a vehicle.
Her mom continued to live a hard life, though.
Liz would collect her monthly social-assistance payments, living part-time at her house in Whitehorse and the rest of the time with Dan at his room at the Chilkoot.
Emily says she worried about her mom all the time. Liz would ask her for money for food, but Emily insisted on driving her to the store so they could grocery shop together.
She wanted to make sure her mom didn’t spend the cash on alcohol.
Liz and Dan both struggled with their drinking.
Emily says they were trying to quit. They’d just gotten accepted for social housing through the Yukon Housing Corp. and were on the waiting list.
“They realized that they wanted to quit drinking and living at the Chilkoot wasn’t the spot to quit,” Emily says.
The hotel is in rough shape, dirty and smelly, she says.
Emily says the Chilkoot has long had a poor reputation around the city. People have made derogatory comments about the hotel to her.
“My God, my mom and her partner live there,” she would tell them. “Please have some respect.... They may live in the slums, but they’re still human beings.”
She thinks if her mother and Dan had better access to services, such as treatment for addictions or a more suitable home, maybe things would have turned out differently for them.
The day her mother died, Emily went to see Dan at the Chilkoot.
He was heartbroken, she says. The family was meeting at Liz’s house, but Emily didn’t want to rush him to join them.
She told him he could call her anytime and she’d come downtown and pick him up, but he just kept saying he was fine.
The next day, Emily was driving around downtown when she saw an ambulance, police cars and a crowd of people standing in front of the Chilkoot.
Someone told her a man had died in a ground-floor room. It was Dan.
Growing up in the Northwest Territories, Dan and his four siblings played baseball and went swimming, hunting and fishing.
“We were northerners,” his younger brother, Robert,* tells the Star.
As kids, Dan was always bigger, stronger and faster than Robert. But as they grew up, Dan’s little brother ended up towering over him by several inches.
“He was everything an older brother should be,” says Robert.
Dan, 50, was found dead in his room at the Chilkoot Trail Inn on June 20.
Another resident expressed concern for his well-being and hotel staff entered the room and found him, according to Yukon chief coroner Kirsten Macdonald.
An autopsy and toxicology tests have been completed and the results are pending. Dan’s cause of death is not yet known but foul play is not suspected.
Earlier in his life, Dan held government jobs in the Northwest Territories, but he always struggled with alcohol.
He came to Whitehorse several years ago, looking for a fresh start.
“It didn’t quite pan out the way he wanted it to,” says Robert.
He’d had a tough life and that’s why he was living at the Chilkoot, his brother says. Dan was also on social assistance.
But it was here in Whitehorse he met Liz and fell in love.
“They were thick as thieves,” says Robert.
They’d walk around downtown holding hands and go to pawn shops together.
Dan had bad back pain, so Liz would sometimes pick up meals for him at the Salvation Army. Because this is a violation of the rules, she’d often scurry away from the centre with her hands full of food for Dan.
Liz died the day before Dan, after she tripped and fell in his hotel room, hitting her head. Dan was heartbroken by her loss.
He had a rough and tough exterior, but it was all a front for his kind heart, his brother says.
“There wasn’t anything he wouldn’t do for you,” Robert says. “He was really a very kind man.”
In talking to Liz’s daughter after their deaths, Robert was surprised to learn that Dan would talk about him, bragging about his kid brother’s success with his consulting business in Alberta.
Robert thought his brother had turned a corner in his life – he and Liz were about to get government housing and he was able to maintain his sobriety at times.
Dan’s social worker had only good things to say about him, Robert says.
The social worker checked in with Dan the day Liz died to see how he was doing, he adds.
That’s why news of his death came as a shock.
Robert just can’t believe his brother committed suicide. “It doesn’t line up in my mind,” he says. “Nobody saw any signs that he was going to kill himself.”
Yes, he was grieving, but the signs don’t point to suicide, he insists. His brother wasn’t one to take hard drugs either.
At first, Robert thought perhaps Dan had had a stroke. But he says tests showed this wasn’t the case, nor was it a heart attack or aneurysm.
“As difficult as life was, he wasn’t one to commit suicide.”
Robert suspects someone gave Dan drugs, or Dan took something, that killed him in his bed.
“He died alone,” he says. “He died alone and in a horrible way. None of us wants that. That’s the hardest thing for me.”
When Robert contacted the Chilkoot to retrieve his brother’s belongings, he says he was dismissed and treated rudely. An employee told him Dan’s room had been locked and she refused to allow anyone in to pick anything up, he says.
The inn’s owners have been unavailable for comment this week.
Emily,* Liz’s daughter, says she tried to pick up Dan’s things, but hotel staff told her the room was locked and that they’d call her when she could have access to it.
No one called.
Instead, Emily heard from her aunt, who was staying at the hotel and found Dan’s duffel bags and boxes in the laundry room.
“All of his personal belongings just sitting in a public laundry room where anyone can access it,” Emily says with disbelief. “All he had on this Earth was in that room.”
This week, Robert says he was finally able to secure Dan’s things.
Since his brother’s death, their mother has not stopped asking about her dead son’s belongings.
The hotel was going to give them away to the Salvation Army, Robert says.
“They actually have no right to do that.”
Dan’s funeral was held in the N.W.T. last month.
Robert dug the grave himself.
The sun shone the day Harry was born, the only boy in a family of daughters.
The four girls all doted on this new addition to the family.
“There was no person in the world more adored than he,” says his sister, Rachel.*
The outdoorsy family grew up around Whitehorse, spending summers at Marsh Lake and winters sledding at Fish Lake.
Harry loved motorcycling and snowmobiling.
He owned dogs his whole life – the pup he had when he died was a black Lab named Cash, in that it took all Harry’s cash to pay for him, Rachel says with a laugh.
Harry, 45, was found dead in his room at the Chilkoot Trail Inn on July 9. The results of an autopsy and toxicology tests are pending.
Foul play is not suspected.
A paramedic on scene that day fell in love with Cash and adopted him.
Rachel says her brother was a gentle but hurt person. Harry was on social assistance and she believes he struggled with alcohol addiction.
He never recovered from the death of a close friend years ago.
“He’s had a lot of bad things happen,” Rachel says. “It doesn’t excuse the choices he made of his lifestyle as he grew older, but it also doesn’t change the fact that he’s my family, my brother. He had a hard life the older he got.”
Harry didn’t have a romantic partner or many friends. Staff at the Chilkoot told the family he was a loner.
He pulled away from them as he got older. Rachel wonders if he felt shame for his lifestyle and his choices, as his other siblings are successful and have families.
“I do feel like he thought that he didn’t meet everybody’s expectations,” she says. “But he was our little brother. He knew how we cared for him. He just wanted to go his own way.”
Harry was proud and private. When one of his dogs died, he sobbed.
“That’s not a tough, hardened guy,” Rachel says. “Not at all.”
When Rachel and one of her sisters went to the Chilkoot to clean out his room after his death, she was taken aback by the stench throughout the hotel. Even with the window open, the tiny room reeked. The carpet had a greyish tinge to it, she says.
“It was so overwhelming to see that, that he died alone in that room with no one there to be with him.”
A pair of work gloves sitting by the window broke Rachel’s heart. Among the mess of his room, here was an indication of his prior life, just waiting to be put on again. She
took them home with her.
She also found a copy of his resumé in the room, though she thinks he was beyond looking for work.
Harry had pinned one of his other sisters’ Christmas cards to the wall.
“I’ll feel guilty for the rest of my life – I forgot to get him something for Christmas this year,” Rachel says.
“You become so far removed from what he’s doing in life, and I never got the sense that he wanted anything from us ... That’s nothing but trying to assuage my guilt.”
Nor did the family have much money to help him out, she adds.
Rachel never saw Harry around town, but she knew he’d been living at the Chilkoot for a few years. Before that, he lived in a wooden house his dad helped him build off the Alaska Highway, but it was on First Nations land so he had to leave.
He worked in welding for a while, but the death of his friend seemed to send him over the edge, Rachel says.
She prefers to focus on the good memories and remember her brother as he used to be.
“There’s always a story behind where someone finds themselves and the last thing anybody should do is judge,” Rachel says, starting to cry. “You don’t know.
“People can be awfully judgmental, very quick, without understanding why. The fact is that nobody’s born wanting that.
Nobody’s born with that as their end goal, that kind
of life. They’re born with all the innocence and hope and dreams that we have.”
*Names have been changed at the families’ request to protect their privacy.