Their sister died in December and was buried in January. Why were they not notified?

It breaks Candice Wheeler’s heart to know she missed her big sister’s funeral in January. It’s not that she didn’t want to be there – she just didn’t know it was happening.

Now Candice and her family in Calgary are looking for answers about how authorities failed to notify them when Courtney Wheeler died in December 2021 and was buried the following month.

“There was no one there and there were no flowers…and it just means no one cared,” said Wheeler, 36.

“She was much loved and she deserved better.”

Courtney Wheeler’s family wants to know why they were not notified before her funeral in January this year. (Submitted by Candice Wheeler)

In most cases, when a person dies unidentified or unclaimed, the chief medical examiner’s office can identify and locate their next of kin within hours, the county says.

If not, the county says the agency will continue to search until all efforts are “exhausted.”

But the Wheelers say they didn’t learn of Courtney’s death until months after it happened, and even then they didn’t get the news from officials. Instead, they found out she was going through social media.

That made them wonder how diligent the search for Courtney’s next of kin really was.

Their sister died in December and was buried in January. Why were they not notified?
Chrissy Wheeler said the unanswered questions about her sister’s death have made it difficult to find a solution. (Paula Duhatschek/CBC)

It is of particular concern, they say, as it appears to be the second similar case in Calgary within the span of just a few months. In February, Tara Niptanatiak died and was buried in the city the following month, unbeknownst to her family in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut.

“Who makes this happen?” said Chrissy Wheeler, 44, who is Courtney’s older sister.

Family learned of death via Facebook

When Candice Wheeler first learned of Courtney’s death, it had been months since she’d last heard from her middle sister.

That was not unprecedented. In the years before her death, Courtney struggled with homelessness and escalating addiction, and was known to fall off the map for weeks or even months before resurfacing.

But in late May, Candice received a Facebook message from a friend of Courtney’s who learned of her death after another friend found a brief online obituary posted by the funeral home that arranged the funeral.

Their sister died in December and was buried in January. Why were they not notified?
Candice Wheeler, whose family is part of the Cumberland House Cree Nation, believes authorities may have been more lax in their search for her sister because she was a native woman. (Paula Duhatschek/CBC)

Concerned, Candice called the police non-emergency number. She was forwarded to the chief physician’s office, who confirmed her sister’s death.

Candice said she was told that Courtney and a friend had apparently been smoking when they were both falling asleep. The friend woke up; Courtney didn’t.

Candice said she was also told that Courtney’s next of kin would be searched for a month before her case was transferred to the public guardian and administrator’s office. That office works with local funeral homes to arrange funerals for those whose families cannot be found.

But the Wheelers say they shouldn’t have been so hard to find.

“Some stranger found us,” so why didn’t officials?

Candice, Chrissy and their mother, Marie, all have a surname. They live in the same city and haven’t moved or changed phone numbers in years.

Candice believes police may have had her information on file from a previous missing persons report she filed for her sister in 2019 (At the time, Courtney was found shortly after). Courtney was known to addiction treatment facilities in Calgary who would have had Marie’s information on file as a family contact.

All three women were also listed on Courtney’s Facebook page as her relatives, which is how Courtney’s boyfriend got hold of them in the first place.

“A stranger we don’t even know found us to let us know she had passed away,” Chrissy said. “If a stranger could find us, why didn’t the police find us, or anyone? [is in charge]†

In response to questions from CBC Calgary, the Calgary Police Department said they are unable to comment on specific, non-criminal cases due to privacy laws.

The agency said that when the Calgary Police Department is assisted by the police, it is generally the job of the chief medical examiner to identify and locate next of kin, with help from the police and other organizations.

Their sister died in December and was buried in January. Why were they not notified?
Courtney Wheeler, right, is pictured with her mother, Marie. (Submitted by Candice Wheeler)

According to the Department of Justice and the Solicitor General, privacy laws may also restrict the office of the chief medical examiner and the office of the public guardian and trustee from disclosing information about specific cases to the media.

In a statement, a spokesman said the medical examiner’s office will work with police, RCMP, government and non-governmental organizations to identify next of kin and search until all efforts are “exhausted”.

“Unfortunately, it is sometimes not always possible to locate relatives in a timely manner, especially if the deceased has no ID, there is family estrangement, names have changed, or family lives in other jurisdictions in Canada or internationally,” a spokesperson said. Catherine Thompson.

Thompson said the ministry is looking at ways to improve the next of kin identification process, including entering into agreements with other Canadian jurisdictions.

Their sister died in December and was buried in January. Why were they not notified?
Courtney Wheeler is depicted in family photos from childhood. (Submitted by Candice Wheeler)

‘Somebody cares’

The Wheelers say the county’s process of finding next of kin sounds good. They just don’t believe it was followed in their case.

And while the family hopes to learn more about how the search went and why authorities couldn’t find them, they suspect they may already know.

Candice Wheeler believes Courtney was stereotyped as a homeless Indigenous woman, and authorities were lax in assuming no one cared about her.

“In fact, someone did and cares,” she said. “We want to make sure they know that now.”

They hope that by sharing their story, they can prevent this situation from happening again. Candice noted that the problem is not limited to Alberta. in 2020, a man from Toronto named Seth MacLean died of an overdose at a shelter and was buried in nearby Pickering as his family frantically searched to find him.

“It happens too much. Families are being robbed of the opportunity to say goodbye to a loved one,” Candice said.

Since learning of Courtney’s death, the Wheelers have held a small memorial service to say goodbye. It helped somewhat, but they say there is still a lot of pain.

“It’s hard to go through grief normally when you have all these unanswered questions,” Chrissy said.

Their sister died in December and was buried in January. Why were they not notified?
Growing up, Courtney Wheeler loved to ride horses on her aunt’s ranch. (Submitted by Candice Wheeler)

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