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Human error investigated in botched 911 call

Kerri Canepotatoe is seen in a Facebook photo.

A young woman's strange death along a remote stretch of Saskatchewan road has cloaked a town in grief and triggered a government investigation into why calls to 911 were ignored.

On April 8, Kerri Canepotatoe and her step-sister, Melissa Rabbitskin, along with two children, were driving muck-lined grid roads from Prince Albert to their home on Ministikwan First Nation - roughly 270 kilometres northwest of Saskatoon -when their Buick became lodged in mud.

Ms. Canepotatoe went walking in search of help while Ms. Rabbitskin stayed in the Buick to comfort the two boys, 5-year-old Jerome and 10-year-old Caston.

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Even though cellphone reception in the area is patchy, Ms. Rabbitskin placed three calls to 911, according to the RCMP. One of those calls made it through to a Prince Albert dispatcher and Ms. Rabbitskin was led to believe a tow-truck was on its way.

But, for seven excruciating days, nobody came - not a tow-truck, not the police and, tragically, not her closest friend, Ms. Canepotatoe.

Her step-sister's body was found along the side of the road on day five of the ordeal. She had trudged 60 kilometres through mud and snow before collapsing.

"She made a heroic effort to get help," said a tearful Chelsey Canepotatoe Sunday, three days after she identified her sister's body.

While Mounties found Ms. Canepotatoe's body on April 12, they did not launch an air and ground search for Ms. Rabbitskin and the boys until April 15. They were discovered late that night, exhausted but otherwise fine.

"If they never found my sister, I don't know that they would have gone searching for Melissa and the boys," Ms. Canepotatoe added. "They were basically living off muskeg water and no food. What happened to the 911 call?"

That's exactly the question a government-appointed investigator will be asking over the coming weeks as the province and the RCMP explore how a single botched 911 call led to a woman's death.

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"In this instance there appears to be a departure from regular procedures in handling of a call for assistance," RCMP Chief Superintendent Randy Beck said on Friday.

The Mounties said Ms. Rabbitskin's call was answered by a civilian dispatcher at an RCMP operational centre

The Mounties confirmed that Ms. Rabbitskin had asked the 911 operator to dispatch a tow-truck, but it's unclear if one was ever sent.

Unlike past deaths attributed to 911 shortcomings, this instance appears to expose a human rather than a technological fault.

A Globe and Mail investigation last year found that in 2008 alone, there were at least four fatal or near-fatal incidents in Canada involving cellphone or Internet callers who had trouble getting help after dialling 911. However, most of those cases involved outdated cellular technology that could not accurately pinpoint a caller's location.

In February, the CRTC began forcing cellular companies to deploy technology that estimates a caller's location within 300 metres.

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Ms. Canepotatoe's uncle, Paul Rabbitskin, said improvements in local roads, cellular networks and 911 service could partially salve the family's emotional wounds.

"They have to correct things or this could happen to somebody else," he said. "They can't just take serious 911 calls and then forget about them. The 911 system failed. It failed. And now we have a dead young woman who would have gone on to become a great mother."

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About the Author
National reporter

Patrick previously worked in the Globe's Winnipeg bureau, covering the Prairies and Nunavut, and at Toronto City Hall. He is a National Magazine Award recipient and author of the book Mountie In Mukluks. More

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