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A family photo shows Marie-Jose Fortin, left, and Gilles Blackburn, right, with their son's girlfriend Amelie Jeanneau, second left, their son William Blackburn and their daughter Laurence Blackburn.
A family photo shows Marie-Jose Fortin, left, and Gilles Blackburn, right, with their son's girlfriend Amelie Jeanneau, second left, their son William Blackburn and their daughter Laurence Blackburn.

LEGAL ACTION

Survivor of backcountry skiing tragedy continues suit against RCMP Add to ...

A Quebec man whose wife died in the British Columbia backcountry almost three years ago has withdrawn his lawsuit against a ski hill operator and settled his case with the local search and rescue organization, but is forging ahead with his claim against the RCMP.

Gilles Blackburn had filed lawsuits against Kicking Horse Mountain Resort in Golden, B.C., Golden and District Search and Rescue, and the Mounties, alleging all three were negligent and failed to launch a search after he and his wife went missing, despite reports that SOS signals were spotted in the snow. Mr. Blackburn’s wife, Marie-Josée Fortin, 44, froze to death during the nine days the couple were lost in the wilderness.

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Mr. Blackburn’s Whistler-based lawyer, Nancy Wilhelm-Morden, confirmed the partial settlement saying the suit will continue against the RCMP because each defendant has “different obligations and different responsibilities.” She declined to go into detail, saying the partial resolution was reached during recently completed mediation.

Mr. Blackburn, then 51, and Ms. Fortin were on a ski vacation when they ducked under the rope and went out of bounds at Kicking Horse resort on Feb. 15, 2009, without adequate provisions or backcountry gear and got lost. They wandered aimlessly behind the resort, traversed 27 kilometres along a river valley, and suffered through bitter wind chills, fearing attack by wolves before they were found on Feb. 24.

A passing helicopter from a local heli-ski operator had spotted an SOS signal plodded in the snow, ski tracks, and then a waving Mr. Blackburn. A rescue operation was launched, but Ms. Fortin was dead. The same outfitter previously reported seeing an SOS sign, but the RCMP did not order a search and rescue operation. Mr. Blackburn was taken to hospital and treated for frostbite.

Ms. Wilhelm-Morden said Mr. Blackburn suffers continuing physical problems from his injuries. “It’s still very difficult,” she said.

As with all cases in the B.C. civil courts system, his lawsuit is going through mediation before trial.

The suit against the ski hill was withdrawn, without costs and no money was paid as a settlement, and Mr. Blackburn signed a “full and final release of all claims against Kicking Horse Mountain Resort,” the resort said in a statement.

The ski resort said the case serves as a “cautionary reminder” of responsible backcountry travel.

“Persons venturing into the backcountry should be properly prepared in terms of training, skills, experience, equipment, knowledge of avalanche and weather conditions, local knowledge of the backcountry terrain and be equipped for self-rescue,” the statement said.

Kyle Hale, a member of Golden’s search and rescue, said his group hasn’t been informed of the status of the case. “I’m waiting to hear from our insurer.”

Mr. Blackburn’s case against the RCMP is still before the courts.

“It would be inappropriate for the RCMP to comment on this matter at this time as we are committed to respecting the privacy of all of the parties involved,” RCMP Corporal Dan Moskaluk said.

Lyse Cantin, a spokeswoman with the Department of Justice, which is representing the Mounties, said confidentially clauses prevent disclosure of even where the case is in the court process.

With a report from Les Perreaux in Montreal

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