At the counter of Iqaluit's Baffin Deli, a line forms behind Padma Suramala as she pays for coffee. Her work jacket has the bold words CHIEF CORONER in silvery reflective letters on its back. From the doorway, patrons pause with uneasy expressions, unsure if some horrible event has occurred at their tiny snack bar. Outside in the parking lot, her similarly marked white Ford Expedition makes an equally ominous impression.
"The vehicle has its own social stigma," Ms. Suramala says.
Nowhere in Canada is spotting a coroner arguably less liked and more likely than Nunavut, with its higher rates of murder, suicide and sudden infant death than any other province or territory. And Ms. Suramala came to the vast, frozen North from afar – a nurse from steamy southern India who, in the last three years, has overseen investigations of more than 500 deaths. Iqaluit's cemetery is rapidly running out of free space, and the city's single hearse with the two missing hubcaps is sporadically unavailable due to mechanical issues and overbooking, but Ms. Suramala brings a warmth to the cold realities of her business, approaching it with a smile.
There is no denying, however, that the sheer volume of violent death and the hellacious pace takes its toll.
"People ask me what I do when there is no death. They've no idea the enormous amount of work involved in these investigations," she says. Ms. Suramala sends any unclear, unattended or suspicious death south for autopsy. For every death in the territory, unexplained or not, she does an external examination – unless the deceased happened to reside in a farther-flung community, at which point she summons the services of one of the 20-odd volunteer coroners who typically double as hamlet officials or teachers. "In a day I might have four deaths. I might have five. There may be none."
Part of the coroner's code is to speak for the dead – "fact finding," as she says, not "fault finding" – likening each investigation to piecing together a puzzle.
"I want to do the investigation thoroughly," she says, almost unconsciously shifting her thoughts to Nunavut's all-too-common instances of suicide. "It's not easy for someone to decide to take their life with their own conscience. It's really hard. I always think, 'Why didn't you talk to someone with your problems? This leaves everyone who loved you in deep sorrow, including me.'"
Born into a military family in India, Ms. Suramala herself joined the ranks in 1983. There she began nursing, was commissioned as lieutenant and served for 21 years throughout India. "When you train," she says, emphasizing each word, "you will serve."
In 2005, Ms. Suramala wanted to come to Canada, and a placement agency dispatched her to the North, where nurses were badly needed. She moved to Cambridge Bay, imagining a cold Canadian cityscape like Montreal or Toronto and heeding suggestions to buy a good parka and heavy-duty boots without really getting why. India from north to south is hot, she figured, how different could north and south Canada be?
Nursing soon brought her to Iqaluit, population about 7,000, which had recently doubled in size, and there at the hospital she was asked to fill in for a chief coroner who'd taken sick leave. It's now her full-time job.
"She's doing the work of many coroners," said Sandy Napier, a volunteer coroner for 17 years living in Rankin Inlet. "She is one of the keenest chief coroners I've ever worked for." He and the territory's other lay-coroners are under the direct tutelage of Ms. Suramala, who is on-call 24/7. "People die at all hours," he said. "It doesn't matter if it's 3 a.m., we pick up the phone and she's there for us."
For the chief coroner, pay is commensurate with stress, though Ms. Suramala isn't big on elaborating on either. She says pay is fair and she makes about the same as most southern coroners, who have less workloads but generally have a medical degree.
She deals with the mental challenges the best she can. When a 737 passenger jet crashed in Resolute in August, 2011, killing 12 people aboard, Ms. Suramala admits she became withdrawn and lost her appetite, not to mention sleep. "For a period of time I had nightmares," she says.
She got through the dark period with exercise, Indian home-cooking and the support of her husband René, who is also a volunteer coroner and whom she married in traditional lavish Indian custom in Nunavut last year. She's learned to supplement her daily work routine by volunteering at the women's shelter and baking locally famous homemade samosas for charity. Unlike most other coroners, she attends funerals often as a courtesy to the deceased's family.
Like her chief coroner predecessors, Ms. Suramala doesn't see herself doing the job forever. Most last only a few years; she expects to stay for 10. She deals in death with a sense of duty, which isn't to say she doesn't feel sadness.
"As a human being I have feelings," she says. "If one person dies in a family, it takes a long time to recover from the shock of their loss. For me, it's like constant waves hitting every day and every hour." She says colleagues at the hospital ask her how she does it – day in, day out.
"I just smile and say someone has to do it."