Following the Herd

Matyas DavidBy David Matyas

It’s a bumpy ride from Rankin to Chesterfield Inlet. A short 15 minute hop and the plane flies low. As we take off, the pilot announces that the caribou herd is off the right side. I’m sat on the left and I crane my neck. I reach for my seatbelt but as the plane pitches and I think better of it. They’re down there all right. A herd I’m told is 100,000 strong. But the hoof beats are drowned by the turbo-prop engines and my vision’s blocked by the passengers across the aisle. Over the week this story repeats itself. Rumours and sightings. But as mighty as the migration is alleged to be, I won’t manage to see the caribou.

I’m travelling to Baker Lake in the Kivalliq Region of Nunavut on the circuit court. It’s the only inland community in the Territory and sits close to the mouth of the Thelon River. Baker is about as close as you can get to the geographic centre of Canada.

For those in Montreal and Toronto who might describe “going north” to Sainte-Agathe or Huntsville, Baker Lake, at the longitudinal midpoint of the country, underscores this thinnest veneer of northern space that most Canadians occupy.

Like many communities in Nunavut, Baker Lake does not have a sitting judge or permanent courthouse. While some matters can be dealt with through teleconferences, others are served through a travelling ‘circuit court.’ Periodically, the crown and defence lawyers, court workers, clerks, translators and judge fly into communities to hold first appearances, preliminary hearings, trials or sentencings. Sometimes they even bring along a summer student, as is the case this week. It’s a migratory court that travels across the North from community to community and back again.

The days before the circuit are spent interviewing clients and meeting with the Crown. The judge and court party have not yet arrived and there is much work to prepare beforehand. Some of the individuals will be in jail by the end of the week. Others will have their matters dismissed.

Defence and crown sit to discuss those matters where a joint position may be possible and determine those issues where agreement will not be possible. Nerves and anticipation of what is to come.

In a break between meetings and research I visit the Jessie Oonark centre. The centre holds a printshop, jeweller’s studio, space for seamstresses and equipment for silk-screening.

I watch one seamstress repairing a hole in a high vis jacket. “We have an exclusive contract with the Meadowbank Mine and repair their clothing” says the gallery steward. Elsewhere, an elder is at a work station making earrings. They are shaped as Kamiks (traditional boots) and made from caribou antler. It is fine, detailed work. Her name is Martha Noah, one of Baker Lake’s accomplished artists and a collaborator of the renowned Simon Tookoome.

When the owners learn that we are in town with the circuit court they remember past court sessions, those rulings they’ve felt unfair or viewed as ill-suited for the community. Stories, nostalgia and the reservations for circuits past.

Without permanent structure, some circuit courts are held in school gymnasiums or community halls. The Baker circuit takes place in the conference room of a local lodge. As the court arrives the first day, the owner of the lodge, a man from the Shetland Islands brought to Northern Canada decades ago to work for the Hudson Bay Company, hangs flags behind the judge’s chair. A Canadian flag on one side of the judge. A Nunavut flag on the other. A room that was silent as a tundra field prepares for the rumble of matters to come.

The first morning of court is fast and busy. Lawyers and the court are trying to clear the easier matters from the docket early and push more complicated issues to latter times. Things get adjourned to the next day or the next circuit court dates in October or December. The room is full and the tempo of proceedings is high. The court workers scramble to track down those accused persons or witnesses who should be in court but have not yet appeared. The hall reverberates with the energy of the court, finally arrived.

Over the next afternoon and day, the court takes over that space. Grazing on legal matters as if it had always resided there. At times it feels like it will always be there. But, gradually it thins as cases are concluded and cleared from the docket.

By the morning of the third day only the stragglers remain. A few lingering matters cut off from the herd of issues before the court on previous days. Crippled cases impaired by missing witnesses or accused who did not show up.  Some of these may join the other cases on future circuits, others never make it past this court.

And then, just as suddenly as it arrived, the circuit court concludes. Those finished matters settling like trampled earth.

As the plane takes to the sky I look again for the caribou herd. From Baker to Chesterfield and onwards to Rankin Inlet, I cast my eyes over the landscape for signs of their passing. But the migration has past, gone with only the faintest of traces that it was ever there.

Qamutik

Matyas David

By: David Matyas

A few weeks ago a friend took me out on the ice. There were three of us with just one snowmobile, and so for the first leg of the journey I rode in a ᖃᒧᑏᒃ (qamutik) attached by thick steel hitch to the back of the Ski-Doo. Though I’d seen qamutiks around Iqaluit, resting next to houses or snow-flecked on the back of a Bombardier or Arctic Fox, it was my first chance to ride the famous sledge.

The qamutik is one of those traditional designs that has maintained its relevance over time and has continued to outperform newer technologies. Explorers from Britain and the United States, who thumbed their noses at the Inuit design at the start of their expeditions, saw sleds imported from Europe reduced to splinters naught but a few miles into journeys. And locally, one friend told me that while many Inuit have replaced dog teams with snowmobiles, the qamutik design has endured, with only the smallest of changes in material.

The first part of our trip crosses the rough ice next to the shore—a field of towering chunks and gnarled fissures, cracked and compacted by a winter of shifting currents and reaching sea-ice. The qamutik heaves. Bounces. I’m tossed and jostled like an apple forgotten in the flatbed of a pickup on a country road. The wood squeaks and flexes but holds fast and before too long we are out on the smooth ice.

The genius of the qamutik design lies in the knots that bind the cross-pieces (or napooks) to the runners. Where the repeated thud of wood on hard ice is enough to wriggle ever the most resolute of nails free from their place, the knots and cord give the design flexibility, allowing it to maintain its integrity as it pounds across the rough terrain.

I’m banged and bruised but the ride is much more fluid on the open ice. The snow-mobile weaves around patches of blue ice and the qamutik bends along behind like a slinky. We stop and look at the mountains on the far side of Frobisher Bay. A small flock of geese flaps over the ice. In a landscape without trees to blow through, I find the wind sounds lower, throatier.

Beyond the functional importance of the qamutik, the traditional sledge-runner is also represented in art and architecture, carvings and design. At the busiest intersection in town, the four corners, there is a large red building designed to look like a qamutik. At galleries around Iqaluit, I’ve seen miniature qamutik carved from caribou antler or serpentine. And, in one of the courtrooms, the barrier (or bar) that separates the gallery from the bench and counsel tables, is made to look like two long qamutiks.

At the far end of the Bay I get out of the qamutik. I hear creaking beneath my feet. The ice, I’m told, will be solid for several weeks. In the interim, puddles form and freeze upon its surface that you can still fall through—not enough to reach the swift tidal current below but sufficient to ruin a good outing. The qamutik floats like a barge on this frozen sea and I return to its safe confines.

As we turn and head back towards town, I look out on islands in Frobisher Bay. They seem to peek through the ice like mountaintops through clouds. I think about the qamutiks represented in the courthouse, wondering how they are meant to relate to justice in the North. Are they meant to reflect the system as it is? Or, are they presented as aspiration, an allegory of what the system might become? Are efforts like the Gladue reports that are considered when sentencing offenders of aboriginal background the flexible knots in an otherwise harsh carriage of justice as it bumps and crashes across a socio-cultural landscape? I reflect on judicial processes adapted for the context, from decentralization efforts to official Inuktitut and Inuinnaqtun language requirements, wondering if they will endure. I think about certain imported features of southern justice and if they are as doomed to fail in this context, like European explorers’ sleds dashed upon the ice.

I hop out of the qamutik feeling privileged to have had the ride. I’ll look at them differently as I walk through town. Hopefully, another chance to ride in a qamutik will glide past again.

Justice on the Go

Etienne F Lacombe

Étienne F. Lacombe

The administration of justice in Nunavut faces a discrete set of challenges, not the least of which is the territory’s vast expanse and geographically sparse population. In order to reach the majority of residents, the Nunavut Court of Justice must travel on circuit. Last week’s circuit in Pond Inlet serves as an example of how the delivery of legal services in the North often requires creativity and flexibility.

First, some background information:

The Nunavut Court of Justice usually sits in Iqaluit, where there is a permanent courthouse. On most weeks, however, it also sits in at least one other community. These sittings occur in school gymnasiums, community halls or other facilities. The frequency at which the Court visits each community varies from every six weeks to every six months, depending on the location’s needs. Each time, a host of staff and legal professionals travel with the Court, including a judge, a prosecutor, defence counsel, a clerk and a court reporter.

Pond Inlet 1

Friday

It’s 6 a.m. Defence counsel arrive at the Iqaluit Airport. Four hours later, the plane touches down on the dirt runway in Pond Inlet. Naptime is over. The lawyers climb down the steps of the aircraft, armed with a stack of files and a healthy dose of patience. This week will be a long one. Efforts to locate clients begin promptly as many of the accuseds do not have a phone. Staff contact the community radio station to advise that lawyers will be meeting all accused persons at the local hotel. Meanwhile, the court worker borrows a relative’s vehicle to locate some of the clients himself.

Saturday and Sunday

The weekend is dedicated to client meetings. Some have made an appointment, others arrive and wait their turn in the lobby. Most of them have never met the legal aid lawyer who will be representing them in a few days. Everyone is forced to share the space. The dining hall becomes a meeting area, as do a few of the hotel rooms. In each meeting, the lawyer reviews the allegations with his or her client and explains the difference between pleading guilty and not guilty. Discussions sometimes come to a standstill as the interpreter must run from one room to the next. At some point during the weekend, the Crown prosecutors arrive with their witness coordinator, and begin conducting meetings of their own. The judge also arrives and meets informally with the lawyers.

Monday

Defence counsel continue their meetings with clients. Some are showing up for the first time, others have returned after reflecting on how they will plead. Later in the day, the defence lawyers review each file with the Crown to consolidate their positions and come to joint resolutions where possible. Everyone then attempts to get a good night’s sleep, despite the 24-hour sunlight. The show starts tomorrow.

Tuesday

Court begins at 9:30 a.m. in the community hall. Dozens of people are in attendance, including accused persons, witnesses and family members. The court clerk works through the docket in a roll call fashion. Bench warrants will be issued for absentees in order to secure their attendance. Crown and defence counsel agree to begin with as many simple files as possible. The day therefore consists mostly of guilty pleas. After sentencing submissions, the elder sitting beside the judge is afforded an opportunity to speak to every accused. He offers guidance, and the judge often quotes from his advice in passing the sentence.

Wednesday

The in-custody accuseds arrive in Pond Inlet. They have been flown in from the Iqaluit jails to be tried in their community. This week, they will be housed in the RCMP detachment cells. Guilty pleas continue. Trials begin in the afternoon. It becomes obvious how dated some of the charges are, having been delayed due to the infrequency of circuits, the availability of witnesses, and a variety of other reasons.

Thursday

The trials continue, interspersed with guilty pleas from files that have been resolved overnight. Systemic pressures become more apparent as the lawyers and the judge speak with increasing candour. Some files must be prioritized while other may not be heard this circuit. By the end of the day, the Court has heard most of the cases. Counsel, the judge and community members dismantle the makeshift courtroom of folding chairs, tables, laptops and mobile internet terminals.

Friday

Defence counsel, prosecutors, court staff, the judge, an RCMP officer and the prisoners board a flight back to Iqaluit. It’s naptime again.

Pond Inlet 2

This play-by-play of a court circuit illustrates some of the unique circumstances under which the delivery of legal services operates in Nunavut. While circuit courts offer a number of advantages in the North, namely allowing the accused to be tried in his or her community and facilitating access to witnesses, they also pose a number of issues. The quality of representation may suffer under heavy dockets or strained schedules, and the continuity of counsel from one sitting to the next cannot be assured. These are but a few of the challenges to practising law on the go.

La détermination des peines au Nunavut : un exercice sui generis

Étienne F. LacombeÉtienne F. Lacombe

Quelles que soient ses connaissances au préalable, l’étudiant(e) qui effectue son stage auprès du bureau d’aide juridique d’Iqaluit ne peut s’empêcher de développer une intime familiarité avec la détermination des peines (sentencing). Qu’un dossier n’en soit qu’à ses débuts ou que la cause tire à sa fin, le criminaliste se doit de pouvoir estimer une peine appropriée – et il revient souvent à l’étudiant(e) de parvenir à une estimation. Il s’agit d’un curieux travail étant donné l’unicité de la criminalité au Nunavut et le peu d’arrêts publiés. D’ailleurs, il est souvent possible de survoler l’ensemble des décisions de la Cour de justice du Nunavut sur une infraction du Code criminel sans y repérer d’arrêts semblables.

Il y a quelques semaines, je discutais de mon travail à Maliiganik Tukisiiniakvik avec un juge de la Cour suprême en visite pour la première fois à Iqaluit. Celui-ci me demanda alors si l’on pourrait qualifier la détermination des peines au Nunavut de sui generis. À mon sens, la détermination des peines dans ce vaste territoire se distingue de celle des autres juridictions canadiennes, quoique la compétence fédérale en matière de droit criminel lui impose tout de même certaines contraintes. D’une part, les juristes nunavummiuts ont su s’approprier les concepts reconnus dans l’ensemble du pays—tels les rapports Gladue et la justice réparatrice—pour y infuser des valeurs inuites et refléter les préoccupations propres à leur territoire. D’autre part, des limites au plan structurel, dont les peines minimales et les ressources au niveau correctionnel, restreignent le caractère sui generis de la détermination des peines au Nunavut.

Les principes qui encadrent la détermination des peines figurent à l’article 718.2 du Code criminel. Parmi ceux-ci, l’alinéa e) impose aux tribunaux « l’examen, plus particulièrement en ce qui concerne les délinquants autochtones, de toutes les sanctions substitutives qui sont raisonnables dans les circonstances et qui tiennent compte du tort causé aux victimes ou à la collectivité ». La Cour suprême s’est prononcée sur cet alinéa dans les arrêts R c Gladue et R c Ipeelee, entre autres, pour prescrire aux juges qui imposent une peine à un délinquant autochtone de considérer toute solution de rechange à l’incarcération. En l’absence de telles solutions, la peine d’emprisonnement devrait être restreinte. Étant donné les tristes réalités historiques et systémiques qui affligent de nombreux accusés, la Cour de justice du Nunavut est en mesure d’imposer avec régularité des sentences qui tiennent compte de l’unicité de la population majoritairement autochtone.

Les juristes nunavummiuts ont également su tailler la détermination des peines à leur façon par le biais de la justice réparatrice. La justice réparatrice existe dans l’ensemble des juridictions canadiennes. Elle permet aux victimes et aux membres de la communauté de joueur un rôle actif pour régler le tort causé par le délinquant en facilitant un dialogue entre les parties, par exemple. Au Nunavut, il existe un comité de la justice dans chacune des communautés du territoire. Ces comités, nous expliqua-t-on lors d’une formation au début de l’été, se servent de valeurs sociétales inuites pour que la justice réparatrice reflète les attentes et les besoins du Nunavut.

Dans certains cas, il est possible pour les juges du Nunavut d’imposer une peine qui tient compte des problèmes sociaux les plus importants du territoire. Les effets de la toxicomanie et de l’abus de stupéfiants, par exemple, se ressentent nommément dans le Nord canadien. Les juges ne se gênent donc pas pour souligner l’importance particulière de lutter contre le trafic de stupéfiants au Nunavut (voir par exemple R v KP et R v Qrunngnut).

Par contre, d’autres préoccupations ne peuvent être convenablement reflétées dans la détermination des peines en vertu des limites au plan structurel. En ce qui concerne la législation fédérale, les peines minimales restreignent le caractère sui generis de la détermination des peines au Nunavut.

Dans un premier temps, la promotion de la culture inuite est particulièrement importante au Nunavut. Bien entendu, il est plus facile pour les détenus inuits de vivre leur culture dans le territoire. Comme me l’expliquait un des gardiens, les employés des prisons territoriales ont pour mandat de faciliter un encadrement culturel pour les détenus. La possibilité de purger sa peine dans un des établissements d’Iqaluit n’est toutefois ouverte qu’aux délinquants condamnés à moins de deux ans de prison. Pour ceux à qui les peines minimales imposent une sentence de deux ans ou plus, le juge ne peut empêcher que l’individu soit transporté à un pénitencier dans l’une des provinces.

Dans un deuxième temps, un défi semblable s’impose quant à l’employabilité. Les juges sont conscients du peu de travail rémunéré qui s’offre à certaines tranches de la population du Nunavut. Pour nombre d’infractions, une peine discontinue permet au délinquant de conserver son emploi en purgeant sa peine la fin de semaine. Puisque cet accommodement n’est disponible que pour les sentences de moins de 90 jours, un juge qui se doit d’imposer une peine minimale de 120 jours, par exemple, se trouve dans la fâcheuse obligation de compromettre l’emploi du délinquant sans savoir s’il pourra le regagner.

Enfin, la disponibilité des ressources sur le plan correctionnel limite la flexibilité dont jouissent les juges du Nunavut dans la détermination des peines. Ailleurs au pays, il est possible pour le tribunal de reporter la détermination de la peine afin que le délinquant puisse participer à un programme de traitement agréé par le gouvernement (voir l’article 720(2) du Code criminel). Or, le gouvernement du Nunavut n’a à ce jour approuvé aucun programme de ce type ; ceux-ci n’existent pas dans les communautés. En effet, les programmes de traitement pour la toxicomanie et la violence conjugale ne sont principalement offerts que dans les prisons. Compte tenu de cette situation, le juge doyen de la Cour de justice du Nunavut constate que « [t]he court has had to adjust its sentencing posture to reflect the stark realities of Nunavut » (R v JN).

Les juges du Nunavut sont appelés à infliger des peines dans un contexte sans pareil. Il n’est donc pas étonnant que ceux-ci se soient approprié les concepts reconnus dans l’ensemble du pays afin que leurs sentences reflètent l’unicité du territoire et de sa population. L’on pourrait ainsi qualifier la détermination des peines au Nunavut de sui generis. Toutefois, force est de constater que certaines préoccupations telles la promotion de la culture inuite et l’employabilité ne peuvent être pleinement prises en compte dans le cadre qu’impose la législation fédérale et la distribution des ressources. C’est dans ces circonstances qu’évolue la détermination des peines au Nunavut : confrontée d’une part par d’uniques problématiques et d’autre part par les bornes qui lui sont imposées.

Band-aids on gaping wounds?

chiaraBy Chiara Fish

Iqaluit (meaning “place of many fish”) – now including this one – is large, well-equipped and very friendly. I am working at Maliiganik Tukisiiniakvik, the legal aid clinic that serves the Baffin region of Nunavut.

I love working here. There is a strong sense of community and people are very welcoming and friendly. It is shockingly beautiful. The apartment in which I am living overlooks Frobisher Bay and everyday I can see the ice melting, the tide coming in and out and the mountains becoming browner as the snow melts. Soon the first ship (an icebreaker) should arrive.

One of the many advantages of working at legal aid in the North is that they throw their student interns directly into the fray. Right now I am focusing on criminal law and later I will work on family law as well. Nunavut unfortunately has the second highest crime rate in Canada, so there is lots of work to do, especially considering the shortage of lawyers. In addition to research, I interview clients before trials and in my third week I began running my own bail hearings. Everyday is different and exciting and full of learning.

Our staff includes one Inuit lawyer and several courtworkers, but most of the lawyers in Iqaluit are white. It is amazing to see how the Inuit courtworkers can interact with the clients as compared to the rest of us. Not only is there a language barrier, but people who are truly part of this community know one another and relate to each other in a way that an outsider cannot. Clearly there is a need for more Inuit lawyers. I do not understand how it is possible that the Akitisraq law school program has been put on hold for lack of funding (Akitsiraq).

I am shocked by the absence of treatment centers in Iqaluit. People are held in custody at Baffin Correctional Center, which is currently at about twice capacity. This must constitute some sort of rights violation, in addition to violating fire and other safety regulations. Yet the system is seemingly unable to address the underlying problems that lead to offences and recidivism.

Given the extremely high rate of alcoholism in Nunavut, it seems absurd that there is no treatment center in the territory. If people want treatment, they must go south – separated from their families, culture, language and support systems. Many of the sentences include a condition that the individual not possess or consume alcohol or other intoxicating substances. In the absence of treatment, it seems absurd to put an alcoholic or drug user on such a condition – they are basically being set up to breach the condition, which can result in jail time and can go on their criminal record.

Sometimes I think it would be more productive to be a social worker, psychologist or psychiatrist working up here because then at least one could address the underlying and long-term issues that people face. As one of my colleagues said, often it feels as though we as lawyers are just putting band-aids on gaping wounds. I find it especially difficult to see youth already trapped in the criminal justice system who are angry, unable to express themselves and unable to get the treatment they need. It seems as though we as a society are really failing…

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