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One Day in a Northwest Territories Court Tells You Everything You Need to Know About Canada's Broken Legal System

The courtrooms of the Northwest Territories and Nunavut offer a glimpse into the complex web of inter-generational violence, mental health issues, and substance abuse in Canada's remote north.

by Cody Punter
Feb 3 2016, 8:00pm


Taken from inside a North Slave Correctional Centre in Yellowknife. Photo by Pat Kane

"Send me back. I'm going to hell right now."

The disheveled Inuk man with a mop of jet-black hair continued to yell as he slammed his head against the plexiglass in the prisoner's box. Moments earlier, Justin—who is originally from the remote fly-in community of Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, but has spent several years living on the streets of Yellowknife, the capital of Canada's Northwest Territories—had tried to strangle himself with his shackled hands. If it hadn't been for a social worker frantically shooting up from her seat to bring the suicide attempt to the attention of the sheriff, he might have succeeded.

Justin was being brought before the courts last week because he had allegedly kicked an RCMP officer in the head after he was found sleeping on the floor of a bank's ATM lobby on a typically brisk -4 °F night in Yellowknife. He currently faces several other charges, including several for assault, which date as far back as 2014, but has no convictions in the NT.

Having covered the court system on and off for local media outlets over the past several years, the scene was all too familiar: a person clearly suffering from mental health issues being dragged through the court system, when it is obvious that some form of medical response is needed.

Fortunately, Peter Harte, a defense lawyer who has been working in the North for the past 12 years, recognized Justin from his time in Cambridge Bay and submitted a request for him to undergo a psychiatric evaluation under the mental health act—an application that was reviewed and approved the following day by a judge. Had he not been there, Harte believes Justin could have been left to fend for himself.

"I was concerned that he was going to be treated not as someone with psychiatric problems but rather treated as a criminal," Harte told VICE, after his intervention on Justin's behalf. "There's a systemic problem, which is why I stepped in."

On any given day, the courtrooms of the Northwest Territories and Nunavut offer a glimpse into the complex web of inter-generational violence, mental health issues, and substance abuse in Canada's remote north, through the lens of the criminal justice system.


Outside Yellowknife Court House. Photo by the author

Last Tuesday was docket day in Yellowknife's Courtroom 2, where a lengthy list of accused, consisting mostly of young aboriginal men, were brought before a diminutive female judge with greying hair. The few exceptions were a 40-year-old Caucasian man who plead guilty to stealing $281.90 worth of chicken, beef, and shrimp from the local grocery store, and the parade of a half-dozen white men of varying ages who were being charged with trafficking crack cocaine. The latter is a phenomenon which is increasingly on the rise in the NT, as gangs and drug traffickers from southern provinces move north to prey on a population that is vulnerable to addiction.

The demographic of the crowd in the courtroom was unsurprising given that 87 percent of the criminals held in the NT's correctional facilities are Aboriginal, while 86 percent are male, according to figures provided by the justice department. (Although the rate of Aboriginal incarceration is high compared to the national average of 24 percent, half of NT's population of 44,000 are Inuit, Metis, or First Nations, and only three of its 33 communities have populations where non-aboriginals are in the majority.) The crimes being tried ranged in severity from a 34-year-old man accused of stabbing a man to death and attempting to murder a woman, to the theft of a bottle of vodka from a liquor store in Inuvik.

"It's a microcosm of all the aboriginal issues you see on the TV every day," Harte said of docket day, where the court mostly deals with procedural matters such as setting trial dates, entering pleas, and in some cases sentencing.

Of the 74 people who were scheduled to appear—some in person, others in custody via teleconference—many were up on violent charges, with sexual assault (13) and assault (14) accounting for 27 counts. Another handful of men were appearing on charges of aggravated assault or assault with a weapon, in addition to one child luring case and the aforementioned man accused of murder.

A Cree inmate at the North Slave Correctional Centre in Yellowknife. Photo by Pat Kane

The sheer volume of charges might not seem high to someone living in Vancouver or Toronto, but when taking into account the size of the NT's population, it's alarming. Compared to the rest of Canada, rates of violent crime in the Northwest Territories are nearly seven times higher than the national average (Nunavut is close to eight times higher); homicide rates are nearly five times the average (Nunavut is more than seven); when it comes to sexual assault, the rate is more than five times higher (Nunavut's is almost nine); rates of domestic violence meanwhile, were nine times higher than the rest of the country in the NT and nearly 13 times higher in Nuanvut according to figures from 2011.

While those statistics are shocking in their own right, it is the high levels of violence within the household that stand out for Lydia Bardak, the executive director of the John Howard Society of the NT, a non-profit focused on crime and prison reform.

"If you talk to people [who end up in the court system] their earliest childhood memories are of being sexually assaulted, molested, or witnessing violence in the home," said Bardak, who spends most of her days watching court proceedings and assisting those who end up tangled in the system.

There is no simple explanation for the levels of domestic violence in the Northewst. However, as the Truth and Reconciliation Committee concluded, Canada's residential school system had a devastating impact on Aboriginal people, particularly in the Northwest Territories and Nunavut, which have the highest and second highest per capita number of residential school survivors in Canada. While the NT's last residential school closed its doors in 1996, it is not uncommon for the abuse and neglect students suffered to be passed down as the resulting trauma and addiction go unaddressed.

"Men will often tell me about being seven or eight years old when they're trying to protect mom from whoever is beating her up. It might be the father or some other man, and they can vividly describe wiping mom's blood off the floor and the walls," said Bardak. "We have chronically, severely disabled people who are terribly misunderstood."

With so much violence in the home, Bardak said people tend to turn to alcohol to cope at a very young age. Last winter I had the chance to travel up to Fort Good Hope, a remote community of 572 people, which has one of the highest crime rates in the NT (668 reported incidents in 2014, 118 of which were considered violent). Despite being one of 18 NT communities which either has a ban or a set restriction on the possession of alcohol, the officer in charge of the detachment at the time lamented, "There aren't many calls we go to where there isn't alcohol involved." Sure enough, last week saw the beginning of a trial where a then-minor from the community is charged with brutally beating a 23-year-old mother of three to deathan incident in which alcohol is believed to be a factor.


The interior of a cell at North Slave Correctional Centre. Photo by Pat Kane

Aside from the obvious impairment in judgement, Bardak said dependence on alcohol ends up hampering cognitive development both in young people who start drinking and through the transmission of fetal alcohol syndrome. In the end, the dependence on alcohol ultimately exacerbates the high levels of physical and emotional trauma children are exposed to when growing up, thereby creating an ugly cycle of violence and addiction.

How else can you explain someone like Patsy Novoligak, who appeared in court via teleconference from jail on Tuesday on a sexual assault charge. It's bad enough to think that a 24-year-old would be charged with such a serious crime. What is truly shocking, though, is that despite barely being an adult, Novoligak already has twice as many convictions—48—as he does years on this planet. When asked how you can explain the extensive criminal history of someone like Patsy, who started drinking at the age of 11, Bardak paused for a moment.

"I guess we just have try and imagine the horrors he lived through as a kid," she said.

The territorial government has made some small strides in an effort to divert people from jail in recent years, namely with the creation of "on-the-land" addictions programs for youth, as well as through its funding of a wellness court, which allows people who plead guilty to certain offenses to serve sentences in the community while seeking rehabilitation. But, despite its minor investments, there remains a huge deficit of services in the more remote communities in both the NT and Nunavut.

"There's a lack of resources up here," Harte said. "There's no group home, there's no substance abuse treatment. Those resources don't exist so at the end of the day people like Justin show up in criminal court."

Take for example the fact that 11 of the NT's smallest communities don't have a permanent police presence despite MLAs repeatedly calling on the government to make good on promises to address the shortfall. The NT is also failing to provide sufficient levels of mental health and addictions support in order to keep people out of jail in the first place, according to Bardak. The NT's Health Minister Glen Abernethy acknowledged as much last fall when he announced that the government "needs to rethink the way it provides mental health services."

The NT closed the last of its addictions treatment centers in 2013, after having shut down its only other one in 1999. Last fall, Chief Roy Fabian, of the Kátł'odeeche First Nation where the now defunct treatment center is located, issued a call to reopen the center, but the suggestion was shot down by Abernethy, who argued it was cheaper to send patients to southern treatment facilities. Despite resistance from Yellowknife Fabian told VICE the Kátł'odeeche is currently drafting a proposal to reopen the center with a range of programming that goes beyond just treating addiction, but would also bring back much needed jobs to the community of 325.

The importance of creating jobs in the Northwest cannot be understated. On Tuesday, the court heard that it was unemployment and alcohol addiction that lead a 40-year-old diamond driller to try and steal nearly $300 worth of meat. "I was just trying to survive until I got back to work," the remorseful man said at his sentencing.

Unfortunately, given the grim economic outlook in the NT, the chances of Fabian's vision becoming reality look slim. Last fall 434 people were laid off as De Beers shut down the operation of one of its largest mines just north of Yellowknife. And just on Monday, the NT government announced that it could be in debt by as much as $1 billion in 2020 due to a decline in federal funding transfers.

With the threat of tightening purse strings looming over the Northwest Territories, there is a very real possibility that the social resources needed to combat high levels of crime will be stretched even thinner. Although Northerners are known for their resilience, that doesn't bode well for the Justins and Patsys who will continually find their names on the court docket rather than a treatment center's waiting list.

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