The wolf & the sheep

By July - August 2013

The access to justice discussion has a different dimension in Nunavut.

The wolf & the sheep

Mark Mossey, Director of Maliiganik Tukisiiniakvik Legal Services, Iqaluit
Photo by Ron Wasslink

For most of the 25 Inuit communities scattered across the young territory of Nunavut, justice arrives by plane and is dispensed in the local school gym or community centre.

At least 100 times a year, a judge, Crown, defence counsel and others travel to a remote hamlet where the predominantly non-Inuit team will deal with cases ranging from simple break-and-enters to domestic violence and homicide. Only three Nunavut communities — Iqaluit, Rankin Inlet and Cambridge Bay — have lawyers so the court visits the people, many of whom have never encountered the justice system familiar to most Canadians.

“It’s like the circus coming to town,” says Teena Hartman, CEO of the Legal Services Board of Nunavut, who is based in Rankin Inlet. “I think the communities see justice as something that kind of happens to them as opposed to a process where they get to engage and participate and have an influence on the outcome.”

In the North, there is a different dimension to the access to justice discussion. Profound linguistic, geographic, social and cultural differences create unique challenges to delivering justice in the emerging territory. And delay and resource constraints sometimes have deadly consequences.

Mark Mossey, director of Maliiganik Tukisiiniakvik Legal Services in Iqaluit, tells a story that illustrates just how wide the cultural chasm can be. A lawyer from the south was struggling to explain his role to a client in a criminal case when an Inuit court worker offered to help. “Let me explain to him in my own way and my own language,” he said.

He drew a simple diagram of a wolf and a sheep. The wolf, he explained in Inuktituk, is the Crown; the accused is the sheep and the judge is his mother and father.  The wolf tells the judge what the accused has done wrong; the lawyer protects the sheep from the wolf and the judge decides whether the sheep should be punished and what the punishment should be, according to the rules in the Criminal Code.

Madeleine Redfern

Madeleine Redfern, Chair of the Legal Services Board
Photo by Ron Wasslink

“At the end of the story, the gentleman said, ‘Oh, I finally understand this process. This is going to be okay,’” Mossey says. “I’ve been here for four years and I don’t think I ever grasped before how important it is to do that kind of thing properly.”

It is no surprise that the justice system is such a mystery. The lawyer population is relatively sparse. In Iqaluit, a city of 7,500, wills and real estate deals are handled by firms in Ottawa and Yellowknife. The 45 to 50 lawyers based in the capital work for legal aid, the Crown, the Department of Justice and a few companies. Iqaluit is also the home of the only courthouse in the territory.

Traditional dispute resolution still exists but availability varies widely and it’s not suitable for serious crime, which is increasing. Furthermore, a highly transient workforce means that police and others may not be aware that cases meeting certain criteria can be rerouted to restorative justice programs, says Madeleine Redfern, chair of the Legal Services Board of Nunavut.

"I love this job because you come in and your whole day can be having someone’s power turned back on and you know that person and that family are going to be better off for it, I don’t find it frustrating — very challenging, but very, very rewarding." Mark Mossey Maliiganik Tukisiiniakvik Legal Services

Meanwhile, demand for legal services is growing. Mossey’s office handles about 8,500 criminal charges a year on Baffin Island, plus family, civil and poverty law cases. The housing crisis alone could keep someone busy full time on landlord-tenant issues, Mossey says, and the situation spawns other social problems. According to the 2010 Nunavut Housing Needs Survey, 49 per cent of occupied dwellings in the territory are overcrowded and in need of major repair.  Fifty-one per cent of the population lives in public housing and 4 per cent is homeless.

“Housing is a huge issue here,” says Mossey, who is president of the CBA’s Nunavut branch.  “If you don’t have housing, you’re not getting sleep, you’re not doing well at your job or you’re not getting a job or you’re not going to school or doing well at school.”

The territory also struggles with a shocking suicide rate that is 10 times the Canadian average: since Nunavut was created in 1999, close to 400 Inuit have killed themselves; 305 were between the ages of 10 and 29, according to a researcher at the University of Greenland. Police answer 1,000 calls a year about people who express suicidal intent or attempt suicide.

There is also a shocking link between suicide and the justice system. When the Government of Nunavut consulted 2,100 residents in 2009 to review the effectiveness of its programs and services, several people drew a direct link between waiting times for court and high suicide rates. Long delays create stress in homes where there are already problems, the report said. “The burden can easily become too great.”

There are also high rates of substance abuse, cancer and tuberculosis, the highest rate of respiratory illness among children in the world and the fact that seven out of 10 Inuit preschool children do not have reliable access to nutritional food; food security is a major issue in a region where everything is brought in by air or sealift and a carton of orange juice costs $14.

Mark Mossey

Mark Mossey

Amid all these challenges, Nunavut faces a struggle to deliver services to very small communities in remote areas with limited infrastructure. And this is all taking place against a backdrop of tremendous change as Inuit society moves from largely self-reliant families to a modern wage economy. As the Government of Nunavut’s 2009 report card observed:

“Inuit have survived through the millennia in some of the harshest conditions on the planet. Everyone had a role to play in the family unit to ensure that all were fed, clothed and housed properly. Today, Nunavummiut lament that few people have ’jobs’… while many others are bored and lack purpose. People described the alienating effect this has on their communities and the extremely abusive and negative behaviour that results.”

All of these social, health and economic challenges reverberate in the justice system which is seeing costs skyrocket. The legal aid budget has more than doubled in the last four years due to a number of big cases and the cost of adding more weeks to the court circuit, Hartman says.

The budget now stands at $10-million. The population of Nunavut is just under 35,000.

’You can’t change the world overnight’

Despite the challenges, there is optimism about Nunavut’s future.

Hartman, who has worked in the territory for 10 years, can chart some progress in the justice system: in family law matters, she says, a substantial part of the population now understands they have rights and obligations concerning support and access, and they have a voice if social workers apprehend their child; a civil poverty law program has taken root and the number of legal aid lawyers has more than doubled. She compares the rate of progress to working an accident scene.

“When I first got here, we weren’t even in triage; we were still at the accident scene on the side of the road. Somewhere around 2005-06, it was: ‘Hey I think we could be in the ambulance now.’ I would hazard a guess that we might actually be in the emergency room, but we haven’t got a doctor yet.”

On a larger scale, Redfern says every institution associated with public government is struggling to find resources to meet their mandate. “I think that a lot of things that needed to be put in place when the territory was being set up may have been insufficient: insufficient planning, insufficient resources,” says the former mayor of Iqaluit.

"I think that a lot of things that needed to be put in place when the territory was being set up may have been insufficient: insufficient planning, insufficient resources." Madeleine Redfern Legal Services Board

There is also the issue of the failure of the federal and territorial governments to fully implement the 1993 Nunavut Land Claims Agreement, she added. (Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., the Inuit organization that represents the Inuit of Nunavut, is seeking $1-billion in damages from the Government of Canada for its failure to fully implement the agreement. The NTI has won four legal motions related to the ongoing lawsuit, including a $14.8-million damage award last year for the government’s failure to create a monitoring plan required under the NLCA.)

“By failing to put in adequate resources and implement the land claim, we are not receiving the benefits we expected as a result of giving up about 83 per cent of our ownership or title to the land,” said Redfern, a lawyer from Iqaluit who was the first Inuk to clerk at the Supreme Court of Canada.

“I think that a lot of people are disappointed that the hopes and dreams and expectations they had for Nunavut haven’t been realized yet.”

Still, she remains optimistic about the future. “We have the opportunity to turn things around and, I think, fairly quickly if we just face some of our issues head on and we’re better and smarter about how we use our resources.”

Asked whether he is ever frustrated by the scope of the challenges, Mossey is quick to reply: “I think the day I find it frustrating is the day I’ll probably have to leave because then I think it’s going to be overwhelming.”

Madeleine Redfern

Madeleine Redfern

He relates the words of advice he received from a senior lawyer when he first arrived in Iqaluit. “[He] said to me that if you come up and you realize that you can’t change the world overnight, you’re going to do a lot better here, and that’s how I approach it.”

Mossey measures progress in small ways: helping clients restore power to their home or fight an eviction notice; introducing Grade 9 students to the justice system through a mock trial program run by CBA volunteers for the past two years or bringing lawyers in Iqaluit together on Saturday at the local movie theatre for a first-run film followed by a screening of the Skilled Lawyer Series.

“I love this job because you come in and your whole day can be having someone’s power turned back on and you know that person and that family are going to be better off for it,” he says. “I don’t find it frustrating — very challenging, but very, very rewarding.”

Hartman acknowledges some frustration: “It can wear you down, particularly when there are people that you know and work with and are close to, and you see the impact in the communities,” she says. But it is offset by the beauty of the immense land, the inspiring culture and feeling part of the community, like when local elders welcomed her newborn by bestowing an Inuktitut name.

The experience of seeing a unique part of the country and seeing yourself through the eyes of a different culture is humbling, she said.

“We had an elder lost on the land. For a long time, there was an expectation [he] would survive through the two blizzards we had because he had land skills.

“I wouldn’t last in my backyard in a strong wind.”

The view from Pangnirtung

Pangnirtung is located on the eastern side of Baffin Island at the bottom of a U-shaped valley known as Pangnirtung Fiord. Visitors arriving by air make a breathtaking pass between the glacial mountains before setting down on a 2,800-foot runway. Even on an overcast afternoon, the raw beauty of the “Switzerland of the Arctic” shines through.

The hamlet of Pangnirtung, located 40 kilometres south of the Arctic Circle
lacks adequate infrastructure and social resources.

The former whaling community of about 1,300 is relatively well developed. The fish processing plant employs 50 to 60 people and there are small Arctic char and turbot fisheries. Handmade tapestries produced in the local weaving studio are sold around the world and tourists who come to visit nearby Auyuittuq National Park can choose between two lodges and two B&Bs. There are schools, churches, an RCMP detachment and a community radio station.

Still, it struggles with the same issues confronting other northern communities. There is no doctor in a place that’s only accessible year-round by air. Housing is overcrowded and in disrepair. Substance abuse is a problem. And the hamlet is no stranger to the tragedy of suicide.

This spring, three members of the community committed suicide. They included two members of the same family: a 13-year-old girl and her grandmother, who was distraught over the girl’s death. A young man also died after shooting himself in the head on the airport runway.

A group including Mark Mossey of Iqaluit, Teena Hartman of Rankin Inlet, and Justice Thomas Cromwell of the Supreme Court of Canada flew to Pangnirtung in late May to meet with Mayor Sakiasie Sowdluapik and the community’s justice committee. In a wide-ranging conversation with simultaneous translation in English and Inuktituk, elders spoke about their frustration with the lack of infrastructure and social resources and problems with the administration of justice.

For example, by law, Pangnirtung is a dry community but it doesn’t escape problems with substance abuse due to the black market in alcohol. Yet because the community is technically dry, no drug or alcohol education is available. There is also a dearth of information about the justice system: the local RCMP would be the logical source, they suggest, but it doesn’t have the time, administrative support or Inuktituk capacity to do it. And the flying court doesn’t allow for sufficient time to meet with lawyers.

Mark Mossey vows to return for more discussions about what can be done on the communications side. Legal aid already advertises court circuit appearances on TV and radio and sends out lawyers a day or two in advance to meet with clients, he says, but clearly the message isn’t getting out.

This tapestry, created in Pangnirtung, hangs in the Unikkaarvik Visitor’s
Centre in Iqaluit.

“There’s either a disconnect or we’re not doing a good enough job  of communicating where we’re going to be or how open we are or what our court workers are able to do even before we get there,” he said. “We have a huge responsibility to do public legal education and it just tells us that we have to put a little focus on that.”

Go to any other hamlet in Nunavut and you would hear the same concerns, Hartman says. “There’s still a lot of frustration in every hamlet: they don’t understand which lawyers are which or why they have different lawyers or why their lawyer doesn’t say what they want.” The lawyers also struggle with frustration — and grief — knowing they can’t guarantee distressed clients help with addiction or mental health issues due to the lack of treatment programs and other services.

She tells the story of a lawyer on circuit court who had met with a client about his upcoming court case. When she couldn’t find him on the day of trial, she called the community radio station only to be told: ‘Oh, you didn’t hear: He committed suicide this morning. He hung himself.’

“That's devastating for my lawyer and she’s probably got 30, 40 people left on the docket to deal with,” Hartman says. “She could have been the last person to talk to [him].”

Beverley Spencer is editor-in-chief of National magazine. The CBA has launched the Envisioning Equal Justice project to address access to justice issues in Canada. For more information, visit

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