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Life in the courts of the Canadian Arctic 'truly an adventure'

The Canadian Press

Somewhere between tales of judges bunking with strangers and pushing airplanes out of the mud it becomes clear the court system in Canada's eastern Arctic territory of Nunavut works a little differently.

In Canada's southern provinces, new courthouses are under construction and justice officials have embarked on electronic filing projects. In Nunavut, the community centres that serve as temporary courthouses don't always have toilets and Internet service is often non-existent.

Based in the capital, Iqaluit, the court system serves 24 communities across the vast 1.9-million square kilometre territory. So convening sessions of court requires packing up a twin-engine plane with a judge, a court clerk, an interpreter, their equipment and everything from first aid kits to extension cords.

When the court party arrives in town the weather might be cold, but the sleeping conditions can get quite cozy. There's often only one small hotel in each community and reservations guarantee a bed, not necessarily a room.

"The hotels often will put other people in the other bed, so our judges have to ensure they take pajamas because there's no guarantee it will in fact be someone of the same sex," said Nunavut Court Senior Justice Robert Kilpatrick.

"I've slept with all sorts of people in my room."

From small claims cases to murder trials

The six judges of the Nunavut Court of Justice take turns travelling on the circuits, hearing everything from small claims cases right up to murder trials. They're the only judges in Canada to hear all three levels of court.

The flights often pose problems for the court system. To get to some regions, court officials must fly from Iqaluit to either the southern province of Quebec or Yellowknife, the capital city of Canada's Northwest Territories. Some of the trips can take two days one way.

"Going to court in the North is truly an adventure and you never know what to expect," Kilpatrick said in an interview.

Born in Montreal and raised in Vancouver, Kilpatrick first felt the lure of the North in the 1980s. After graduating from law school he headed up with some friends and a three-piece suit in a backpack.

He fell in love with Whitehorse, the capital city of Canada's northwestern Yukon territory, and practiced there for several years, before becoming the northernmost Crown prosecutor in Canada as he spent six years in the 1990s in the Arctic town of Inuvik, Northwest Territories.

Kilpatrick was appointed a judge in Nunavut when the territory was created on April 1, 1999, and he's seen a lot in his time there.

"There's many a tale to be told," he said.

One such tale includes the time in Sanikiluaq, when Justice Earl Johnson's plane got too close to the edge of the runway and got stuck in the mud. He got out and helped push - not part of the job description for judges in most other jurisdictions.

The issues don't end when the court parties make it to their destination.

Jury trials

The lack of hotel space means juries can't be sequestered in Nunavut. So judges must get juries to begin their deliberations early in the day. If they're asked to deliberate past 10 p.m. the conviction can be overturned on appeal, Kilpatrick said. Big trials in which multi-day deliberations are anticipated must be moved to larger communities.

Court is held in schools, community halls or whatever building is available. Sometimes there are no working toilets. Sometimes there's no heat so everyone wears parkas and it's too cold for court reporting equipment or even pens to work properly.

The buildings are almost always dirty, Kilpatrick said, but the sealskin coats that replace the judges' black robes hide the dirt.

Jury trials aren't usually scheduled during the brief summer months, because in many communities a lot of people go out on the land then, Kilpatrick said.

But the challenges, he said, have actually forced the Nunavut court to become more efficient.

Lawyers try to arrive a day or two ahead of the judge, accused people enter their pleas on the first appearance and the preliminary hearing or even the trial often takes place in the next court session.

Problems go much deeper than lack of hotel space

But most of the issues the justice system in Nunavut is grappling with go much deeper than scant hotel rooms and scheduling snafus. The territory, with a mostly Inuit population of about 33,000, experiences more violent crime per capita than anywhere else in Canada. Suicide rates, particularly for teenagers, are far higher than in southern parts of the country.

The rate of sexual assault is 10 times the national average. The rate of homicides is 11 times the national average. The rate of spousal violence is 12 times the national average.

"It's a reflection of a society essentially in transition," Kilpatrick said. "It's a society struggling to forge a new identity...Traditional social values are also being challenged and social dysfunction and crime is essentially a byproduct of profound change."

The traditional role of the male as a hunter and provider is fading away and some young men feel they've lost their place in society, he said. More Inuk females are becoming primary breadwinners, which is leaving some males resentful, Kilpatrick suggested.

"The Inuit have come a long way," he said. "It's been a remarkable journey for them. It's not over."

This story is posted on Alaska Dispatch as part of Eye on the Arctic, a collaborative partnership between public and private circumpolar media organizations.