In my earlier two columns, I discussed substantive aspects of criminal law in the North (Part One). I briefly reviewed some aspects of the crimes we deal with in court, some of the underlying causes, and certain aspects of sentencing for those offences (Part Two). I want now to describe some features of daily life as a criminal defence lawyer in this exciting and beautiful land.
Compared to southern Canada, there are relatively few defence lawyers in the Northwest Territories. Most of us are based in Yellowknife, though virtually all of us spend time in other communities when the courts travel there on circuit. This is a tradition which goes back more than a century, to when courts – in the English model – first began sitting in western and northern Canada (at the time, everything between the Great Lakes in Ontario, and British Columbia, were considered the Northwest Territories, and before that, Rupert’s Land). Back then, judges based in Winnipeg, and later, Edmonton would travel throughout the year to settlements scattered across the territory to hear and decide all types of cases. (In fact, the circuit court tradition goes back even further: in medieval times English judges would travel and hold court in towns and villages across the British Isles from time to time.)
Now, most defence lawyers in the N.W.T travel for at least one week each month, with Territorial Court judges, court reporters, Crown prosecutors and various support staff, from Yellowknife to the various smaller communities around the Territory. For most circuits, the Court is based out of the largest of the local communities (Norman Wells, Inuvik or Hay River) and from there the court party flies to the smaller, more remote locations in small chartered aircraft. In Inuvik and Hay River court usually sits in that location for the first two days of the week, and then travels for the rest of that period. From Inuvik we fly to the various communities in the Beaufort Delta (the Gwich’in communities of Aklavik and Fort McPherson) and on the Arctic coast or islands (the Inuvialuit communities of Tuktoyaktuk, Paulatuk, Sachs Harbour and Uluhaktuk). From Hay River, court travels to Fort Resolution, Fort Providence, Fort Simpson and Fort Liard (communities mainly comprised of Chipewyan and Metis peoples, and Slavey peoples, respectively). Now, most defence lawyers in the N.W.T travel for at least one week each month, with Territorial Court judges, court reporters, Crown prosecutors and various support staff, from Yellowknife to the various smaller communities around the Territory. Norman Wells serves as our base point for court in the MacKenzie Valley (Tulita and Fort Good Hope) and also for Deline, a tiny settlement on the edge of Great Bear Lake.
Most of the communities to which we travel are very small (usually between 500 and 800 persons) and access is very restricted; boat in the summer and winter road after freeze up. Air access is usually year round, but often prohibitively expensive. The communities south of Great Slave Lake are also accessible by all-weather highways. We usually arrive in the community around 9:30 or 10:00 a.m., though we are sometimes delayed by weather (sometimes conditions prevent us from traveling into communities completely, and all matters on the court docket then have to be adjourned – usually by telephone – to the next circuit date). Court sits in local community centres and recreational facilities (sometimes we use boardrooms in band (municipal) offices), for as long as necessary to get as many matters completed as possible. Air conditioning is rare, and it is very surprising that in the summer, places in the North can be as hot as anywhere in southern Canada! Judges are often still hearing trials and making their decisions as late as 7 or 8 p.m.,or even later. Then, at the end of a court day, we get back into the small airplane in which we arrived, and fly back to our base point.
So as not to leave any misleading impressions, though, I should point out that we are not flying around in luxury executive jets! The aircraft we most usually fly in are sturdy, dependable, fairly slow Canadian-made Twin Otters which take time to heat up in the winter, and which have no air conditioning to help alleviate the surprising heat in the summer. (More than once I have marveled at how amazingly cold is the very same plane into which I climbed only six months earlier, in the middle of summer when the cabin was a sweltering sauna!) In the wintertime (October to April), flight regulations require that we wear proper snow boots and pants, as well as parkas and other gear in the hope that we may survive any mishaps which take place until we can be rescued if need be.
As one can tell from the map, the places we go as we try to bring the court “to the people” are remote, and exist on the edge of wilderness. We are reminded of this from time to time when wildlife is encountered. The aircraft we most usually fly in are sturdy, dependable, fairly slow Canadian-made Twin Otters which take time to heat up in the winter, and which have no air conditioning to help alleviate the surprising heat in the summer. Once we were met in Fort Liard by a couple of bison grazing across the street from the community centre where court is held. In other communities (also in the southern part of the Territory) the plane sometimes has to “buzz” the airstrip before landing to make sure bison get off the runway and leave the area before we can safely land. And once, after we landed in Fort Good Hope, we had to wait for the R.C.M.P. officers to get us from the airport (in most communities the local constables drive us to and from the airport; there are no taxis in most places) because they first had to deal with some black bears which were wandering through town. And in the summers, at least, the legendary black flies and mosquitoes make their presence known to us all!
But for all of what some might see as “drawbacks” – long days, uncomfortable conditions, the stress of travel and so on – nothing compares to the commute when we are on circuit! For years as I practiced law in Edmonton, I spent 20 or 30 minutes driving through the smog and traffic of suburbia, into the downtown “concrete canyons”, where I then spent my days surrounded by steel and glass.
Now, when I am on circuit my commute is over hundreds of kilometers of untouched wilderness. Nothing compares with the vastness of the Arctic ice as we fly up to one of the small settlements on the coast; or the wetlands of the Beaufort Delta; or the mountain ranges of the Sahtu area around Norman Wells, on the banks of the MacKenzie River. Instead of walking out of court in downtown Edmonton onto the sidewalks or malls, court breaks are now spent in magnificent settings such as the banks of the MacKenzie River, or Great Bear Lake, or the Arctic Ocean! And as clichéd as it sounds, I will never forget the night I finished court and looked up as I left, to see the Aurora Borealis dancing in the sky above!
Much as I enjoyed my career during the years I was in Edmonton, I could never go back to practicing in the middle of a big southern city. I am in the North to stay; this is now my home!
The views and opinions expressed in this article are entirely those of the author.