Quebec’s justice system must adapt to the North: report

Report notes cultural barriers, inability to navigate court system


Kuujjuaq's courthouse is one of only three courthouses in Nunavik. (FILE PHOTO)

Kuujjuaq’s courthouse is one of only three courthouses in Nunavik. (FILE PHOTO)

The justice system that Quebec operates in its northern regions, including Nunavik, must be fixed to fit the cultural and administrative realities of the region, the province’s bar association says in a report.

The Barreau du Québec took stock of the province’s northernmost court system in 2013 and 2014, following the travelling court circuit through four different communities, including two in Nunavik — Inukjuak and Puvirnituq.

What the mission found was overflowing court dockets and insufficient staff and resources to process cases.

In Salluit — a community the mission intended to visit but couldn’t due to poor weather — the report noted the number of criminal files opened between 2003 and 2013 surpassed the number of residents: 2,249 files compared for a population of about 1,300.

Despite efforts by Quebec’s justice department to lengthen the travelling court calendar from 36 to 47 weeks a year, hearing delays continue to be a major issue in Nunavik and other northern regions that are only accessible by air.

“Weather conditions play a big role in rescheduled hearings, but the perception on the ground is that the inadequacy of the justice system benefits the lawyers,” said Barreau du Québec president Bernard Synnott.

In some Nunavik communities, it’s not uncommon for weather to prevent the travelling court from visiting for communities for months, even years, at a time.

But maybe more troubling, the report says communities in Quebec’s North are out of touch with the province’s legal system and unclear how to navigate it, in part due to cultural barriers.

And that’s particularly true of Inuit communities in Nunavik, where oral tradition remains strong and face-to-face contact is preferred, the report said.

The report noted an insufficient number of court interpreters and court workers — community-based positions which act as a link between citizens and the travelling court staff.

The bar association also found:

• an inadequate number of detention facilities across the North, which prevents inmates from visiting with family;

• a low proportion of Inuit or Aboriginal lawyers working in Quebec’s system;

• the need for an indigenous socio-legal forum to share ideas on how to better serve Quebec’s Northern communities; and,

• a need to centralize urgent hearings which would allow criminal hearings in Nunavik communities to be heard by videoconference by judges in Amos or Rouyn-Noranda.

But the report points out the progress that’s been made in a few Nunavik communities, such as efforts to improve the use of videoconferencing from Puvirnituq and negotiations to secure a building to host a trial in Inukjuak.

The bar association also made a number of recommendations. One was to publish more court documents in three languages, which in Nunavik means Inuttitut, French and English.

Specific to its call for an Aboriginal socio-judicial forum in Quebec, the report suggests that Quebec’s justice department should work more closely with organizations such as Makivik Corp. and the Kativik Regional Govenrment to ensure Inuit representation.

That could include discussions around alternative forms of justice, at least in dealing with young or first-time offenders, and already underway in Nunavik.

The report also recommends that the Bar Association offer mentoring and a bursary to Aboriginal students studying law in Quebec.

“Beyond the financial investment required to address several of the issues raised in this report, the Quebec Bar found that it must collectively develop a common vision of justice in the North,” Synnott said.

“We saw some positive trends… and a willingness to work together and find appropriate and realistic solutions to the problems raised.”

You can read the full report, in French, here.

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