Rough justice: A week in the life of Nunavik’s travelling court
“Sending you to jail is very inappropriate for the issue you have”
A Quebec Public Security van pulls up to the Val d’Or airport in the province’s Abitibi region. Guards escort shackled detainees from the nearby Amos detention centre, one at a time, into the airport terminal to use the bathroom before they board their four-hour flight.
There are 12 men and one woman. The Inuit detainees are seated at the back of the Air Creebec Dash 8 while the front is occupied by a team of non-Inuit lawyers, Crown prosecutors, guards, clerks and a judge.
The Nov.13 trip to Puvirnituq, along Nunavik’s Hudson coast, includes a refuelling stop in La Grande. Kativik Regional Police Force officers greet the charter on the runway of the Puvirnituq airport to start ferrying detainees to cells at its police station.
This is the region’s circuit court, which will fly from its home base in Amos, Que., to host week-long criminal court sessions in Puvirnituq 10 times over its 2017 calendar.
Puvirnituq is one of two communities in Nunavik with its own courthouse—the other is Kuujjuaq—equipped with a cell area, offices and a single, spacious court room with high ceilings and wooden beams.
Within two hours of their arrival, the cast of court workers from north and south has assembled in the courthouse as community members start showing up to meet with their lawyers.
The predominantly francophone group switches to English—the official language used here. Two Inuit interpreters are brought in for Inuktitut translation.
The first day of court is typically reserved for arraignments, and it’s not different this Monday afternoon. Detainees brought in from Amos have priority; there’s another court charter flying in on Tuesday so the goal is to send as many back on that flight as possible to free up cell space in Puvirnituq.
That becomes particularly urgent when, by Tuesday morning, the police station’s six holding cells swell to contain 25 detainees.
Nunatsiaq News isn’t permitted to visit the cell area while it’s occupied, but KRPF captain Jean-François Morin describes the individual cells as about 10-by-6-feet.
Overnight, police pick up about 10 people, mostly youth, for drinking-related charges.
That creates upheaval for other detainees who are sober and trying to sleep before they appear in court, Morin says.
“It can get tense,” he says.
Women require cells separate from men and detainees under protective custody must also be segregated—factors that can quickly consume precious cell space and resources.
That goes to the heart of one of the major recommendations to emerge from an ombudsperson’s report, released last year, which found holding cells in Nunavik were dirty and overcrowded.
It costs the province about $7 million a year to detain and transport Nunavimmiut inmates between the region and southern detention centres.
At the courthouse, the docket for Tuesday includes a number of young Puvirnituq men who face charges ranging from mischief and impaired driving to more serious assault and weapons charges.
Last June, 18-year-old Joshua Novalinga pulled a gun on a staffer at the local youth centre, demanding money. When police arrived, Novalinga lowered the gun then threatened to kill himself.
Officers negotiated with him until he finally surrendered his weapon.
Novalinga lives with a serious, diagnosed mental illness, brought on in part by a childhood shooting that left him with a brain injury. The accused has committed other firearms-related infractions as a minor, but this was his first offence as an adult.
“Even if he takes responsibility, I’m not sure if he understands the gravity of what he did,” says Court of Quebec Judge Jean-Pierre Gervais.
Novalinga’s lawyer, Jean-Francis Bonnette, assures the judge his client will continue to take his medication and to seek psychological services and supports in jail.
Gervais sentences the young man to two years of detention. Novalinga doesn’t flinch.
“I consider that sending you to jail is very inappropriate for the issue you have,” Gervais tells Novalinga, but adds that he must send a strong message to the community that what he did was very serious.
Another detainee, James Alasuaq-Aupalu, faces a charge that’s less common in Nunavik courtrooms: fraud. He defrauded his grandparents for almost $10,000. Earlier this fall, he was arrested again for threatening his girlfriend, and then a police officer.
Alasuaq-Aupalu is sentenced to 45 days in detention but he’s brought back to court later, to testify in another case, before he leaves on the evening flight back to Amos. It’s one way court workers try to manage overcrowding in the holding cells.
On Wednesday morning, Nov. 15, the waiting area of the courtroom is full of Puvirniturmiut. A lawyer’s high heels click-clack up and down the hallway’s tiled floor as she gathers clients.
The court is waiting on some accused from the neighbouring village of Akulivik, and witnesses to come in from Inukjuak, but flights are delayed due to a blizzard.
On the docket: Lizzie Matt faces theft, threats and assault charges but she is nowhere to be found. It’s common for lawyers to have to track down their clients through the week—sometimes resorting to warrants.
But Matt, herself a victim of crime, has been living homeless in Montreal.
“Matt has a lot of problems that a lot of homeless Inuit in Montreal are dealing with,” her lawyer, Michel Solomon, tells the judge. “She’s very fragile.”
Over the lunch hour, Solomon is able to speak to a case worker at Montreal’s Native Friendship Centre, who has agreed to help track down the woman and help her get home. The case is put off until January.
Later in the day, an afternoon case relies on the testimony of a witness who is based in Toronto. The video screen and audio are set up, but glitches plague the video-conference testimony so the judge calls for a recess.
After staff fiddle with the technology for a half hour, the judge decides to postpone the testimony. The court can’t afford to waste time on a day with dozens of accused waiting to appear before the judge.
Lawyers say this is a relatively quiet week in the Puvirnituq criminal court compared to some, with 162 charges on the docket. But Nunavik sees some of the highest rates of criminality in the province: though Inuit comprise only one-tenth of a per cent of the population, they represent about five per cent of Quebec’s inmates.
Crown prosecutors are ready to start another trial at the end of the day, with only one witness—a local woman. She had agreed to testify earlier in the day, but the prosecutor tells the court the witness has since decided against it. The accused is acquitted.
The sun has come out again on Thursday, Nov. 16, and lawyers prepare to process Akulivimiut on the docket so the accused can catch a flight home, up the Hudson coast, the same day.
A court logistics coordinator has been in constant motion all week—on the phone booking rooms and driving people to and from the airport, hotel and courthouse.
From inside the courtroom, you can hear babies crying in the waiting area outside.
A number of young women appear before Gervais today on section 253 charges—driving while impaired.
The first charge lands the accused with a fine and a temporary licence suspension, but subsequent cases end in jail time.
While young Inuit men continue to be over-represented in Quebec’s justice system, defence lawyer Sarah Plamondon says she’s seen a dramatic increase in women on the court docket in recent years.
She’s not entirely sure why. Impaired driving is one of the main charges her women clients face, and since the Puvirnituq co-op started to sell beer and wine in 2015, Plamondon says they seem to be drinking more.
Maina Novalinga, a mother of three, is back in court for impaired driving along with breaking conditions of a previous charge.
This time, Gervais sentences her to 30 days detention.
“I’m sure you don’t belong in jail, but it’s the decision I must render,” he says.
Alcohol is a common thread in about 90 per cent of the court’s files, Plamondon estimates.
The community voted in favour of lifting alcohol restrictions in 2012, but it remains a contentious issue in Puvirnituq. Even lower-percentage alcohol such as beer and wine is now being abused and over-consumed, spurring violence, vehicle accidents and family neglect.
A trial begins mid-afternoon and carries right through until almost 8 p.m.—unusually late for the court, which tends to wrap up by 6 p.m. daily. The hearing is closed to the public in order to protect the identity of the crime victim.
On Nov. 17, the same trial resumes but the court is forced to find a third translator to help interpret the Inuktitut-language testimony; the witness comes from the Ungava coast and the two court interpreters are Hudson coast Inuit.
The difference in dialect might be subtle but the information the witness provides must be precise and well-understood in order for justice to be served.
Next on the docket is Adamie Irqu, looking sullen in a gray sweatshirt and shaved head. The young Puvirnituq man was charged with the December 2016 assault of his ex-girlfriend, and in the same month, another assault on his cousin.
The assault left his ex-girlfriend with permanent damage to her left eye that now causes blurred vision, the court hears.
Irqu was out on bail this year when he’s alleged to have assaulted another woman in Puvirnituq in early November.
He has 19 pages of prior charges, Crown prosecutor Geneviève Lamontagne notes. “He has to address these issues,” she says.
“The alcohol use in his family is what brings him here,” says Irqu’s lawyer, Michel Solomon.
When Irqu was young, his parents drank and fought a lot around the boy, though they’ve since turned their lives around, Solomon says. Both of Irqu’s parents sit in the court room, wiping away tears.
“It’s hard to know what to say to a man that causes that kind of pain,” says Gervais, looking at Irqu who stares at the ground from the prisoner’s box.
It’s clear that Irqu’s past explains some of his behaviour but it’s not an excuse for it, Gervais says, sentencing the man to 24 months detention and three years probation.
“It’s really time for you sir to do something,” Gervais urges.
At about 12:30 p.m., after five days in session, the court adjourns. There’s a flurry of activity as lawyers pack up boxes of file folders and zip their robes into garment bags.
In a mere 20 minutes, the courtroom and offices have emptied out as the circuit court players head to the airport to catch a flight south to Val d’Or.
The guards lock up the doors to the courthouse. It will remain mostly empty until the court returns in the new year.
Outside, Irqu’s parents stand by the side door of the courthouse in -21C, waiting to see their son one last time before he’s whisked away to detention, hundreds of kilometres away.