ISL system can give Suwarak a fair trial
Your article of September 15, 2010, “Man charged in cemetery case” leaves the erroneous impression that the charges laid in 2004 against Bobby Suwarak, a deaf man from Baker Lake, were dropped in 2008 due to issues of communication.
While it is true that the Suwarak case presented unique communication challenges, the program I undertook at the request of the Court was successful in developing a sign language interpretation system that I believe would have allowed a trial to go forward.
The interpretation system relied on a hearing ASL interpreter working with a deaf interpreter who knows both American Sign Language (ASL) and Inuit Sign Language (ISL).
Bobby Suwarak only knows and uses ISL, not ASL.
At the time the Crown stayed the charges in 2008, they did not specify the reasons they dropped the case. They specifically did not say they were dropping the case due to the communication issues.
Your article also correctly stated that I went on to document ISL with the support of Culture, Language, Elders and Youth. ISL is a language that is used by a significant number of deaf people and their families in Nunavut.
In 2006, we held a historic meeting of many deaf people and their families from all over Nunavut. There was a clear recommendation to develop and promote Inuit Sign Language as well as American Sign Language where appropriate.
It is important to note that the project to develop the interpretation system, that would allow Bobby Suwarak full access to the justice system, was in fact mandated by Justice Earl Johnson and supported by the Justice Department, not CLEY.
The project support from CLEY was devoted entirely to the development and support of ISL for use by deaf Nunavummiut and their families.
Whatever the merits of the previous and present cases involving Bobby Suwarak — and I acknowledge that the present charges are horrific — it is in everyone’s interest to ensure that every citizen has equal access to justice. This includes deaf people who use various signed languages — even if the sign language is used by only a minority of people in the population.
Bobby Suwarak uses Inuit Sign Language (ISL). To have a fair trial (or a fair mental status assessment if ordered), ISL interpretation must be provided, consistent with the requirements of Sections 14 and 15 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It is only then that guilt or innocence can properly be determined and justice can be done, and of equal importance, be seen to be done.
Because of its role in highlighting the existence of Inuit Sign Language, the case of Bobby Suwarak has attracted world-wide attention. Obviously, given the serious nature of the present circumstances, this case can be expected to continue to attract considerable media attention.
In view of the scope of the case and its importance as a precedent for the application of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and, in particular, for the sake of the victims of this disturbing crime, I respectfully ask the media to report the facts with great care and sensitivity.
Going forward, it is important that sign language interpreter training programs be instituted so that deaf people in Nunavut, whether they use ISL or ASL, can have full access to all aspects of community life — including education, employment, social activities and the justice system.
James C. MacDougall, C.M, Ph.D.
Canadian Deafness Research and Training Institute and
Department of Psychology
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