Judge finds Nunavut MLA guilty of assault
“I’m not worried about the sentence, but my political career is over” Arvaluk says
Justice Earl Johnson used the words “feeble,” “manipulative” and “inconsistent” to describe what Nanulik MLA James Arvaluk said in his own defence in finding the former Nunavut education minister guilty this week on a charge of assault causing bodily harm.
After an August 2000 drinking party in the dry community of Coral Harbour, he battered his former girlfriend, Sophie Sangoya, on the head and face with his fists, causing a cut to her lower lip that needed 14 stitches close.
In her testimony, Sangoya said she suffers permanent nerve damage to her face.
Arvaluk’s twin sons watched the beating through a partially opened bedroom door.
Johnson was to deal with Arvaluk’s sentence on June 20, after Nunatsiaq News went to press this week. He was expected to either set a date for sentencing or hear sentencing submissions from lawyers.
“I lost,” Arvaluk told Nunatsiaq News on his way to his office in the legislative assembly after the verdict. “I’m not worried about the sentence, but my political career is over.”
It could have been much worse for him. Assault causing bodily harm is defined as a hybrid offence under the Criminal Code. That means it can be considered either a summary conviction, carrying a maximum sentence of 18 months in prison, or an indictable charge, which carries a maximum sentence of 14 years.
Since the Crown elected to prosecute Arvaluk by way of summary conviction, Arvaluk may keep his seat unless his fellow MLAs choose to remove him, or he resigns.
The Legislative Assembly and Executive Council Act says that any MLA convicted of an indictable offence is deemed to have resigned from his or her seat. It also says that the assembly has the power to discipline members, including the power to suspend or expel them.
If he had been convicted of an indictable offense, Arvaluk would have been ineligible to run in the Feb. 16 territorial election.
After the charge was laid, Arvaluk resigned as minister of education but remained MLA for Coral Harbour and Chesterfield Inlet.
In his first trial in June 2001, Justice Howard Irving found Arvaluk not guilty, saying the fight was a mutually consensual drunken brawl.
But Crown prosecutors successfully overturned that verdict and won a new trial, arguing that Irving made numerous errors in fact and in law.
The new trial was held on March 13 in Coral Harbour.
Arvaluk never denied striking Sangoya. However, he has changed his explanation for punching her several times over the past two years.
He first told police that he hit Sangoya in the bedroom to calm her down after an evening of drinking and card-playing with friends at his house in Coral Harbour. The two were known to fight about his young sons, her spending habits and his previous relationships, the court heard.
At his first trial, he said he hit her in the hallway, not the bedroom, to prevent Sangoya from leaving while she was in a state of undress and because he was worried about what neighbours would think if a drunk, half-dressed woman left his house at 6 a.m.
In his latest trial he said he unleashed a flurry of punches in self-defence, after Sangoya bit him in the leg.
However, his defence lawyers never presented any medical evidence or photographs to corroborate his story about the bite.
Under cross-examination from the Crown, Arvaluk said the injury to his leg wasn’t the sort of thing he’d tell the police or “any other guys.”
“Yet, the accused had no difficulty telling the officer his girlfriend was trying to run out of his house without any clothes on, and had no difficulty testifying about the bite at trial,” the Crown prosecutor said.
Sangoya was not in court when Johnson read his 26-page judgment on June 16.
“I believe the accused was manipulating his evidence to present himself in the best light… If he was bitten with sufficient force to prompt a flurry of punches there would have been some marks on his leg… His explanation when confronted with this omission was feeble and inconsistent,” Johnson said.
At the time of the assault, the Coral Harbour RCMP detachment was housed in a trailer. Arvaluk’s defence lawyer, Hugh Latimer, argued that Arvaluk’s confession is inadmissible because the cramped office created an “oppressive” environment.
But Johnson dismissed this argument, and allowed Arvaluk’s police statement to be admitted as evidence.
“The accused was in the police office from 11:45 a.m. to 2:45 p.m. and there was no evidence of physical deprivation. In fact, Cpl. Gray stopped off and allowed the accused to pick up cigarettes before proceeding to the station,” Johnson said.
Latimer also argued that Arvaluk’s statement is inadmissible because the arresting officer did not re-emphasize that the statement was voluntary. Again, Johnson sided with the Crown.
“I find the statement was voluntary and admissible,” he said.
Arvaluk is the second Nunavut MLA to be convicted of a criminal offence since April 1, 1999.
Levi Barnabas, the former MLA for Quttiktuq and speaker of the house, resigned in 2000 after pleading guilty to a charge of sexual assaulting an Iqaluit woman after a night at the Legion, followed by a drinking party.
With files from Patricia D’Souza in Iqaluit.