Inuit Women and the Nunavut Justice System

1. A New Territory and A New Approach

In 1993, Inuit of Nunavut and the Government of Canada reached a comprehensive land claims agreement. As part of this agreement, the Government of Canada was obligated to introduce legislation to establish the Nunavut Territory, with its own Legislative Assembly and public government, separate from the government of the remainder of the Northwest Territories. Pursuant to this commitment, the Nunavut Act was passed in 1993 requiring the Nunavut Territory and government be established on April 1, 1999.

The Nunavut Implementation Commission (NIC) was established to advise its founders—the Government of Canada, Nunavut Tunngavik Incorporated and the Territorial Government—"on a variety of topics central to the smooth inauguration of the new Nunavut government."[1]

The administration of justice in Nunavut, like the government and territory, is new and evolving. The NIC noted that improvements would result where there is a sustained commitment to cooperation on the part of justice personnel and anyone who works with people who come into contact with the justice system. Any successful reform to the administration of justice will require a “cross-organizational effort ” to fully think through the impact of proposed reforms and to identify measures which can be built into the infrastructure of a newly established justice system. [2]

The justice system plays a significant role in the lives of Inuit women and their families in Nunavut. One only has to consider the nature of judicial dockets in Nunavut to understand its significance.

While there is no Nunavut-specific study addressing crime, a recent study[3] completed on crime in the Northwest Territories did include the area now identified as the Nunavut Territory. In this study completed for the Government of the Northwest Territories (GNWT), it notes that in 1996/97, “the Territory’s prisons were operating at 43% over capacity”[4] with crime rates still greater than those in the rest of Canada. The nature of the crimes for which offenders were serving time were primarily crimes of violence against women and children:

The NWT has the highest rate of reported crime of all the provinces and territories in Canada. …Specifically,

  • the violent crime rate in the NWT is over five times that for Canada. The NWT has the highest violent crime rate of all provinces and territories. While the rate of robbery in the Territory is one half that for Canada, the assault rate is over five times (560%) the rate for the country as a whole, and the sexual assault rate is over seven times (730%) the general rate.
  • property crime is also higher in the NWT than for Canada but by only 43%.[5]

Those crimes noted to have increased in reported numbers over the twelve year period from 1986 to 1997 included,

…sexual assault, common assault, public order offences (including disturbing the peace), “other Criminal Code offences” and “offences against the administration of justice” (broad categories which encompass breaches of a probation order, failure to appear in court, failure to comply with certain court orders, criminal negligence, and uttering threats), mischief trafficking in and importing drugs and impaired driving.[6]

The impact of such statistics has not gone unnoticed by Inuit women over the years. Violence against women and children in Inuit families continues to be a core issue at the annual meetings of the national Inuit women's Association, Pauktuutit. Through these annual meetings, Inuit women in Nunavut--like their counterparts in other parts of the Inuit homeland--have called for meaningful reform to the justice system to adequately respond to this ongoing violence. Inuit women of Nunavut strongly supported the creation of the new territory and government through their land claims agreement, and like other Inuit, look to the new government as a means of securing greater control over their own lives. Despite this enthusiasm, Inuit women are especially cautious about the changes to the administration of justice—as noted by an Inuk delegate at a national Aboriginal women’s consultation on justice:

I would like to suggest that the process of transferring administration of justice is slowed down until Inuit women are consulted, feel safe and fully involved. I would like to go at the speed of the women, and wait for Inuit women to do their own research and assessment. I do, however, recognize that may not be possible and we must take advantage of the current initiatives. …the long term solution is that the transfer of the administration of justice must be accountable to Inuit women and their children. There must be participation of women, not just as "victims" but because these policies and initiatives directly impact on all women's lives and further entrench the inequality of women. Many of these policies and initiatives victimize women. Justice can't be blind when it comes to gender.[7]

In these early days of the Nunavut government, parts of the justice system operating in this territory prior to April 1, 1999 have been adopted while other parts of the system have been discarded. Bill C-57 - An Act to Amend the Nunavut Act was passed on March 11, 1999. These amendments dealt almost exclusively with changes required to the Nunavut Act that would accommodate the newly proposed court structure for Nunavut. The Nunavut Act passed in 1993 had adopted the two-level trial court system that was operating in the existing Northwest Territories. Under Bill C- 57, a single-level trial court system will now be operating in Nunavut. In regards to other components of the administration of justice, such as community-based justice and the role of the justices of the peace, what is being changed and what remains the same is not so clear.

This report focuses on three specific components of the criminal justice system in Nunavut—the unified court structure, justices of the peace and community-based justice committees.[8] It presents a snapshot of complex and multi-layered issues in relation to these three components of the justice system and their impact on Inuit women. Real and potential reforms are examined along with their respective strengths and challenges. Again, this examination is undertaken within the context of how these changes impact on Inuit women and their families.[9] Other components of the justice system—most notably, policing and corrections— are not addressed. Civil law, while important, has not been addressed and the discussion on family law is brief.

At this point in time, the administration of justice in Nunavut could best be described as a “work in progress”. Accordingly, it is assumed the two components discussed in this report and not addressed explicitly in Bill C-57—justices of the peace (JPs) and community-based justice initiatives—may also be reformed to reflect the recommendations made at the Nunavut Social Development Council's (NSDC) justice conference. While the NSDC has no decision-making authority, many Inuit participating in this conference are influential leaders as elected members of the Nunavut Legislative Assembly.[10]

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