Canada’s northern justice system needs victim-focused overhaul, national inquiry told

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Charlotte Wolfrey, whose 20-year-old daughter Deidre Michelin was killed in a murder suicide in 1993, testifies at a hearing of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, in Newfoundland and Labrador on Wednesday, March 7, 2018. (MMIWG/Facebook)
Charlotte Wolfrey’s daughter, Deidre Michelin, was just 15 days shy of her 21st birthday when she was shot and killed by her partner who then turned the gun on himself.

All four of her grandchildren were in the house when their mother’s life was snuffed out in act of senseless rage, but there wasn’t a single police officer within at least 160 kilometres of the isolated Inuit community of Rigolet on the north coast of Labrador, Wolfrey told the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) in Happy Valley-Goose Bay.

“Deidre called the RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police, Canada’s federal police force) all that day that she died for help,” Wolfrey told the inquiry on the first day of two-day hearings on Wednesday. “She knew she was going to die. However, the RCMP said that unless and until her partner did something, there was nothing they could do.”

Even if she could call the police when her partner took out his gun, it would have taken them at least three hours to assemble a team and find a pilot to fly into Rigolet from Happy Valley-Goose Bay – too late to save Deidre’s life, Wolfrey said in a tearful testimony.

‘Advocate extraordinaire’

At the time of her daughter’s murder 25 years ago, there were three Inuit communities in northern Labrador, including Rigolet, that had no permanent police presence, Wolfrey said.

Wolfrey said she became an “advocate extraordinaire”, channelling all her energy to campaign to get permanent police stations in the three northern Labrador communities.

“I wanted other women to be able to get the help they needed in a timely manner and to have protection,” Wolfrey said. “That is our right under the Canadian constitution.”

Wolfrey said she spoke out against violence against women and children and tried to bring attention to a subject that is still a taboo in many Inuit communities, Wolfrey said.

After eight years of relentless campaigning, attending numerous events and giving countless speeches, two of the three northern Labrador communities, Rigolet and Makkovik, got their permanent police stations.

“It was really a bittersweet moment for me,” Wolfrey said. “It was a happy moment and yet at the same time I was so sad. I remember thinking how Deidre couldn’t benefit from this and I cried.”

Northern ‘injustice system’

Her personal experience and years of advocacy work left her with conviction that Canada’s justice system in the North needs a serious overhaul, Wolfrey said.

“The justice system in the North is what can best be described I think as the injustice system,” Wolfrey said.

Services for the victims and their families, as well as the offenders themselves, are woefully inadequate in most Indigenous and northern communities, she said.

The justice system moves at a glacial pace.

Wolfrey also spoke out against the use of the so-called Gladue sentencing principles in the Criminal Code, which require a sentencing judge to pay particular attention to the circumstances of Indigenous offenders and to consider all available sanctions other than imprisonment that are reasonable in the circumstances.

Victim-driven justice system

Restorative justice just like the traditional criminal justice is offender-focused, she said.

“I would like to see a more victim-focused and victim-driven justice system, especially when it comes to crimes of violence,” Wolfrey said.

The current restorative justice system, which many mistake with Indigenous justice, raises a lot of questions about participation in the so-called justice committees that recommend sentencing for offenders, she said.

“If there is justice committees, who’s going to choose them? Will there be criteria? What criteria? Drawn up by whom? How will it be determined if there is no conflict of interest, when everyone know everyone, and everyone knows everyone’s business in our small communities?” Wolfrey asked.

‘Power imbalance’

The use of sentencing circles creates a power imbalance, she said.

“Victims are facing offenders, they’re facing offenders’ families, the victim will probably be facing people she might rely on for a job,” Wolfrey said. “And when you’re a beaten woman – I know because I’ve been there – you don’t have any confidence in yourself… You don’t feel that you can say anything.”

She also spoke out the so-called “alternative measures” that allow offenders to get away with a slap on the wrist for committing crimes.

“What for?” Wolfrey asked. “Partly to save money, partly to have less Indigenous people in jail, partly to try and give Indigenous people some influence in the justice system, partly to save the courts from having to deal with so many cases when they come to our communities.

“I don’t call that justice. I think it’s a system doing this because it’s just us, people living in the Far North where everything is expensive, including a fair and just legal system.”

Related stories from around the North:

Canada: Lack of services in Arctic is killing Inuit, witnesses tell inquiry into violence against Indigenous women in Canada, Eye on the Arctic

Denmark: Nordics report high abuse levels against women, Radio Sweden

Sweden:  Reports of violent crime increasing in Sweden’s North, Radio Sweden

United States: Survey finds violence against women widespread in Western Alaska region, Alaska Dispatch News

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Levon Sevunts

Levon Sevunts, Radio Canada International

Born and raised in Armenia, Levon started his journalistic career in 1990, covering wars and civil strife in the Caucasus and Central Asia. In 1992, after the government in Armenia shut down the TV program he was working for, Levon immigrated to Canada. He learned English and eventually went back to journalism, working first in print and then in broadcasting. Levon’s journalistic assignments have taken him from the High Arctic to Sahara and the killing fields of Darfur, from the streets of Montreal to the snow-capped mountaintops of Hindu Kush in Afghanistan. He says, “But best of all, I’ve been privileged to tell the stories of hundreds of people who’ve generously opened up their homes, refugee tents and their hearts to me.”

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