Judge rules three-year mandatory minimum ‘abhorrent and intolerable’ in Canada’s east-Arctic

A Nunavut judge struck down a mandatory-minimum sentence for firearms as unconstitutional this week. (Nick Murray/CBC)
A Nunavut judge has struck down a three-year mandatory minimum firearms sentence as cruel and unusual punishment. It’s yet another ruling against the federally imposed mandatory minimum sentencing to come from the North.

Justice Earl Johnson sentenced Sigurdson Irkootee to six-months for illegally selling a firearm in June 2016 on Tuesday, instead of the three-year sentence set out in the mandatory minimum.

“I am satisfied that the three-year MMP [mandatory minimum] that I am required to impose in this case is so disproportionate as to outrage the standards of decency of Nunavummiut,” Johnson said in his written ruling, issued Nov. 7.

“It would be abhorrent and intolerable to them and grossly disproportionate to the sentence that I would have imposed after the application of the usual sentencing principles.”

Irkootee stole a firearm from a cabin near Rankin Inlet, Nunavut, after a day of drinking, according to court documents.

After sobering up, Irkootee realized what had happened and wanted to get the rifle out of his house and away from his children. So he sold the rifle to another man who didn’t have a licence. Police later recovered the firearm, which wasn’t used to commit any crimes.

It would be abhorrent and intolerable to [Nunavummiut].

Justice Earl Johnson

The facts of the case suggest Irkootee’s conduct was on the lower end of the scale because he was removing the firearm to keep his children safe and was not running a business selling guns — the type of behaviour the law is trying to prevent, Johnson ruled.

The mandatory minimum sentence for firearms trafficking was meant to address selling handguns to organized criminals in Canada’s big cities, which is a much different set of circumstances than an Indigenous person selling a rifle to be used for hunting, Johnson wrote.

“There is a spectrum of conduct for this type of offence,” Johnson wrote. “The high end of the range would be the sale of illegal weapons by organized crime, drug traffickers and gangs. As acknowledged by the Crown, the applicants actions would fall on the low end of the range.”

Other northern judges made similar rulings

This isn’t the first time a northern judge has thrown out minimum sentencing laws for firearms offences.

In October, Nunavut Justice Paul Bychok ruled the mandatory minimum sentence of four years for intentionally discharging a firearm was “grossly unfit” for the circumstances.

“The mandatory minimum regime is, in reality, a perpetuation in Nunavut of last century’s systemic colonialism and discrimination,” he ruled.

In the Northwest Territories (Canada’s central Arctic), Justice Louise Charbonneau made a similar ruling in February on two cases involving discharged firearms that didn’t hurt anyone.

In Irkootee’s case, stealing the firearm was an impulsive act while he was drunk and selling the firearm was a mistake in judgment. Sending him to a long jail term in southern Canada would unfairly isolate him from his family, Johnson ruled.

In addition to the six-month sentence, Irkootee will be subject to a firearms ban and will also have to pay a $200 victim of crime surcharge within a year of being released from jail.

Related stories from around the North:

Canada: Lack of detention facilities in Quebec’s North violates charter rights, says Superior Court, CBC News

Finland: Police in Northern Finland overstretched, says retiring officer, YLE News

Sweden: Bigger prisons for more prisoners, Radio Sweden

United States: Appeal challenges Alaska’s exclusion of village residents from juries, Alaska Public Media

Alex Brockman, CBC News

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