Nunavik’s courts are struggling to deliver justice to Inuit population

A view of Kuujjuaq, near Ungava Bay in northern Quebec. Nunavik is about 90 per cent Inuit, and that population is far overrepresented in Quebec’s justice system. There are calls for reform as the system struggles with delays, poor facilities and other issues. (Eilis Quinn/Eye on the Arctic)

1 in 6 adults in Nunavik is brought in front of the justice system each year, prompting calls for reform

The justice system in northern Quebec is increasingly struggling to deal with a steady inflow of Inuit defendants, a group facing rates of prosecution and incarceration at least 20 times greater than the general population.

According to key players in Nunavik’s judicial apparatus, the system is at a breaking point after years of growth, which has included new judges and more court hearings. Speaking to Radio-Canada’s Enquête program, these officials said structural reforms are needed to reduce the number of people brought before the courts and to restore the credibility of the justice system among the Inuit population.

The president of Makivik, a corporation created in 1978 in the aftermath of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Land Claim Agreement, said Inuit must build their own capacity to administer the justice system and eventually take it over from the Quebec government.

“The best option would be for us to take control over the whole justice system,” Pita Aatami said in an interview.

“We feel that we’re being babysat by another culture that came in after the fact and decided that, ‘We’re going to run your affairs, run your life,’ as if we couldn’t do it ourselves.”

There are issues at every level of the justice system in Nunavik, which covers about a third of Quebec and includes 14 communities located on Hudson Bay to the west and Ungava Bay to the east. The population of Nunavik is about 90 per cent Inuit, with Inuktitut as the region’s most common language, followed by English.

According to information obtained by Radio-Canada, there is a constant turnover among Crown prosecutors, judges have decided to boycott hearings in three communities over unsafe working conditions, and Inuit justice committees, designed to offer restorative justice, are underused and underfunded.

Alarming rates

Every year, an average of 1,400 adults in Nunavik — out of a total adult population of 9,000 — are accused of at least one crime by Quebec’s director of criminal and penal prosecutions, according to data obtained by Radio-Canada. That means that one in six adults in Nunavik is brought in front of the justice system each year.

Applied at the provincial level, that same rate would lead one million adult Quebecers in front of a judge for a criminal offence every year. In fact, only 55,000 Quebecers are charged with a crime in a given year.

According to the province’s public security department, Inuit currently make up 4.2 per cent of the incarcerated population in Quebec, while Inuit comprise less than 0.2 per cent of the overall population.

The Nunavik Police Service station in Nunavik, Quebec. Every year, an average of 1,400 adults in Nunavik — out of a total adult population of 9,000 — are accused of at least one crime, according to data obtained by Radio-Canada. (Eilis Quinn/Eye on the Arctic)

Serious social problems, including poverty and a long-standing lack of housing, are among the causes of this strong judicialization of Quebec’s Inuit population, according to several stakeholders. There are also high levels of substance abuse in Nunavik, a factor attributed to intergenerational traumas and a shortage of treatment services in the region.

Justice delayed

The justice system in Nunavik is centred around what’s called the circuit court, in which judges, prosecutors and lawyers fly into different communities — usually one week at a time — to hold hearings.

The process has long been a source of frustration among Inuit communities, most notably because of frequent delays and postponements. Weather plays a large role in these problems, as flights are often cancelled because of storms, fog or strong winds. The COVID-19 pandemic has also wreaked havoc with the court’s calendar.

Prosecutor Joanie Marion says the volume of cases handled by the circuit court can be large and difficult to manage. (Radio-Canada)

Even when the court can sit, its docket is often overflowing with cases, which means that some people prepare psychologically for hearings that are postponed, or travel to testify for cases that are not heard. The workload is heavy for all members of the circuit court.

“We arrive here and there can be up to 250 people who will appear in court each week. It’s a volume that is very, very big to manage,” said prosecutor Joanie Marion in an interview after a day of hearings in Kuujjuaq last fall.

Defence lawyer Laurent Rivest said that communicating with clients is often a complicated process, which makes it harder to get ready for court cases. The circuit court operates mostly in English, but the people on trial or testifying regularly speak Inuktitut as their first language.

“There is a problem with delays throughout the judicial system, but, if I may say, the problem is worse in northern Quebec,” he said.

Defence lawyer Lauren Rivest says the justice system delays are worse in northern Quebec than the rest of the province, and there are other problems, from the language barrier between English and Inuktitut to the makeshift facilities that leave no privacy to meet with clients. (Olivier Plante/Radio-Canada )

Exhausted prosecutors

Prosecutors struggle to keep up with the workload.

Not only do they have to manage a large number of cases, the cases are often tragic and emotionally difficult.

According to an internal survey obtained by Radio-Canada, only two of the 27 prosecutors who work in Nunavik said they are able to fulfil “all of [their] obligations” in terms of file preparation and compliance with ethical obligations.

“I believe I fulfil my obligation in 50 per cent of my sexual assault files and in less than 10 per cent of my [domestic violence] files,” said a prosecutor in the study that was commissioned by the Association of Criminal and Penal Prosecutors.

The president of the association, Guillaume Michaud, said several members feel they are obliged to “cut corners” because of the volume of files assigned to them in northern Quebec. Michaud — a prosecutor who is on leave to run the association — said the situation is undeniably worse in Nunavik than elsewhere in Quebec.

The association says that since 2019, 14 prosecutors that handle cases in Nunavik — out of a group of about 20 — have left the office in Amos, located in the Abitibi region more than a thousand kilometres away.

“A prosecutor should normally assume responsibility for a case of sexual assault or domestic violence from start to finish, but in the north, that’s not done,” said Michaud. “Prosecutors are leaving, oftentimes because they are tired of providing poor quality service to victims.”

Because of a high level of turnover, prosecutors with only a few months of experience have recently been put in charge of cases of aggravated assault and sex crimes. Elsewhere in Quebec, Michaud said, these types of files would have gone to colleagues with more seniority.

In response, Quebec’s prosecution service said reinforcements are on their way. New positions are currently being filled in Amos, and financial incentives will be offered to outside prosecutors who come to lend a hand.

In addition, prosecutors will soon get more time to travel to Nunavik to meet with victims and witnesses ahead of regular court dates, said Véronic Picard, chief prosecutor for the northern Quebec offices.

Worn-down facilities

The chief justice of the Quebec Court, Lucie Rondeau, sent a letter last year that laid out a series of complaints about the facilities that are used by the circuit court in three northern communities.

The complaints included a lack of private spaces for lawyers to consult with their clients, a toilet that leaked into a temporary courtroom and public spaces where judges felt unsafe.

“It is clear that the issues at stake go far beyond comfort and convenience; they concern security, respect for the rights of those requiring judicial services, efficient use of judicial resources, and the ‘image’ of the justice system,” Rondeau said in her letter to the Quebec justice department.

She added a warning that judges would no longer attend hearings in three communities “until the premises can be made secure and suitable for providing the quality justice services the members of these communities deserve, just like all other citizens across Québec.”

Detention cells at the police station in Puvirnituq, Que. (Olivier Plante/Radio-Canada)

The Quebec government has responded by making changes to address some of the complaints raised by the Quebec Court, especially in terms of acoustics in the makeshift courtrooms.

However, the circuit court was put on pause in late 2021 because of a COVID outbreak in Nunavik, so it remains to be seen whether the facilities now meet the judges’ standards.

Rivest said the installations used by the circuit court continue to be an issue for defence lawyers, pointing out that he has held meetings with clients in a kitchen where others were heating up their lunches.

The courthouse in Kuujjuaq, Nunavik’s largest community. (Olivier Plante/Radio-Canada)

Southern detention

There is no permanent detention facility in Nunavik, which means that the accused who are sent in detention are held thousands of kilometres south, either in Amos or in St. Jérôme.

To facilitate the transfer of these detainees, the government recently set up an “air bridge” between the main communities of Nunavik and the Amos prison. The goal was to avoid inmates passing through Montreal and then making a journey of more than 500 km in prison vans to Amos —– which included numerous strip searches of inmates.

There is no permanent detention facility in Nunavik, so an ‘air bridge’ has been set up to transport detainees more than a thousand kilometres to Amos, Que. Two flights a week have been required to deal with the volume. (Olivier Plante/Radio-Canada)

There are so many detainees they now need two planes per week.

“For a year and a half, we have set up an airlift, that is to say that we charter a plane every week and we transport our detainees,” explained Nunavik police chief Jean-Pierre Larose. “Since August […] we have had an increase in detainees, and we have to add a second plane for transport.”

The lack of a detention facility means that “intermittent” sentences, in which offenders can work during the week and be detained over weekends, are not available in Nunavik.

“Those types of sentences are routinely imposed in other judicial districts, but unfortunately, that is not available in northern Quebec,” said Rivest.

Jean-Pierre Larose is chief of police for the Nunavik Police Service. (Olivier Plante/Radio-Canada)

Reforming the system

In an interview, the president of Makivik clearly expressed his frustration with the justice system and its paternalistic underpinnings. Elected to the position in 2021, after having served as CEO of Air Inuit, Aatami said the justice system contributes to social problems rather than bringing a sense of security.

He said that traditional justice among the Inuit is based on reconciliation, the rapid resolution of conflicts and the role of the whole community in restoring social harmony.

Because of the punitive side of Quebec justice, Aatami argued that too many Inuit are stuck with a criminal record and thus cannot obtain jobs within public bodies. And when they are sent to detention in the south, their ties with their families and communities are often broken.

“I am a Canadian, I am a Quebecer, but at the same time, I’m Inuk first. I was here first and I want to be respected for who we are and not to be run by someone else that have come in after the fact and take over the land,” he said.

“Once you have control, you’re gaining some dignity back. And right now, we don’t have that.”

The solution, according to Makivik, involves a greater use of what are called justice committees, which are already in place in most communities. Made up of members of the local population, these committees help rehabilitate defendants and can even manage cases referred by prosecutors.

However, fewer than a hundred files are transferred to justice committees each year, mostly for cases such as mischief and theft. According to several stakeholders, these committees are underused, because they do not have any authority over cases such as impaired driving or domestic violence.

Makivik is asking for more government funding so that the justice committees are set up in modern offices, with more permanent employees so that they can better support each other.

A cautious government

Quebec’s minister of justice, Simon Jolin-Barrette, has recently called for a report into Nunavik’s justice system, saying he is looking for concrete solutions to long-standing problems.

“It will always be more difficult in the north to have the same services as the ones offered at the Montreal courthouse, but that does not mean because it is more difficult, that we should not make every effort to give the same quality of justice throughout Quebec,” he said.

Jolin-Barrette said he is aware that “adhesion to the justice system” among the Inuit is an important issue. This is why he is open to the idea of ​​collaborating more with justice committees.

“We have to work to ensure that justice, the justice system, is not perceived as a white justice system that comes to the north to impose a white justice system,” said the minister.

Quebec Justice Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette says he is looking for solutions to long-standing problems in Nunavik, but says it’s Quebec’s job to administer justice in the region and control won’t be transferred to the Inuit. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

Still, Jolin-Barrette insisted the Quebec government is not ready to transfer all control over the justice system to the Inuit.

“I am open to terms that will make it possible to adapt the justice system. But when it comes to delegating these powers, you just have to be careful to be sure that justice on Quebec territory applies in the same way.

“Yes, in different communities, there are adaptability measures that can be taken, but we must never forget that on Quebec territory, it is the role of the Quebec state to come and administer the justice.”


Meanwhile, innovative social programs are being put in place in communities like Puvirnituq, on Hudson’s Bay. Called Saqijuq (“a change in wind direction” in Inuktitut), the program calls on educators to bring offenders and people with legal problems “on the land,” to help them connect with traditional activities and find solutions to their problems at home.

“We go camping, hunting, fishing so they can stay out of trouble in town,” said educator Aisa Surusilak, who had recently come back from a walrus hunt with an offender.

James Napartuk is an educator with the Saqijuq program, which brings offenders and those with legal problems out on the land to help them connect with traditional activities and find solutions to their problems at home. (Olivier Plante/Radio-Canada)

“So instead of hanging around somewhere in the crowded place, we take them out on the land where there’s no trouble. So it’s a big improvement for the client.”

The other key program in Puvirnituq is the “mobile intervention team,” in which a police officer and a social worker tag along in the evenings to respond to various calls that would have normally been handled only by police.

Aileen MacKinnon, a former Nunavik police chief who is now running these programs, said that innovative measures are needed to divert cases out of the justice system.

Aileen MacKinnon is the Saqijuq project manager and a former Nunavik police chief. (Olivier Plante/Radio-Canada)

“In the past, there [was] a high rate of recidivism, the same people going back to detention. So we wanted to try and find ways to reach people. I mean, jail wasn’t working for sure. If people are going back, then it’s not necessarily a deterrent.”

Jeannie May, a resident of Kuujjuaq who is critical of the police service’s handling of social problems in Nunavik, said the justice system has to be overhauled.

“We can obviously see it’s not working, so we need to be given more responsibility, more power over ourselves to be able to resolve these issues rather than be falling into the cracks of a system that’s not even part of our culture,” she said.

Related stories from around the North: 

Canada: Quebec Inuit org. calls lack of police, justice reform “ticking catastrophe in modern times”, Eye on the Arctic

Finland: Police response times up to an hour slower in Arctic Finland, Yle News

United States: Violence Against Women bill would expand power of up to 30 Alaska tribal courts, Alaska Public Media

Daniel Leblanc, Radio-Canada

Daniel Leblanc est journaliste spécialisé en enquête et en politique à Ottawa. Après avoir travaillé 21 ans au Globe and Mail, il a fait son entrée à Radio-Canada en août 2020. Il a été maintes fois primé, remportant un prix Michener pour son travail sur le scandale des commandites, trois prix au Concours canadien de journalisme et le prix Charles-Lynch remis par la Tribune de la presse parlementaire. Il a aussi écrit un livre racontant les coulisses de son travail sur le scandale des commandites, intitulé Nom de code : MaChouette. Ses efforts pour la protection des sources journalistiques l'ont amené devant la Cour suprême du Canada, où il a réussi à maintenir la confidentialité d'une source.

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