Inuit Women and the Nunavut Justice System



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 agreed to establish the Nunavut Territory, with its own Legislative Assembly and public government, separate from the government of the remainder of the Northwest Territories. The Nunavut Territory was established on April 1, 1999.

The administration of justice in Nunavut could best be described as a “work in progress.” Parts of the justice system operating in the NWT prior to April 1, 1999 have been adopted by the Nunavut Government while other parts have been discarded. Amendments to the Nunavut Act passed in March 1999 did away with the two-tier trial court system, modified the appellate court operations and, implicitly, encouraged an expanded role for justices of the peace.

Purpose of the Report

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. 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. Inuit women of Nunavut strongly supported the creation of the new territory and, like other Inuit, look to the new government as a means of securing greater control over their lives. There is, however, some uneasiness that the pace of change may inhibit the full involvement of Inuit women and the incorporation of their issues.

Summary of Conclusions

The systemic racial-cultural discrimination faced by Aboriginal peoples in the existing justice system has been well-documented. Prior to April 1, 1999, the justice reforms undertaken within the Northwest Territories were at the initiative of government or justice system players (e.g., judges, police) and remained within the context of the existing justice system.

The Nunavut Social Development Council’s (NSDC) 1998 Justice Conference resulted in recommendations that offer a significant departure from the existing system of justice. They promote a community-based justice system that does not simply relocate the responsibility of dispensing justice from officials based outside of the community to those based within it. Rather, NSDC promotes establishing pivotal roles for Justices of the Peace and community justice committees and equipping these alternative dispensers of justice with greater independence from officials within the existing justice system. These expanded roles suggest a broadening view of justice that embraces Inuit values and culture. The unified court structure similarly helps to bridge the distance between justice in the existing system and justice in Inuit culture.

The strengths of the Nunavut administration of justice and of the proposed recommendations of the NSDC are not without their challenges. For example, reforms addressing the need for cultural sensitivity can result in the exclusion of gender sensitivity. A fundamental lesson learned is that reforms must be undertaken with due regard to the need for a process of community involvement that is accountable and community-based, representative and sensitive to gender as well as culture.

Following is a summary of recommendations in five discrete but inter-related areas: education and training; public education; increasing public confidence; support services; and monitoring and evaluation.

Training and Education

Education for all justice personnel, including JPs, community justice committees and court workers will ensure that all have a thorough understanding of the criminal justice system rules, procedures and practices. Integral components of education and training include Inuit traditions and practices as well as the dynamics of abuse, in particular sexual violence against women and children.

Public Education

Training for community justice committee members and JPs could also include information about broader legal concepts that would enable them to function as resource people in the community. The use of the justice committees and JPs as public educators would increase the level understanding among Inuit of the judicial system, particularly around such broad concepts as criminal procedure, the administration of justice, substantive and procedural law, the history of the justice system and the roles of justice personnel.

There is also a need to increase the level of community support for the work and decisions of justice committees and JPs. If community members, in their capacity as justice personnel, are making decisions involving cases of violence against women, more community education is required about these crimes. Public service announcements could be developed for radio and television (in Inuktitut and English) with simple messages, such as violence is a crime; sexual assault is a crime; child abuse is a crime, etc. With this campaign, JPs and community justice committee members (and the judiciary) dealing with such crimes will be better understood by the community at large.

Increasing Public Confidence and Judicial Accountability

The effort to enhance the public’s knowledge of the system and its players is an important step in increasing public confidence in both. In particular, an increased awareness of the work of the courts, JPs and committees will equip community members to evaluate the performances of these players.

The need continues for an improved mechanism to screen candidates for all judicial positions – community justice committees, JPs and the courts – regarding their awareness of gender, racial and cultural bias. Inuit women and men must be involved in selecting and appointing justice personnel. The discipline process for justice personnel must be transparent, with Inuit women involved in developing this process.

Support Services for All Community Members

Victims of violence who have the choice of participating in community-based initiatives require support to make an independent decision regarding their involvement. Anything less than a fully supported right to decide, has the potential to make the community based initiative as coercive as, and therefore no better for them than, the Euro-Canadian justice system.

Monitoring and Evaluation

Many of the challenges identified in this report highlight the need for some mechanism to assess beforehand and monitor and evaluate the impacts of the system and its alternatives. Moreover, since the potential for JP courts and community-based justice committees to further victimize women is no less than that of the existing system, it is important that mechanisms be in place to respond to complaints about the committees or JPs and their determinations.

The prerogative writ remains in place for JPs, however there seems to be little, if any, discussion regarding how to deal with complaints involving community justice committees or how participants can seek redress.

There is a need to establish a system of evaluation and monitoring of the impact of these reforms. The burden should not remain with Inuit women to continually speak out after the justice system has harmed them.

Evaluation and monitoring of the administration of justice, including such matters as the use of jury trials, community-based justice committees, JP decisions, are effective means of keeping officials and the public informed on how the system is operating.

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