An RCMP handout image of a vehicle being stopped by police in the NWT.
While sentencing the driver responsible for a fatal car crash near Behchokǫ̀ in 2021, an NWT Supreme Court judge stressed the “tragic consequences” of drinking and driving.
“The message that has to be hammered at is simply: don’t do it,” Justice Louise Charbonneau told people gathered at the hearing for Kelsi Camsell in Behchokǫ̀ in May.
“We need to get to the point where people simply will not do it. Just like you do not jump into icy rapids full of shoals and rocks without a life jacket, just hoping to come out on the other side without injury because you are a good swimmer.”
Camsell made the “catastrophic and life-changing” decision to drive after drinking with three other people in North Arm Park early on June 20, 2021, Charbonneau said. While heading toward Yellowknife on Highway 3, the car reached 178 km/h when Camsell lost control and the vehicle rolled over, ending up partly submerged in water on the side of the road.
Camsell, 32, sustained soft tissue injuries and one young man in the car suffered a bruised lung, lacerated liver, and severe bruising to his knees from the crash. Another, Felix Black, aged 22, did not survive.
Camsell admitted to police she had drunk alcohol before driving and was arrested. Based on a blood sample taken five hours after the crash, court documents state her alcohol blood content would have been between 137 and 202 millilitres of alcohol in 100 millilitres of blood while she was driving, above the legal limit of 80.
Camsell did not have a driver’s licence at the time.
‘Only thing that’s left is our memories’
Charbonneau said 12 victim impact statements written by Black’s family members brought home the “heartbreaking” toll of impaired driving.
“Felix’s family members loved him. He brought them joy. They will never forget him or stop missing him,” she said. “He was a young man with his whole future ahead of him. He had talents. He had plans. He was funny. His loved ones looked forward to the day he would have children of his own, because he loved those children so much.”
Marjorie Black recalled adopting her son as a baby and naming him after Felix Lockhart, former chief of the Łútsël K’é Dene First Nation. She said her son grew up to be a “kind, gentle man with a big heart” who would give leftover food to his friends and gave up his bedroom for foster children to move in.
“The only thing that’s left for us is our memories,” she wrote.
Michaela Black said “adopted children are the most special because they are chosen” and her brother provided her with moral, financial and emotional support.
“It was him and me against the world when the world was against us,” she wrote.
“A big piece of me was taken. I am not the same without my brother.”
Laverne Lafferty, Black’s biological mother, said his passing had “broken and shattered” their bond and taken a large toll on her family.
“Every day, I must live with the fact that my son’s presence is no longer with us,” she wrote.
Charbonneau said the fatal crash will also have a life-long impact on Camsell.
“She has to live with the knowledge of being responsible for the death of her friend, someone she was very close to, and she will need your support and the support of all her loved ones to continue on her own healing journey,” she said.
Letters filed in support of Camsell described her as a “loving, caring and non-judgmental person” who had been deeply affected by the incident. Charbonneau said a handwritten letter from Camsell’s teen daughter, asking for leniency during sentencing, was “particularly heartbreaking to read.”
A pre-sentencing report states Camsell was exposed to alcohol abuse and verbal and physical violence growing up. Charbonneau said she had also experienced a “tremendous amount of losses throughout her life,” including the passing of her grandmother, with whom she was particularly close, and the father of her children.
Since the crash, court documents state Camsell has attended the Poundmaker’s Lodge treatment centre, taken advantage of counselling, and wants to continue her education.
Camsell pleaded guilty to operating a vehicle while impaired causing death and operating a vehicle while impaired causing bodily harm. Charbonneau sentenced her to three and a half years’ imprisonment for the first charge, to be served at the same time as a two-year sentence for the latter charge. The judge prohibited Camsell from driving for six years.
Charbonneau strongly recommended that Camsell be allowed to serve her sentence in the NWT to continue treatment and counselling and to remain near her family. As there are no federal correctional institutions in the territory, offenders sentenced beyond two years are usually sent to facilities outside the NWT to serve their sentence.