A longtime defence lawyer has been recognized for his years of service to justice in the North.
Peter Harte was given the President’s Award from the Law Society of the Northwest Territories and the NWT branch of the Canadian Bar Association last month.
Harte practised law in the NWT and Nunavut for nearly two decades before retiring in July. He is known for his commitment to trauma-informed justice, going the extra mile for clients – and often sporting a bow tie.
Christina Duffy, president of the territory’s law society, described Harte as “a zealous advocate” for his clients and a “tireless mentor” who worked to improve the justice system in the North.
“Peter really stands out. He’s someone that everyone who’s practising in this town knows and respects,” she said. “I think he’s a really worthy recipient. We were really excited to give this to him.”
Since 2011, the President’s Award has been given annually to a member of the NWT bar “who has demonstrated significant commitment and service to the legal profession and to their community.” The successful nominee is chosen by the presidents of the NWT law society and the territory’s Canadian Bar Association branch.
Harte was nominated for the 2023 award by 50 members of the NWT bar, including Crown and defence lawyers.
“Peter is, simply put, a tireless advocate who approaches his work – from broom closet consultations on community court circuits to Supreme Court jury trials – with singular competence and compassion. It is his calling,” the nomination letter reads.
“As Peter retires from his legal practice, may the record reflect that he served his clients, colleagues and community in the Northwest Territories and beyond with great distinction and honour. He will be missed.”
‘It’s just interesting’
Harte said the award “came as a complete surprise.”
“It was extremely flattering,” he said. “I was sort-of dumbfounded by the award being made.”
After practising law in Ontario for 15 years, Harte, his wife – Karen Wilford, also a lawyer – and their children moved north to Cambridge Bay, Nunavut in 2005. They settled in Yellowknife in 2012.
“It is a wonderful place to live,” Harte said of the North.
“From a legal practice perspective, it’s just interesting. You run into all kinds of issues that you don’t have to deal with in the south. And you have a sense that you are helping people to a greater extent than I experienced practicing in the south.”
Harte expressed pride in his attempts to treat everyone in the court system with respect and mentor other lawyers. He described establishing youth panels on circuit courts in Kuglukguk, Nunavut, and giving youth a place to discuss domestic violence they had witnessed.
During the award presentation, Blair MacPherson, a Crown prosecutor, described Harte as a good-natured, optimistic and modest hard worker who came with a great fashion sense and a commitment to his clients.
“Peter does not just see his clients as people with narrow and clearly defined legal problems, rather he sees them as human beings with complex and interesting backgrounds,” MacPherson wrote.
MacPherson said Harte would spend long hours working to secure housing, placement at a treatment centre, or coordinating with multiple government agencies to get support for his clients.
“To put this in perspective: defence lawyers work long hours. It is grinding, often thankless and difficult work,” he wrote. “And here is Peter, going the extra distance to help someone out.”
MacPherson added that Harte organized many training sessions for lawyers on topics such as trauma-informed justice.
Alex Godfrey, chief federal prosecutor for the NWT, said when Harte first moved to Yellowknife, he knew him for his website and accompanying moniker “the lawdawg.”
“That was the first I heard of him, then I met him in court,” he said. “It’s been 10 years of bow ties since then.”
Godfrey said Harte is deserving of the President’s Award for the respect and compassion he showed everyone in the court room, including clerks, other lawyers, the accused and victims of crime.
“He’s a true gentleman,” Godfrey said of Harte. “He’s just a great ambassador for the practice.”
Defence lawyer Paul Falvo said Harte cared about his clients and had “served a lot of time on the front lines of northern criminal justice.”
“I was always amazed at his ability to remember names and people,” Falvo wrote in an email to Cabin Radio. “Peter is very conscientious and works hard to help colleagues and advocate for improvements in criminal justice proceedings.”
Defence lawyer Tú Pham said Harte has been “extremely generous” in mentoring other lawyers through the years.
“There have been countless times where I’ve had to turn to him for a seemingly obscure legal issue at an ungodly hour of the night and he’ll spout the answer off right from the top of his head,” Pham wrote in an email to Cabin Radio.
“I can’t say enough for what he’s meant to my career. It’s bittersweet to see him retire while he’s still at the top of the legal field.”
Now that he has retired, Harte said he plans to return to his pastime of making furniture. He’s learning Spanish for a trip he plans to take in the spring.
Harte said he also wants to contribute to community work in the North, particularly restorative justice initiatives.