Warning: This report contains details of a sexual assault case, as heard in court, that readers may find disturbing.
A Behchokǫ̀ man received a sentence of two and a half years for a sexual assault in April 2019 while a woman slept.
Joshua Baptiste Wanazah, 30, was arrested following the woman’s complaint of rape. He was charged with sexual assault, obstructing a peace officer, and failing to comply with a court order.
The NWT Supreme Court heard on Tuesday that Wanazah had been partying at a home with a couple. After the other man left the residence, the woman went to sleep at 5pm. She was woken by Wanazah raping her.
“She thought it was her boyfriend until she turned around,” said the prosecutor, reading from an agreed statement of facts. “She was crying and in an emotional state when her boyfriend came back,” said Johnson, noting police were called at 6:14pm.
The woman went to the community’s health centre, where she was examined and evidence collected for sexual assault.
Wanazah was arrested just after 7pm.
He was agitated and hit his head repeatedly against a wall of the cell after being detained, the court heard.
Police determined a penile swab was needed to collect evidence, while Wanazah’s pants and underwear would be seized for testing. But when officers approached Wanazah – who has a lengthy criminal record with convictions for violence – he objected and started to struggle.
“Upon being informed that a penile swab would be taken, he moved toward the combined sink and toilet,” said Crown prosecutor Trevor Johnson, noting two male officers held Wanazah while another took the swab once the prisoner’s pants had been removed.
As the struggle intensified, two more officers arrived, one of them being female.
Wanazah was later supplied with other clothing to wear, the court heard.
Wanazah had not been offered the opportunity to take the swab himself and had not been allowed to call a lawyer before the swab was taken, said Johnson.
“Mr Wanazah has little recollection of any of it,” said Johnson. “He only has flashes of memory of the event and the arrest.
“This was a major sexual assault. There is a need to protect the public … this was a sleeping victim in a vulnerable situation. A sleeping Indigenous woman in a remote community.”
Wanazah is Indigenous, which requires the courts by law to consider unique systemic or background circumstances – Gladue factors – that may bring offenders before the courts. Parliament has also decided a court imposing a sentence for an intimate partner violence offence must consider the increased vulnerability of female persons who are victims, giving particular attention to the circumstances of Indigenous female victims.
In this case, the Crown admitted there were “triable issues,” meaning securing a conviction after a trial might have proven challenging.
However, following a preliminary inquiry one year ago in Behchokǫ̀, Wanazah decided to accept a plea offer, which negated the need for a jury trial.
In an agreement with the Crown, Wanazah would plead guilty to the sexual assault with the other charges being dropped. He would receive a sentence of two and a half years, followed by two years’ probation during which he can have no contact or communication with the victim.
He would be on the national sex offenders’ registry for 20 years and be banned from possessing firearms for 10 years, with the ability to apply for a sustenance exemption.
‘Alcohol is a real problem’
Defence lawyer Austin Corbett said it’s clear his client suffers from an alcohol addiction, which had “driven his contact with the justice system to date.”
Wanazah, appearing via video link from the Fort Smith Correctional Complex, admitted he wants to beat his drinking problem and has been taking counselling sessions while on remand.
“I’m sure there are going to be some real challenges when I get out,” he said, noting he grew up with alcohol being abused all around him. A relative was a residential school survivor.
“I know alcohol is a real problem with Aboriginal people across Canada.”
Wanazah said he wants to get into treatment when he finishes his sentence. He wants to be a better father for his three young boys.
“They are waiting for me to come home … my son cries for me over the phone or on FaceTime. I talk to him every day. I love my boys.”
Justice Andrew Mahar asked Wanazah if a short period of enforced sobriety in the probation order might help, such as 30 days or six months. The Crown stated it did not request an abstinence order, as it would only “set Mr Wanazah up to fail,” and be returned to jail.
Said Mahar: “I know how it goes when you get out, people are going to want to party with you because they haven’t seen you in a while.”
The offer was declined, but Mahar did order alcohol abuse counselling to be taken as directed during the probation period.
Wanazah has been accepted to enter the Poundmaker’s Lodge treatment centre outside Edmonton.
Describing the entire matter as a “sad situation,” Mahar accepted the joint sentence recommendation. He noted the victim will have to live with the “psychological blow” of having been sexually assaulted.
“The damage that has been done runs deep,” he said, as the victim monitored the hearing silently over the phone. There was no mention of a victim impact statement being provided.
Mahar also said Wanazah can provide a formal apology to the victim, “only if she wishes,” and after she contacts justice officials first.
Wanazah has amassed 779 days of remand credit, meaning he has 133 days left to serve for the sexual assault.
Wanazah made headlines in 2011 when he was sentenced to 15 months in jail for an attack in which he bit off a piece of a woman’s chin.
He claimed he had partially blacked out from drinking and said alcohol has been a part of his life for a long time.