Andrew Rheaume managed to stay out of jail on bail for an extra few days after he slept through his sentencing date in Supreme Court last week.
A warrant was issued but the 26-year-old Yellowknife father showed up in court on Monday morning, wanting to apologize to the judge for his absence last Tuesday.
“I apologize for missing court last week,” he said to Justice Karan Shaner after pleading guilty to cocaine trafficking. “I accept full, 100-percent responsibility for my actions.”
Rheaume was the latest person before the courts after being charged in 2018 during the RCMP’s Project Gloomiest operation, which focused on drug dealing and money laundering in Yellowknife and its connection to Edmonton.
The court heard the home Rheaume shares with his father on Finlayson Drive had been under surveillance for almost one month in the spring of 2018.
Investigators raided the property on May 4, discovering Rheaume and others inside. In addition to 11.4 grams of powdered cocaine – with a street value at the time of between $912 and $1,140 – police seized plastic baggies, scales, and cell phones with evidence of dealing. An expandable baton was found on top of the fridge.
The drug operation at the home was characterized in court as commercial retail trafficking, not wholesale.
“The accused was in possession of cocaine for the purpose of trafficking,” said Crown prosecutor Duane Praught, calling for the unemployed first offender to spend 18 months in jail.
“The Crown would submit that the primary consideration for the court today should be deterrence and denunciation, as the court knows full well the legacy of the residential school system has left a large population of very vulnerable people in the Northwest Territories who are susceptible to substance abuse [and there are people] who would, for the lack of a better word, prey on those to make money,” said Praught.
“They should be strongly denounced and those types of offences should be strongly deterred.”
Praught noted Rheaume is of mixed Inuit and Caucasian ancestry. Courts are required, by a law known as the Gladue principle, to consider a person’s Indigenous ancestry and the systemic impacts of colonization during sentencing.
Rheaume’s maternal grandmother having attended residential school.
“There does not appear to be too much specific to his life story in that regard,” said the prosecutor, noting Rheaume came from a caring family and had a normal upbringing.
Defence lawyer Baljindar Rattan said her client has become increasingly addicted to alcohol and drugs since being charged in 2018. He was to have been sentenced in March but the Covid-19 related shutdown of the courts forced a delay until now.
Rattan suggested a jail term of between 12 to 14 months would be more appropriate for her client.
A pre-sentence report stated Rheaume had grown up in Yellowknife and lived for a time in Ottawa, where he graduated high school, before returning.
He went to the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology to study construction, but had to quit before finishing after he couldn’t secure proper housing.
He has a young son who is living with his mother in British Columbia. Rheaume has visited often, but hasn’t been able to do so more recently after Covid-19 travel restrictions came into effect – and with his jail term pending.
His father suffered a serious stroke in 2017 and Rheaume was required to provide care for him.
Rheaume told the court he hopes to move from Yellowknife upon his release from jail and “start from scratch.”
Judge emphasizes rehabilitation
As the judge was reading her sentencing decision in the afternoon, Rheaume interrupted the hearing to ask for a bathroom break. When he returned, he wiped away tears as Justice Shaner spoke about his background, his Indigenous heritage, and the impact of cocaine trafficking in the North.
“Cocaine causes ravages and devastation in our community and Yellowknife has seen its fair share of the collateral damage,” said Shaner.
“[Those addicted to the drug] don’t just harm themselves, they sometimes often harm others.
“This has and will continue to cause Mr Rheaume [problems]. He hasn’t been able to see his son. The offence on his record will hinder his ability to find work and travel outside the country.”
Shaner ultimately decided to impose a one-year sentence with six months’ probation and conditions. He will have to provide a DNA sample, be banned from possessing firearms for 10 years, and have one year after release to pay a $300 victim-of-crime surcharge.
Shaner said she had chosen a comparatively short sentence to emphasize the rehabilitative principle of sentencing given Rheaume’s guilty plea, his relatively young age, clean prior criminal record, and Indigenous background.
“I must and I will consider Mr Rheaume’s Indigenous status. [The reason for that law] is to address the over-representation of Indigenous people in correctional facilities by taking into account systemic factors such as poverty, addiction, violence, and others which disproportionally present in the lives of Indigenous people in Canada,” she said.
“It calls for more than just lip service. [Before imposing a sentence] a judge has to really think hard how a sentence can be structured to be meaningful to the offender and also be responsive to the overall principles and objectives of sentencing.”
The year-long Project Gloomiest operation resulted in charges against 15 people and the seizure of more than 1,425 grams of cocaine and two firearms.
Toufic Chamas, 23, of Edmonton, was the main target. In 2019, Chamas was sentenced to four and a half years in jail for cocaine trafficking and firearms charges.
Others charged have either been sentenced, are still before the courts, or have had their charges somehow dealt with.