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Crime
Dehcho
Health

Is the NWT justice system doing enough to protect victims?

Last modified: May 27, 2021 at 9:23am


A woman in Fort Liard says the NWT justice system must better protect victims after charges were dropped against her former partner for harassment and breach of a no-contact order. 

Arlene Wright says since she left the man – whom she describes as “very abusive” – more than three years ago, he has repeatedly texted and called her, followed her, and watched her. She said he has also physically abused her.

“I never know when he’s going to be right behind me. I don’t know what he’s capable of doing,” she said, adding she lives next-door to the man in the Dehcho hamlet of around 560 people.

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“I’ve got to walk around my vehicle to make sure that it’s safe enough to go anywhere.” 

Cabin Radio is not naming the man at Wright’s request.

Court records document multiple occasions where he was charged for breaching judges’ orders to leave her alone.

In March 2018, the man was sentenced to eight months in jail followed by two years’ probation for breaching a court order not to have any contact with Wright, criminal harassment of Wright, threatening to cause death to an RCMP officer in a phone conversation with Wright, unsafely storing a rifle, and possessing a firearm and ammunition while prohibited from doing so. 

In a victim impact statement filed with the case, Wright wrote that the man had called her “non-stop,” would get angry when she said she “did not want anything to do with him,” and tried to control who she spoke to and when she spoke to them. She alleged that he threw her to the ground on a sidewalk, choked her, stole her phone, and tried to break her glasses. 

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“He thought he could control me and my life,” Wright wrote. “If [he] is released, I will have to leave town.”

The man was charged again in 2019 for criminal harassment and failing to comply with a probation order to have no contact with Wright. He was charged in 2020 for failing to comply with an undertaking involving the same conditions. 

‘A lot of work for nothing’

Wright said court dates for those charges were continually delayed and her case changed hands between multiple prosecutors who weren’t familiar with the details. 

“Every time stuff was going to court it was postponed, postponed, postponed,” she said. 

“The prosecution office didn’t get their crap together and so they didn’t read the file, they didn’t know what was going on. I had to take time off work for all this, lost pay to go to court for absolutely not one thing.”

Court documents indicate nine different prosecutors worked on Wright’s case between January 2019 and March 2021.  

The charges from 2019 were ultimately stayed by the Crown on March 17 this year. That same day, the man was convicted of the 2020 charge for contacting Wright. He was sentenced to one day in jail, which he had already served, and was given one year’s probation with similar conditions to not contact Wright. 

Wright believes the justice system isn’t doing enough to protect victims, especially in small communities.

A file photo of Fort Liard's RCMP detachment
A file photo of Fort Liard’s RCMP detachment. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio

“The people that do the crime, they get away with a whole lot of stuff. The victims, they go away as a laughing stock,” she said. 

“They walk around with head down, embarrassed, and don’t want to go back to do anything about it, because it’s just a lot of work for nothing.”

After her experience to date, Wright doesn’t know if she will report any further breaches of the man’s court orders to police.

“I’m just used to it now,” she said. “It’s pretty sad when I say I’m just used to it, but I’m still very cautious.”

A representative of the Public Prosecution Service of Canada (PPSC) told Cabin Radio by email that charges may be dropped in cases where there is no reasonable prospect of conviction or when prosecution wouldn’t “best serve the public interest.” The representative did not explain why charges were stayed in this particular case. 

They said while the prosecution service attempts to keep the same prosecutors and Crown witness coordinators on a case, that’s not alway possible.

“The PPSC takes available steps to minimize the effects of changes in file assignments so that the cases are prosecuted in a way that continues to serve the public interest and the administration of justice,” the representative wrote.

“The struggle with minimizing file redistribution is one that is faced not only by Crown prosecutors but also by defence counsel and judges of the Territorial Court who are not able to consistently follow the same circuits in the various communities that they serve.”

A decades-long issue

In a January court decision, Territorial Court Judge Donovan Molloy stated he was troubled by the number of times Crown and Legal Aid lawyers changed on cases in remote communities, saying it was “potentially prejudicial to the administration of justice.” 

Then, in February, Molloy chastised a Crown prosecutor for being “woefully unprepared” during a court appearance related to an intimate partner violence case, saying the victim deserved an apology from the federal government. The prosecutor conceded they were “underprepared,” saying they thought the file had been better prepared and admitting they should have spent more time reviewing it.

Jennifer Koshan said that’s a challenge that stretches back decades. Koshan is a law professor at the University of Calgary who served as a Crown prosecutor in the NWT for several years in the 1990s. 

“Even back in the early 1990s, we were talking about how important it was to try to ensure consistency,” she said. “Especially in cases involving intimate partner violence or sexual violence, because those are cases where there’s lots of trauma involved for the complainant.”

Koshan said in practice, however, that can be difficult, especially with the NWT’s limited number of lawyers serving a vast area containing many isolated communities. 

“It’s not just about individual Crown prosecutors and their preparation,” she said. “It’s more about really systemic issues that affect access to justice.”

Koshan said the Covid-19 pandemic has intensified those issues, which she believes must be further examined in the North with input from residents and Indigenous governments. 

“It must be incredibly frustrating, especially for First Nations and Inuit communities, to see there has not been that much progress made in the last 30 years on how issues are being handled there,” she said. 

In a recent interview with legal news platform The Lawyers Daily, NWT justice minister RJ Simpson said the pandemic had increased the workload of resident lawyers as isolation requirements reduced the flow of lawyers from outside the territory. 

The Canadian government has pledged to address the issue. The latest federal budget proposes $23.5 million to the Public Prosecution Service of Canada to “support victims of violence by increasing prosecutorial capacity in the territories.” 

‘How we do not have a treatment facility, I have no clue’

There have been other criticisms regarding the handling of intimate partner violence cases in the NWT.

In several cases, Judge Molloy – the most outspoken member of the territory’s judiciary – has voiced disappointment at joint sentencing submissions that he considered too lenient but had little choice but to accept.

In April, for example, Molloy deemed “inadequate and unfit” a 90-day sentence recommended by Crown and defence lawyers for a man convicted of his fourth intimate partner violence offence.

During a tense exchange, Molloy suggested that if a victim of a repeat offender is killed in the NWT, the public will question the stance of the public prosecution service. 

“You’re accountable to the public,” he told the Crown prosecutor. 

Territorial Court Judge Donovan Molloy
A file photo of Judge Donovan Molloy.

Longtime northern defence lawyer Peter Harte, however, believes longer jail sentences will do little to address the underlying issues that lead to intimate partner violence in the North.

Speaking in court, Harte said a key problem is the lack of trauma-informed treatment in the NWT, pointing to the absence of a territorial treatment centre – a hotly debated issue. He added it can take months to get into southern treatment programs and, for some people, there are extra hurdles. One client, he said, was unable to attend treatment because they did not have ID, a requirement to board a plane. 

“How we do not have a treatment facility, I have no clue,” he said. 

The public is unlikely to hear similar criticisms from Molloy in the future. According to reporting from the Yellowknifer newspaper, Molloy recently said he would no longer voice his views on sentencing. The judge reportedly said he now feels doing so is “counterproductive and potentially dangerous to the administration of justice.” At the same time, he praised the work of lawyers in the NWT.

Molloy declined Cabin Radio’s request for an interview. Harte did not return a request for comment.

‘The system can be overwhelming’

Louise Elder, executive director of the Status of Women Council of the NWT, said Wright is not alone in feeling that the legal system doesn’t do enough to support victims. 

“Many victims do not feel that the legal system was designed to, nor do they feel it meets their needs,” she said. “They feel it’s primarily focused on the alleged perpetrator of the crime and that more resources are available to them, and are focused on the needs of the perpetrator, than on the victim of the crime.” 

Crown prosecutors don’t represent victims personally – they represent the state, or the public. Elder said victims are treated as witnesses in their own cases and noted victim impact statements are only considered at the conclusion of sentencing hearings, which can “undermine their strength and impact.”

She said many organizations working with survivors of intimate partner violence have pushed for reform of the legal system to give victims a greater voice. 

Louise Elder, executive director of the Status of Women Council of the NWT. Photo: Submitted

Elder said court protections like no-contact orders can be helpful but they aren’t a guarantee. She said they can be especially challenging to enforce in communities that don’t have an RCMP detachment. (According to the RCMP’s website, 11 of the territory’s 33 communities have no detachment.)

Koshan told Cabin Radio no-contact orders are only as effective as the enforcement behind them, adding there needs to be a “fulsome system of supports and services” for survivors to report breaches to “give more clout to those orders as being more than just pieces of paper.”

Steve Versteeg, manager of community programs at the NWT’s Department of Justice, said the territorial government funds 11 victims service workers in eight NWT communities. Services in other communities can be accessed virtually or by phone.

Victims service workers provide emotional support; offer information on safety planning, shelters, and the court process; accompany victims to court, RCMP detachments, health centres and hospitals; and help with safety planning and access to the victims-of-crime emergency fund. 

Elder said there are gaps in the system, however, and resources vary depending on the community. 

She noted, for example, there are no guarantees that the counsellor in a given community will be the right fit for everyone or that a victim will be able to continue seeing the same counsellor, meaning they may have to repeatedly share and relive the details of traumatic experiences. 

“This has been our reality for far too long,” Elder said. “These women need and deserve our help, so hopefully we can help to improve the system.”

In a report released last October, the Status of Women Council noted women who have faced intimate partner violence have found it difficult finding support and navigating services in the territory

“The system can be overwhelming,” Elder said.

The council is advocating for service providers to collaborate more closely and ensure front-line workers are trained in trauma-informed approaches.

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