A man who sexually assaulted a resident of Fort McPherson’s Elders’ home will be allowed to serve his sentence in the community, though initially under strict house arrest.
Keith Kunnizzie was the facility’s caretaker when, at midnight on October 13, 2020, he used his master key to open the door of an Elder’s private room. Crown prosecutor Stephen Straub said Kunnizzie reached under a blanket and grabbed the male resident’s penis.
The Elder told him to stop, Straub said. Kunnizzie said he “wanted to lay down with him.” The older man refused and kicked Kunnizzie, 52, off his bed and told him to leave, which he did.
Fort McPherson RCMP were told of the incident a week later and Kunnizzie was arrested.
Kunnizzie told police he did not remember the assault as he had “blacked out” from excessive alcohol consumption.
He pleaded guilty on what was supposed to be the first day of his trial on August 26. On Friday, he attended court in Yellowknife by phone for sentencing.
The Crown and defence lawyer Alanhea Vogt presented a joint recommendation for house arrest, not jail.
The Elder, who cannot be identified, provided a statement that Chief Judge Robert Gorin read to himself as he decided whether Kunnizzie should be allowed to serve his sentence in Fort McPherson.
“It’s clear from the victim impact statement [the Elder] suffered some anxiety, feelings of embarrassment or humiliation … and he doesn’t feel particularly safe where he’s in his residence,” said Straub, the prosecutor. “And that is a place, of course, where people are entitled to feel the safest.”
However, Straub added Kunnizzie has no pattern of criminal behaviour that would raise any red flags.
“From the pre-sentence report, at least from my reading of it, he appears to have the tools that one would require to meaningfully engage his rehabilitation according to his conditions,” said Straub, pointing to stable employment at a new job, a positive peer group, and family support.
“There are reasons to be optimistic that he will follow his conditional sentence order … as a result of that stability.”
There was no indication of any planning or premeditation on Kunnizzie’s part, the court heard. He pulled his hand away and left the room when requested.
The prosecutor said the court must also consider Kunnizzie’s level of morally blameworthiness, as his immediate and extended family “were deeply touched by the residential school system.”
“One of his family members described that the healing process is still under way,” said Straub. “[Kunnizzie] does certainly appear to be indirectly touched at least by those intergenerational stressors that we often see.”
Defence lawyer Vogt told the court Kunnizzie was raised by his grandparents and great-grandparents mostly on the land in the Mackenzie Delta and only spoke Gwichʼin as a child.
His education in Fort McPherson ended at Grade 7.
“He found school extremely difficult,” said Vogt. “He did have some difficulties with English and math … and he also had a difficulty with his peers in school as there was bullying.”
After he left school, he spent his time caring for his ailing grandmother.
“When I spoke to him about his drinking – as he was admittedly extremely intoxicated, in fact blacked out, on the night of this incident – he explained to me that he was feeling a lot of stress at the time,” said the lawyer, noting that stress related to past issues in his life.
“He did not typically drink, or would drink very little if he did drink, but during that time his drinking had greatly increased.”
Kunnizzie has been completely sober since last December and ceased using marijuana three months ago.
“He doesn’t have a memory of the event but he has taken responsibility for it,” said Vogt, adding her client would like to apologize to the Elder if given the chance.
“He’s embarrassed, and he wishes to move forward and certainly to not find himself before the court again. He is willing to follow any conditions that the court may put forth.”
Judge Gorin said he found the joint submission lenient, “some would say very lenient.”
However, Gorin continued, sentencing judges can’t reject a joint submission simply because of that. The threshold set out by the Supreme Court of Canada dictates a joint submission can only be rejected if it is “unhinged to the circumstances of the offence and the offender.”
Gorin noted Kunnizzie has taken responsibility for his actions and “expressed what I take to be genuine remorse for what he did,” adding acquaintances said his behaviour that night was out of character and fuelled by alcohol.
The judge ultimately accepted the joint recommendation of six months in custody to be served in the community, to be followed by one year of supervised probation.
For the first three months of the sentence, Kunnizzie will be under strict house arrest and only allowed to leave his residence in Fort McPherson for work, counselling, and medical appointments.
The second three months will see Kunnizzie under a nightly curfew along with other conditions, such as reporting to a probation officer in the community.
For the entire 18 months, he is not to contact the Elder or be near his residence. He must also abstain from alcohol and illegal drugs.
He will have to supply a DNA sample for the national database and be on the sex offenders’ registry 10 years.