UVic Torch -- Autumn 2007
Spring 2008,
Volume 29, Number 1

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Rankin Inlet, Nunavut.
By MIRANDA POST, BA ’02
Photography by NATION WONG/ZEFA/CORBIS


Learning the subtleties of circuit courts in the land of the Inuit.

In any given year a small number of adventurous Faculty of Law students make their way to Nunavut, where they discover a way of life that challenges their notions of law and justice.

“It’s a great place to be professionally,” says second-year student Leah Pence, BA ’02, who returned in December from a four-month co-op term with the Nunavut Court of Justice, where sentencing and legal decisions are often made by consulting community members, often in makeshift courtrooms. “Everyone is crammed in. There is no separation between participants in the trial, none of that physicality we’re used to southern courtrooms.”
Co-op students typically assist judges with cases, legislative reforms, and they provide general administrative and research support to the court. “We’re a small court compared to others in Canada. There is no budget to hire full-time support for the (three) judges, so the students are a real benefit,” says court director Heather Daley, speaking from her Iqaluit office on a day when the temperature outside was -30 C. “More than anything they bring back a broadened perception of justice.”

About 40 times each year, the Nunavut circuit courts travel across a vast territory equal to the combined size of BC, Alberta and Newfoundland. “There’s a chartered plane, with a judge, a court clerk, a court reporter, two prosecutors, two pilots, and an interpreter,” recalls Karrie Wolfe, LLB ’04. “When you land, the group goes to the biggest building [in the community]. You have two folding tables to set up and then you staple the flags to the wall.”

The circuit courts are built on a restorative justice model. Judges are often flanked by elders and community justice workers who address the accused and give advice on appropriate sentencing.

Outside of court, students immerse themselves in the northern lifestyle. After learning to hunt and shoot a rifle, Wolfe was rewarded with an entire caribou leg. And Pence spent an evening trying to improve her Inuktitut language skills by playing bingo with a hall full of smiling Inuit women.
Court cases normally combine law and culture in a territory where the Inuit people account for more than 80 per cent of the population. Bert Terzian, LLB ’06, attended a trial about the killing of a narwhal, complete with a three-metre tusk presented as evidence. “The community is more involved in sentencing suggestions,” he says. “As a law student it was very different from what I had studied. Sometimes people just wanted, and received, an old fashioned apology.”

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