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Access to Justice: What it should mean in Nunavut | Victoria Perrie and Gloria Song

Friday, November 05, 2021 @ 1:47 PM | By Victoria Perrie and Gloria Song

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Victoria Perrie
Gloria Song  %>
Gloria Song
What does access to justice mean in Nunavut? We are honoured to be invited by the Right Honourable Beverley McLachlin to contribute to her column. We would like to take this opportunity to share our perspectives on access to justice (A2J) in Nunavut. These personal opinions are our own, rather than those of our employers or the Law Society of Nunavut. They are based both on our observations working in the Territory, and by what we’ve learned from Nunavummiut (Inuktitut word for “residents of Nunavut”). We will discuss historic and ongoing systemic failures, the current A2J climate in the territory, as well as plans moving forward.

On April 1, 1999, Nunavut became the youngest legal jurisdiction in Canada, following successful negotiation of the Nunavut Agreement. Inuit engaged in negotiations for this agreement to realize aspirations of self-determination. During this process, Nunavut inherited the existing justice system from the Northwest Territories, the colonial system imposed throughout Canada. Although there were well-intentioned attempts to design the justice system to better suit the needs of Nunavummiut, statements from Inuit leaders and others highlight the ways that the legal landscape continues to impose a colonial system of justice on Inuit, while failing to sufficiently incorporate Inuit systems of law and ways of knowing. Access to justice in Nunavut enters the stage carrying this baggage.

In 2011, a member of the Law Society of Nunavut brought a motion at an annual general meeting, bringing up the specific concern of whether there were enough legal professionals to meet the legal needs of Nunavummiut. As a result, Nunavut’s first Access to Justice Committee was established to consider the issue. Since then, through these kinds of discussions, those of us non-Inuit legal professionals have learned more about how access to justice is a broad issue in the Territory, beyond formal court processes and legal representation, that is intricately connected to other sectors of society such as health, education, and the economy, all impacted by Nunavut’s colonial history. Of course, Inuit have long known this system has not adequately reflected their legal traditions and culture, resulting in significant justice issues that continue to reinforce colonialism.

The Law Society of Nunavut has, for its part, since made efforts to support access to justice and has significantly expanded its programming to include working with communities to deliver public legal education workshops and pro bono clinics, delivering training to member lawyers on Inuit cultural knowledge, promoting an increase in Inuit representation in the legal profession, and providing services in English, Inuktitut, and French.

Recently, the Law Society of Nunavut embarked on a major access to justice project in partnership with Pauktuutit Inuit Women of Canada to understand the legal barriers and needs of Inuit women dealing with family violence in Nunavut. To break the silence on the widespread issue of family violence, the project team travelled to communities across Nunavut to meet women with lived experiences of family violence and their service providers. From these conversations, we learned about significant access to justice deficits that ultimately restrict the full protection the law promises. Stories of cultural and linguistic barriers in legal processes confirm an urgent need for holistic, Inuit-focused, culturally-relevant, trauma-informed services. This project underscored the corrosive link between intergenerational trauma and social issues such as family violence.

We believe it is high time detrimental policies and practices entrenched in Nunavut are eradicated and replaced by decolonial frameworks that work for Inuit. Many things Joshua Sealy-Harrington said in his March 2021 contribution to this column ring true for Nunavut, especially his words “we must always centre on, not only how we access justice, but — more fundamentally — what vision of justice we aspire to access.”

Access to justice in Nunavut needs to be understood and pursued in the context of colonialism and Inuit goals of self-determination. How justice is accessed and what kinds of justice are available going forward must be done in partnership with Inuit and led by Inuit. Inuit laws and traditional systems of justice that have existed in Inuit Nunangat (the four Inuit regions of Canada) since time immemorial — much of which continue to be absent in the operative system — must be given appropriate application in the legal system. We have been told how the justice that is currently accessible by Nunavummiut is one in which Inuit do not see their values, culture and practices adequately reflected. Discussions about what access to justice means in Nunavut need to unpack that baggage to develop an acceptable, working system that reflects Inuit justice and supports Inuit self-determination.

There is significant work to be done on access to justice in Nunavut. Researching, listening and learning are all part of the necessary self-reflection and work of being a lawyer here, to understand what our roles are as legal professionals, to create meaningful access to justice and support Inuit self-determination. This work has begun, and although we are far from where we need to be, we are encouraged by promising new developments, including the very recent graduation of 21 Nunavut-based graduates from the Nunavut Law Program, most of whom are Inuit. Another development is the recent Access to Justice Counsel position at Legal Aid Nunavut. The goal of that position is to connect with individuals, families, communities, hamlets, organizations and elders across Nunavut.

Through these consultations, we hope to hear directly what justice the communities want to access and how we can support new initiatives and make systems in place accessible for the time being and create change in the long term. By learning from and working with Inuit directly, we hope to make space for a transformative process for decolonizing the current operative system and pursue law reform focused on Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit (traditional knowledge) and traditional law.

Victoria Perrie and Gloria Song serve as the access to justice co-representatives for the Law Society of Nunavut. Victoria Perrie is a Metis-Cree lawyer working as Access to Justice and criminal counsel at Legal Aid Nunavut while concurrently pursuing a Masters in International Laws (L.L.M.) at the University of East London. After working in Kangliqiniq (Rankin Inlet) for two years, she is transitioning to the big city of Iqaluit. Perrie explores issues of gender, human rights, the rule of law, poetry and public policy in both her international and domestic work. Gloria Song has worked in access to justice, international development, and human rights research and public legal education for over 10 years. She previously served as a poverty lawyer for the Legal Services Board of Nunavut while being based in Iqaluktuuttiaq (Cambridge Bay), Nunavut. She is currently a project consultant for the Law Society of Nunavut and an analyst in international affairs at Polar Knowledge Canada, supporting Canada’s implementation of polar science diplomacy treaties. Song is also a PhD candidate in law at the University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Law, focusing her doctoral research on access to justice, gender, and housing insecurity in Nunavut.

Photo of Gloria Song by Adrienne Row-Smith

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