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Nunavut judge heads south after 20 years in North; says system lacks resources

For 20 years, Judge Beverley Browne has been flying to one tiny Arctic community after another to set up her court in whatever classroom, gym or hamlet office is available.

For 20 years, Judge Beverley Browne has been flying to one tiny Arctic community after another to set up her court in whatever classroom, gym or hamlet office is available.

As senior judge in the Nunavut Court of Justice, Browne has been both participant and observer in the development of a justice system that incorporates both western and Inuit traditions. And as she leaves the North for the Alberta bench, she acknowledges it's a job that is far from done.

"When Nunavut first arrived, I thought: 'Five years, we'll be rocking and rolling. We'll have a justice system ready to go in five years,' " she told The Canadian Press in an exclusive interview.

"That's a 50-year project. It's not a five-year project."

Browne first came to Iqaluit as a judge in 1990, when the eastern Arctic was still part of the Northwest Territories.

Her legal resources consisted of two clerks and a court reporter, but she soon settled into a routine.

Court held regular sittings in Iqaluit, but for at least one week a month, Browne took to the skies, flying from hamlet to hamlet. Her visits became so regular that, over the years, they were more like homecomings than business trips.

"When I get off a plane in a community, it's just like seeing old friends."

Browne soon became known as a judge sympathetic to Inuit culture.

Some of her early decisions paved the way for recognition of traditional Inuit adoption, in which the adoptee retains ties with the biological parents. After the creation of Nunavut, she helped bring in mediation services - "much more relevant to Inuit problem-solving methods," she says.

She has also brought in family court to divert disputes from the criminal justice system.

In an effort to create some home-grown legal expertise, she worked with the University of Victoria to create the Akitsiraq law program, which has now graduated 10 Inuit lawyers. Nunavut now has its own Inuit prosecutors.

Her courts were among the first to involve elders, seeking their input during sentencing hearings and allowing them to directly address convicts.

"I do think having the elders in court makes a difference to the communities," says Browne.

"When the court is not in town, the elders know the people who have been before the court and the elders will talk to them at the stores and encourage them along. In some of the communities, when people are charged with a crime, they will go to the court elders and talk to them about their upcoming charges and possibly start some counselling. "

"Does it reduce crime? I don't know. But does it make a difference in people's lives? I think it does."

She has high praise for the territorial government's land programs, which take selected offenders to live traditionally on the land with trained counsellors.

"If people are troubled, they will find some peace on the land," Browne says. "Land programs are very important."

But nobody knows better than Browne that Nunavut still has terrible problems, including Canada's highest rates of sexual and family violence.

"I think that Inuit are disappointed with our sentencing process," Browne sighs. "We have so few options and we have so few resources that when people are found to be guilty, we aren't often able to provide the kind of help and support that people need to adjust their behaviour."

The territory has no addiction treatment centre. The territory's jail in Iqaluit doesn't have enough rehabilitation programs. Many communities don't even have probation officers to keep track of offenders after release.

Still, Browne remains optimistic, noting how far Inuit people have come in the face of the many changes that have been imposed on them over the last 60 years.

"There's a process going on," she says. "I'm not going to solve the problems, but perhaps we can help people to recognize what stage they're at and hopefully encourage them to better behaviour."

Meanwhile, she has two decades of memories gathered from one of the most exotic and far-flung legal jurisdictions on the planet.

"We had half a day free in Arviat just a couple of weeks ago, so we rented some ATVs and went out for the afternoon across the tidal flats," she recalls.

"I've done lots of skidooing and a little bit of boating and just getting out on the land with people from the communities and enjoying what they love. Those are the memories that will stick with me."

Over the years, those days on the land gradually seeped into her work on the bench.

"When I'm out on the land, I'm no longer in control," she says. "Other people are, and I'm respectful of their knowledge and that's a very good lesson to learn."

"It's helped me to understand some of the things that happen in court. There's things that I know and things that they know, and somehow we have to find that mutual respect that will get us both through."

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