Sue Charlesworth, Law’81, at Pond Inlet in July 2015 during her two-year stay in Nunavut.
Sue Charlesworth, Law’81, at Pond Inlet in July 2015 during her two-year stay in Nunavut.

After spending two years as criminal counsel in Iqaluit and surrounding communities, Sue Charlesworth, Law’81, returned home to Kingston and her post as Senior Review Counsel at Queen’s Legal Aid (QLA). Queen’s Law Reports interviewed the clinic director about her experiences serving citizens in northern Canada. 

QLR: What interested you in serving as criminal counsel in Nunavut?

SC: My early career was as a criminal lawyer in Kingston working with Terry O’Hara (Law’75) and Joe Bastos (Law’85), and I loved that work. I was thinking about what I could do to get back into court to be sure I was still correct in the supervision/training work I do at Queen’s Legal Aid when I saw an ad in the Ontario Reports for criminal lawyers to work for the Legal Services Board of Nunavut. It was for a two-year contract and at that time my husband’s and my three children were all in university programs and we were pretty sure nothing momentous would happen in their lives while we were away. I was given a two-year leave at QLA to pursue the opportunity.

QLR: What did you do as criminal counsel for the Legal Services Board of Nunavut?

SC: I worked out of the legal aid clinic in Iqaluit – Maliganik Tukisiniarvik Legal Services – which provides “duty counsel” work to the 13 communities in the Baffin (Qikiqtani) Region of Nunavut. Duty counsel provide initial services (bail hearings, appearances and guilty pleas) to every accused person regardless of financial qualification before the Nunavut Court of Justice. Accused persons who financially qualify (about 95 per cent of accused) are represented at trials and appeals by the clinic; Maliganik lawyers are usually assigned those files. Accused persons facing life imprisonment have a choice of private counsel, in which case Maliganik lawyers are often junior or co-counsel so there is local contact.

I did not get the chance to do a jury trial in Nunavut, but I did many Judge-alone trials and a few appeals to the Nunavut Court of Justice and the Nunavut Court of Appeal. I did manage to get to 10 of the 13 Qikiqtani communities – almost all of them two or more times.

QLR: Who were you working with? 

SC: During my two years in Nunavut, there were a total of 10 other criminal lawyers (four of those lawyers graduated from Queen’s and one was a former QLA summer caseworker) and I worked closely with them. Interestingly, the clinic director at Maliganik is also a Queen’s Law grad: Mark Mossey, Law’03. There are also three family lawyers and a civil lawyer. One criminal lawyer was a new call when I started, but most had five or more years of experience in “the South” before coming to Nunavut. Several had already gained many years of experience working in the North.

The staff at Maliganik included Inuit Court Workers, who also served as translators when needed, and many local admin staff who were always happy to share their cultural and local knowledge as well as caribou (tuktu), whale (maktaaq) and other country food treats in the coffee room.

On most circuit courts, and usually also during docket weeks in Iqaluit (three weeks a month), there is also one private lawyer working on contract with the Legal Services Board, mainly in case of conflicts. There are only three private criminal lawyers in Nunavut, so the outside counsel was often a criminal lawyer from the South. Those lawyers are a varied and interesting group.

QLR: What did you like best about working and living in Nunavut and travelling to the circuit courts in other communities?

SC: I loved the beautiful land, the way the sun moves so much in the sky from season to season, the friendly, kind and thoughtful people of the north and the extreme weather. Circuit courts were fun, in large part because so much work had to get done in such a short time. The court might not return to a community for four or five months (or more if bad weather prevented the court from arriving) so it was important to do as much as possible when you were there.

QLR: How does the work of a criminal counsel in Nunavut differ from that in Ontario? 

SC: I had vaguely noticed the Criminal Code provisions that were specific to Nunavut, but hadn’t paid attention to why: Nunavut has a single criminal court, the Nunavut Court of Justice whose judges do both preliminary inquiries and jury trials.

Most of my clients were Inuit and a few times I had to speak to one through an interpreter. Unfortunately, many Inuit are very polite and agreeable and sometimes I’m pretty sure would agree with me without full understanding, but were too polite to admit that was the case. 

Obviously, the sentencing issues raised in Gladue and Ipeelee were very important and always had to be referred to. But the most important difference was the lack of services for our clients, whether before or after sentence. There are no in-house drug or alcohol treatment facilities in Nunavut at all – such treatment is only available in the South. Mental health treatment is also problematic: I spoke to one nurse about a client with schizophrenia, but the nurse was only going to be in the hamlet for a month – and had overlapped with the previous nurse only in the airport.

QLR: What is the most important thing you learned about practising and dealing with clients in Nunavut?

SC: The Inuit are justly proud of their culture, but the modern world has not treated them well. From priests to teachers, there seem to have been many white men who have come to the Territory and spread serious trauma by sexually abusing children. That, along with the Residential School debacle, has left a huge amount of distress in the ensuing generations. When you then realize how limited the efforts are to address the results of that trauma – and the meagre federal spending on education (by some estimates 1/3 of equivalent provincial outlays per student) for the current generation – it makes you wonder how the society functions at all. 

But then every other person you meet smiles and greets you and does their best to make you feel welcome, and you do!