By: Jim Bell
Nunavut judge Paul Bychok has accused Crown prosecutors—and the Nunavut justice system—of devaluing the lives of Inuit women who suffer intimate partner violence.
He did it in a blistering written judgment released Wednesday, Nov. 11, saying the Nunavut court endorses too many lenient plea-bargained sentences that fail to recognize the severity of intimate partner violence against vulnerable Inuit women in Nunavut.
Cases of alcohol-fueled violence against Inuit women and girls dominate court dockets in the territory and many victims are caught in a spiralling cycle of violence, he said in the sentencing of a Nunavut man for assault.
Because of recent rulings by the Nunavut Court of Appeal, he said Nunavut judges can’t reject such joint sentences, except in rare circumstances—a constraint he doesn’t like.
“A judge’s inability to impose a just and principled sentence constitutes a breakdown in the justice system,” Bychok said.
He said this reinforces the perception—described by Pauktuutit Inuit Women of Canada and in the final report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls—“that there is little justice to be found for Inuit women in the criminal justice system.”
Bychok made these remarks in response to a joint plea-bargain defence and Crown lawyers submitted in the case of James Logan Aklok, a 39-year-old Nunavut man who twice assaulted his intimate partner in August.
Judge can’t reject plea deal
In that situation, Bychok said case law forces him to agree to a joint sentencing submission that brings the administration of justice into disrepute—and there’s nothing he can do about it.
But he told lawyers he would express his concerns in a written decision, which he released Nov. 10.
Aklok, who’s originally from Kugluktuk, first assaulted the woman in Iqaluit on the evening of Aug. 2, after she told him she was going out to give some money to her mother.
Bychok’s judgment said Aklok, who was intoxicated, punched, slapped and head-butted his partner. At one point, he put her on the floor and banged her head, pulled her hair, kicked her in the back, and banged her head some more.
After that, he was arrested, charged with common assault and released on bail with an order not to contact the victim.
Nineteen days later, on Aug. 21, he attacked the woman again. This time, he choked her until she fled the house and hid behind a nearby truck, where she phoned the police. When police arrived, they noticed a red mark near her left eye and swelling around her mouth and lip.
Police then charged Aklok with committing an assault causing bodily harm by choking, strangling or suffocating his intimate partner.
Choking charge downgraded
When Aklok appeared for a sentencing hearing on Sept. 25, Crown prosecutor Gary Wool proposed a global sentence of 45 days in jail and nine months of probation in exchange for Aklok’s guilty pleas.
In that agreement, the Crown replaced the choking charge from the Aug. 21 incident with the charge of common assault, to which Aklok pleaded guilty. The defence lawyer, Sally Paddock, agreed, making it a joint submission.
But Bychok said that sentence was “unduly lenient” and that the two lawyers provided little justification for it.
“The joint submission did nothing to help dispel the perception that our justice system devalues the lives of Inuit victims of crime. I am certain this omission would alarm and dismay all informed and reasonable Nunavummiut,” he said.
To support that conclusion, Bychok quoted from a Pauktuutit report that said women in Nunavut are victimized by violent crime at a rate 13 times higher than women in Canada as a whole.
The same report also said Nunavut women suffer from the highest rate of police-reported family violence in Canada.
“The lived reality is a nightmare”
“These are cold clinical facts; the lived reality is a nightmare. Sentencing ought to reflect that reality,” Bychok said.
And he also quoted from the final report of the national MMIWG inquiry.
“There is a lack of transparency regarding plea negotiations and the exercise of prosecutorial discretion generally, which further contributes to Indigenous peoples’ distrust of the justice system and a sense that Indigenous victims of crime are devalued,” the MMIWG report said in the section Bychok quoted.
Bychok also said a recent change to the Criminal Code requires judges to emphasize denunciation and deterrence in sentencing offenders who commit crimes of violence against Indigenous women.
The Crown, however, paid little attention to that, Bychok said. For example, the judge said the Crown minimized the true nature of Aklok’s violence by deleting references to “choking, strangling, or suffocating” from the charging document, or information sheet.
And the Crown lawyer did not list the choking incident as an aggravating factor in sentencing, Bychok said.
He also listed other aggravating factors the Crown did not mention, such as a previous conviction for abusing an intimate partner, and that the current victim was a “vulnerable female Inuk.”
All this helped create a “perception of institutional indifference” to the experience of the victim, Bychok said.
“This prosecution failed to demonstrate an understanding of the social harm inflicted on communities and victims by intimate partner violence, the real harm experienced by Mr. Aklok’s victim, or the role victims have in addressing it,” Bychok said.
But because of the way that the Nunavut Court of Appeal has interpreted a Supreme Court of Canada decision called R. v. Anthony-Cook, Bychok said his hands are tied.
In 2019 and 2020, the Nunavut Court of Appeal used that precedent to throw out sentences that Bychok had imposed after rejecting joint submissions he said were too lenient.
“Inuit women, and all Nunavummiut, deserve a justice system that meaningfully addresses gendered violence. It is troubling that our courts have not been given the tools, including fuller judicial sentencing discretion, to do so,” Bychok said.
And for that reason, he said it’s time for Parliament to reopen debate on that issue.
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