In small communities, everyone knows the judge’s kids. And so, for Justice Beverley Browne’s son and daughter, it was not at all unusual to run into people who had appeared before their mother in court, or even been sentenced by her to terms in jail or prison.
Such was the case not long ago, when a man approached her son, Andrew Morrison, on the street in Nunavut.
“Oh, I know your mom, Justice Beverley,” the man said. Then he added, “Tell her I’m thinking about her.”
“That’s the respect I think she commanded,” Mr. Morrison says. “Even the people you think may have a little bit of an axe to grind because she put them in jail, they still speak with respect because she saw them and spoke to them like a human and with understanding.”
Ms. Browne died in Edmonton on March 24 after a lengthy illness. She leaves her daughter, Joselyn Morrison, her son and six grandchildren. She was 68.
Beverley Browne was born in Watrous, Sask., on Nov. 19, 1952, the second in a family of six children born to Donald and Verla Browne. Her father was a United Church minister and her mother a nurse, and the family moved around Saskatchewan throughout her childhood. Ms. Browne was attending high school in Lloydminster when her mother took her to see a guidance counsellor to discuss her future plans.
“She was always a very quiet, reserved person,” Ms. Morrison, says. “And in the quietest voice, she just told her mom and the guidance counsellor that she wanted to be a lawyer.”
Ms. Browne got a political science degree from the University of Alberta, then moved over to the university’s law school, graduating in 1975 and being called to the bar in 1977. She articled in Yellowknife, finding a love for the north that would last the rest of her life.
As a lawyer, Ms. Browne worked primarily in criminal defence, often taking clients through Legal Aid. She met Ross Morrison while working in Vermilion, Alta., and the couple had two small children when Ms. Browne was appointed a territorial judge in the Northwest Territories in 1990. Ms. Browne was offered a choice of moving to Inuvik or Iqaluit, then called Frobisher Bay. The couple chose the latter.
“Beforehand it was all circuit judges that would fly in and fly out. She was the first judge to be permanently stationed in the eastern Arctic,” Mr. Morrison says. “I think that was a big, attractive part of making that decision, because part of her judicial philosophy was judges should live in the communities that they’re presiding over, and that the circuit approach to justice was good in some ways, but also she believed that she should be a part of that community if she was going to be working there.”
When Nunavut was created in 1999, Ms. Browne became its first chief justice, tasked with building a court system from the ground up.
Ms. Browne brought many of her own values and principles to the task. The Nunavut Court of Justice would be a unified court, with no separation or hierarchy between lower and upper courts, and all judges dealing with all kinds of matters, and travelling to the communities they served.
Ms. Browne’s children say she made sure she was the one who travelled the most, holding proceedings in school gyms or community halls, sometimes travelling by snowmobile or dog team, sharing hotel rooms with lawyers when necessary.
Ms. Browne believed that the courts should be connected to Inuit culture as much as possible, and she worked to institute traditional practices, including Inuit approaches to problem solving and adoption. She created youth panels and an Elders program, in which Elders would sit beside judges in court to offer support and advice to the accused.
In interviews, she said she believed the program made a difference in people’s lives, and that working alongside the Elders had taught her a lot, as well.
“I learned from them about relationships and about life,” Ms. Browne was quoted as saying in a story in the Nunatsiaq News in 2009. “I consider some of them very dear friends.”
Ms. Morrison says her mother was particularly aware of the fact that the majority of people involved in administering the justice system in Nunavut were not Inuk. Recognizing how difficult it was for many Inuit to attend school in the south, away from their families and home, she helped launch a program in which the teachers would come north instead, and the law school curriculum would be adapted to address some of the issues specific to the region and culture.
The Akitsiraq School graduated 11 Inuit lawyers in 2005, in partnership with the University of Victoria. Its successor, the Nunavut Law Program, is set to graduate 23 lawyers through the University of Saskatchewan this spring, among them Mr. Morrison.
“I think before Akitsiraq, young people didn’t consider law as a career choice because it was just so far from any kind of reality they knew,” Ms. Browne said in an interview for a newsletter put out by the Law Society of Nunavut in 2016. “But now it’s a real choice for students who are talking about what they want to be when they grow up. Some of their relatives might be lawyers, and that’s huge. That changes everything.”
Ms. Browne was equally passionate about her community connections outside court, particularly around music. Her work in that area included helping found the Iqaluit Music Society, playing the organ at church, running a hand bell choir and helping create a free music camp for youth in the community. She also advocated hiring a music teacher for the high school, and ensured that musical theatre productions were translated into Inuktitut.
Ms. Browne, who also played the flute and the tenor saxophone, recruited every northern newcomer she could to her efforts.
In 2009, Ms. Browne accepted a position as a justice with Alberta’s Court of Queen’s Bench in Edmonton, choosing to move south as she began to suffer serious health problems, though she returned to the north often to visit her family and friends and to work.
In Edmonton, she helped create Alberta’s restorative justice and Gladue committees, which work to institute Indigenous cultural practices and bring consideration of the challenges facing Indigenous offenders into the courtroom. She also continued her community work, regularly buying reams of tickets to concerts to donate to people who wouldn’t otherwise be able to attend to such events.
“When she came down here and saw the barriers for people that didn’t have the same means to access art and music, she really worked in very creative, cool ways to allow people to be able to enjoy arts and music,” Mr. Morrison says. She was also a dedicated fan of his band the Jerry Cans, attending late-night concerts even if she was in a wheelchair or on oxygen.
Ms. Morrison says most her mother’s donations were anonymous, and that she was “very quiet about it all, very humble behind the scenes.”
Ms. Browne received a double lung transplant in 2014, and despite serious continuing health issues, continued to work, even as her health entered a period of further decline last year.
At a Naming Ceremony in November, Elders Jo-Ann and Jerry Saddleback bestowed Ms. Browne with the name “Woman Standing With the Law” in recognition of her efforts to improve access to justice for Indigenous people in Alberta and the North.
Ms. Browne retired in February.
“In our last days together, I was getting into her philosophy, and she said, ‘I don’t know why people need to be thanked when they do good things, we should just be doing it for bettering our communities,’” Mr. Morrison says. “And that’s one of the lessons that I very much would carry on from her.”
In a statement after her death, Nunavut’s Chief Justice Neil Sharkey called Ms. Browne “the gold standard of judicial community commitment,” and said the Nunavut Court of Justice “will forever be indebted to Justice Browne for her contributions to its development.”
Nunavut Premier Joe Savikataaq tweeted that he was saddened to hear the news of Ms. Browne’s passing, and that, “She had such an impact on justice in Nunavut.”
Joselyn and Andrew Morrison say they have been overwhelmed by messages from people about their mother’s work and legacy, from all corners of the system.
“A lot of the messages we’re getting [say] that she brought humanity into the justice system and just treated people like humans,” Ms. Morrison said, “which I guess you don’t see every day.”