A Crown prosecutor in Nunavut has entered a stay of proceedings on a sexual-assault charge against a deaf man who never learned to read, write or use American Sign Language.
That closes a case that lingered for nearly four years, and helped lead to the discovery of what is now on its way to being formally recognized as Inuit Sign Language.
Jamie MacDougall, a psychologist at McGill University who specializes in deafness and worked on the case, says he is delighted to have been involved in a situation that had "the astonishing consequence of finding a language."
"Why we didn't know this as a matter of principle - that Inuit have their own sign language - is kind of a mystery," Dr. MacDougall said. "If we'd thought about it at all, we'd have realized that they have their own sign language."
The case involved Bobby Suwarak, 38, who was born in Baker Lake, a town of about 1,500 in central Nunavut. He was just five or six years old when an illness left him permanently deaf. After that, he went to school for a while, but, unable to hear what was happening, he soon dropped out.
With no formal education, Mr. Suwarak was able to get by working odd jobs and hunting caribou like many other people in his hometown.
But when he was charged with sexual assault in March, 2004, he posed an unusual problem for the Nunavut Court of Justice: an accused man with no known language.
Mr. Suwarak arrived in Iqaluit court with a family friend who attempted to translate in what appeared to be a form of charades, or homemade sign language.
He languished in jail for nine months while two successive defence lawyers refused to represent him. Then a third lawyer, Tim Kavanagh, stepped in and launched a Charter application to stay the charges, arguing that, with no proper translation, Mr. Suwarak would not get the fair trial guaranteed by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
To make his case, Mr. Kavanagh called on Dr. MacDougall, who had performed two assessments of Mr. Suwarak in previous court cases. In 1997 and 1999, Dr. MacDougall had said the only solution was training to improve Mr. Suwarak's communication skills. But by 2004, he'd done enough research in Nunavut to conclude that Mr. Suwarak communicated using Inuit Sign Language, an old but little-known language that had never been formally recognized by any government authority.
Mr. Justice Earle Johnson took notice. In his ruling in June, 2005, he ordered the administration to take Dr. MacDougall's advice and create "an appropriate training program for the accused and interpreters." He gave them 14 months to do so.
As the only person with a broad understanding of the significance of Inuit Sign Language, Dr. MacDougall was asked to lead the project. Working with several deaf Inuit, he developed a model known as "deaf interpretation," in which an ISL user who knows ASL signs to a regular court interpreter - effectively, a double system of interpretation.
That meant no deaf Inuit deprived of ASL could find themselves in the same legal predicament as Mr. Suwarak. Dr. MacDougall once estimated there could be as many as 50 deaf Inuit in the territory of 30,000 who use ISL, and many more who use it casually with their friends and family.
In the end, after all that effort, Crown prosecutor Rachel Furey stayed the charges Wednesday against Mr. Suwarak, but didn't explain why. "It's not in the public interest to proceed," she said.
But the case will have a lasting impact: The Inuit now join the American Plains Indians and several aboriginal Australian groups whose traditional sign languages have been documented. Dr. MacDougall is working on a project with the Nunavut government's culture department to create an ISL dictionary.
He has taken pleasure in connecting deaf Inuit with others at workshops around the territory, but says he's not rescuing these people from isolation and marginalization, as was often the case when American Sign Language was first introduced to deaf people in southern Canada.
"Traditionally, deaf people were very integrated in Nunavut," he said. "We're trying to preserve something that was already there."