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Perched on a wooden bench in a Nunavut courtroom, 30-year-old Bobby Suwurak stared blankly ahead as a white judge and white lawyers debated whether he could be tried fairly.

The sexual-assault trial of the small, wiry Inuit man had been derailed by a novel problem. He was a deaf-mute from birth, and his far-flung community of Baker Lake didn't have anyone who could teach him American sign language.

Mr. Suwurak could communicate only through a system of hand gestures, facial expressions and charades invented by his family members. With the court system unable to provide a translator, his lawyer argued that there was no way his client could understand and provide evidence at his trial.

The only other person with an Inuit background in the courtroom, Qujaq Robinson, could not help identifying with the lost look on Mr. Suwurak's face.

Ms. Robinson, who was raised in the equally remote outpost of Iglulik, was an articling student doing legal research for the judges in Nunavut's modest courthouse. On her first day on the job, barely settled into her new quarters, she had bagged a case any seasoned constitutional lawyer would kill for.

"This case could easily go to the Supreme Court of Canada," the 27-year-old woman enthused afterward, interrupted occasionally by the buzz of snowmobiles on the still-frozen Hudson Bay.

As remarkable as it is for a rookie lawyer to land a Charter of Rights and Freedoms case, it paled in comparison with Ms. Robinson's good fortune in becoming a lawyer at all. Young people from remote Arctic settlements simply don't go to law school. At least they didn't until four years ago, when a unique program was created on a one-time-only basis to produce a crop of lawyers and leaders for the six-year-old territory of Nunavut.

In the modest classroom where the students spent their time learning as much about relationships and Inuit culture as they did about the law, little remains but stacks of law books and some aboriginal prints taped to the walls. A photograph, hung prominently, depicts a Druid-like circle of giant rocks in the empty land of the high tundra. It is the Great Megalithic Court of Akitsiraq, a rendezvous where, in generations gone by, Inuit elders met in council to settle disputes.

A more inspiring symbol could hardly have been chosen for a group of students who were destined to put so much effort into learning white man's law without relinquishing their Inuit spirit.

Next week, the Akitsiraq Law School, the brain child of determined northerners and sympathetic southerners, will achieve its goal. At a graduation ceremony on June 21, which also happens to be National Aboriginal Day, the complement of Inuit lawyers in Nunavut will shoot to 12 from one. And Akitsiraq will officially close.

Why would a coalition of governments, Inuit organizations and charitable foundations go to such lengths to produce 11 lawyers? In a capital city of 7,000 souls -- where every road is a washboard of loose dirt, and bored, unemployed men wander aimlessly under the midnight sun -- what would make lawyers such an overriding priority?

Ms. Robinson responded by pointing toward the courtroom where Mr. Suwurak was still sitting, expressionless. The Inuit govern their own land, she said, but they see mainly white faces when they stumble into a courtroom. "The experience becomes so remote for the community -- yet the Inuit are the community," she said.

Nunavut Justice of the Peace Alexina Kublu, a major force behind the law school, illustrates another reason by drawing on her earlier career as a Grade 1 teacher. Whenever kids were asked about their aspirations, she said, "they always said things like 'water-truck driver' or 'sewage-truck driver.' Younger people don't realize it is possible for an Inuit to be a lawyer."

Elisapee Karetak, 48, a former school principal and mother of five, was typical of those attracted by the audacious idea of a law school in the Far North. She had watched a generation of Inuit youth spiral downward into alcoholism, petty crime and suicide. To not help would have been to condone this disintegration.

Ms. Karetak also had deeply personal motives. In 1958, her mother, Kikkik, had become the first Inuit person to be charged with murder. The alleged victim was one of 18-month-old Elisapee's elder sisters.

At the time, famine had forced the Inuit to roam far afield in search of food. As things grew truly desperate, Kikkik left her two eldest children and forged onward with just the two babies. One of the older children survived; the other froze to death. Kikkuk was ultimately acquitted at her trial.

Going to law school was Elisapee's private way of probing the legal system that had tortured her mother. "I wanted to understand why my mother was tried," she said. "If there was a constructive way I could deal with this injustice, I was going to do it."

Beyond symbolism and mending torn social fabric, the 1993 document that created this Arctic territory, the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement, specified that employment must reflect the Inuit population. While almost 85 per cent of Nunavut's 27,000 inhabitants are Inuit, the upper reaches of the justice system remained almost devoid of them.

More than just an embarrassment, it had become an obstacle to the quest to inject Inuit values into the law.

Add to this a modern-day reality: Law degrees are almost a prerequisite for politics or policymaking. "The intent of this program is to train leaders as well as lawyers," said Andrew Petter, dean of law at the University of Victoria, an integral partner in the Akitsiraq program.

The idea of a spawning ground for lawyers had twice before run into a brick wall.

The first time, Justice of the Peace Kublu and Senior Judge Beverley Browne of the Nunavut Court of Justice sent questionnaires to several promising individuals working in the lower echelons of the justice system. All of them rejected the idea of leaving the North to attend a law school in the South.

A second cold bath in northern reality came after a half-dozen students enrolled in a law program at the University of Ottawa in the mid-1990s. Isolated, broke, dispirited and lost among the huge student body, all of them soon dropped out.

If the students could not go to the law school, then the law school would have to come to them. Still, the dream would have to survive a flurry of dropouts, a cultural crisis over differing visions of the law and lingering questions about the law school's credibility.

Operating without a blueprint, the pioneers of Akitsiraq had to decide admission criteria, line up funding, locate classroom space and arrange for visiting professors. They also had to find a law school with the resources to act as a partner and provide a law degree.

A University of Victoria student working in Iqaluit on a co-op program, Kelly Gallagher-Mackay, provided the missing link. She persuaded her alma mater to underline its long-standing commitment to aboriginal law by participating in Akitsiraq.

Still, local naysayers fought to sink the project. They questioned spending a million dollars a year to nurture 11 lawyers when Nunavut was chronically short of Inuit nurses, doctors and educators.

They also worried that Inuit lawyers would introduce the alien practice of suing the pants off one another. And what if they began to upset cultural traditions with southern notions of custody and spousal support? What if the rookies disappeared a year or two after graduating, clutching their law degrees and an unspoken dream of making bundles of money down south?

None of it could halt the momentum. Organizers launched a local radio and newspaper ad campaign, and sat back to wait. To their astonishment, 108 applications streamed in from across the vast, windswept territory.

In recognition of the social and financial barriers they faced, applicants would not have to write the standard Law School Admission Test. A screening committee would give each candidate a basic test and assess their attitude, aptitude and work history.

Various government departments and Inuit organizations agreed to sponsor each student with a living allowance of $50,000. Upon graduating, the students had to spend either two years working for their sponsor or four years with another Nunavut employer.

Most of those who were accepted had families and were from tiny settlements dotted around Nunavut. Ajau Peter, a single mother of five, was a seamstress, translator and historian. Susan Enuaraq was a victim witness co-ordinator in the court system. Henry Coman, one of just two men, was a member of the RCMP.

Any notion of the students enjoying a typical university life evaporated like the Hudson Bay ice on a June day. Gossip is a constant in Iqaluit, and the law students were celebrities and laboratory specimens at the same time. One of them, Sandra Inutiq, recalls people standing up at community meetings and saying things like: Oh, that's an issue that will be solved when we have Inuit lawyers. "It was as if we would be able to solve everything."

Trouble was not long in coming. Notwithstanding the creative commitment of many professors, some students had difficulty grasping or relating to "European" concepts of property, contract law, penal policy, tort law and intellectual property.

"It was all so foreign." Ms. Karetak said. "We were most depressed, short-tempered and wanted to give up."

Those who had not arrived with a politicized viewpoint soon developed one. "We had come with our own baggage," Ms. Karetak continued. "Some of us and our siblings had been taken away to residential schools or settlements. Personally, I was lost and upset. I was angry about the white man coming, and that we -- the Inuit -- were inferior. I couldn't function as a student because they were asking us to immerse ourselves in Western law. But we have our own laws that shaped us. We were not a lawless society."

In classroom debates, emotions often rose to the level of a Californian encounter group. By the end of the first year, three students had dropped out. Akitsiraq teetered on the edge of crisis.

"There was this sense of urgency," Ms. Robinson said. "A lot of us had gone into this with the expectation that we would not be learning law as it was taught in southern universities. There was this outcry for what we had thought would be there, but wasn't. We needed it. We demanded it."

Ms. Kublu, Chief Judge Brown and Shelly Wright, who had replaced Ms. Gallagher-Mackay, the program's initial northern director, after her term ended, went searching for an Inuit elder.

"We were all aware that we were teaching a southern legal system to people whose families had suffered tremendously at the hands of it," Prof. Wright said. "We had to marry completely different worldviews. This was not a romantic, going-back-to-the-land sort of thing."

The elder they found was Lucien Ukaliannuk.

Mr. Ukaliannuk taught traditional law in Inuktitut and tended to students who were bending under the pressure. He sensed and teased out problems so uncannily that Prof. Wright began to wondered if his gifts included telepathy.

Ms. Karetak credits Mr. Ukaliannuk with helping her keep her sanity. "Lucien defused my anger. He was our confidant, our punching bag and our counsellor."

Mr. Ukaliannuk taught that traditional law is founded on discussion, forgiveness and the moral authority of elders, not the winner-take-all argument and punishment models that prevail in the South. He spoke of how the Arctic people lacked a history of warfare and bloodshed common to so many other indigenous groups. In a land of extreme cold, sparse vegetation and lurking dangers, survival had been the overriding goal.

The Inuit had endured forced resettlement, residential schools and the systematic dismantling of their hunting and fishing culture, Mr. Ukaliannuk told the students. Now, they had to square the problem of a legal system that barely mirrors their reality.

Intense discussions broke out in class. Was there a word for "punishment" in Inuktitut? (Most felt there wasn't.) How would an Inuit community deal with a man accused of murder if he also happens to be their most skilled hunter? Banish him temporarily? Forgive him in order to restore the harmony of the group?

"There was a hunger there," Mr. Ukaliannuk recalled, speaking through an interpreter. "This was the first group to ever learn traditional knowledge this way, and they were going to struggle. Traditional law is attached to our being. It is so much closer to our hearts. As time went on, they could see both sides."

Dean Petter says incorporating indigenous law into the program was neither a frill nor a sop to unhappy students; it was a vital recognition that the students will be struggling to blend two legal traditions in their emerging homeland.

That blend will not be easy to attain, Ms. Inutiq said. "It [the southern legal system]so contradicts the Inuit approach to handling issues -- whether it is wrongdoing or somebody who deviates from social norms. When somebody beats up their spouse, goes to court and is sentenced more heavily each time, you are not dealing with why the person is deviating.

"Yes, we are Canadian and know about its legal system, but it is a system that has been imposed on us. We can have the best of both worlds."

Other students saw more value in Anglo-Canadian legal principles. "There is a real need for lawyers in private practice to deal with real-estate transactions, divorce, medical malpractice and other tort-related issue," said Madeleine Redfern, 38. "As it is now, people's legal rights are being violated."

Toward the end of her second year, Ms. Karetak had a revelation: She was not cut out to be a lawyer. After an emotional day when she spoke openly about her mother's murder prosecution, she blurted out the truth. "I thought that if I became a lawyer, I could blast at the government for all the things they have done wrong. I was angry. I didn't want to just be stepped on the way other Inuit had been stepped on."

Ms. Karetak decided to drop out. "Telling them was an emotional, beautiful experience," she said. "We had come to trust one another enough to tell our most intimate thoughts; and what was hindering us."

The administrators badly wanted to see the students succeed. At the same time, they knew that the University of Victoria had exacting standards that had to be met. "It was a difficult balance," Prof. Wright said. "It has been rocky at times, but the students are very honest and up-front."

The unfolding drama at Akitsiraq came as no surprise to Premier Paul Okalik. As one who had risen above poverty and personal tragedy to become Nunavut's only Inuit lawyer, he knew the disconnected feeling an Inuit law student can experience -- even at home.

Like Ms. Karetak, his own cultural baggage had prodded him toward law school. Years earlier, his older brother, high on drugs and alcohol, had broken into an office to steal money. "He was treated very harshly for a first-time offender," Mr. Okalik said in an interview. "When he came out, he realized he couldn't afford to pay his fine. So he took his own life. From that day on, I was very bitter and rebelled."

He took to the bottle, committed a few break-ins and served time in jail. After a time, Mr. Okalik decided that it was time to clean up his act and join society. "I wanted to see what I could do. I decided that I wanted to be a lawyer."

Living with relatives and borrowing money for food, he made it through the University of Ottawa law program in 1997. "I didn't have any Inuit role models when I started law," he said. "I wanted to change that. We Inuit are underrepresented in the legal profession and overrepresented in jails."

By the third year, the Akitsiraq program had become a cause célèbre. Top judges, lawyers and about 25 law professors from six different universities eventually signed up for stints.

"It was an amazing experience to not have to relocate down south, and yet have teachers whose quality was first-class," Ms. Redfern said. "A lot of professors did preparatory work to make sure they understood the aboriginal context. Frankly, I think it ended up being much, much better than a southern university program."

Toward the end of the program, the students spent work terms at the University of Ottawa and the University of Victoria to get a flavour of true campus life.

Gazing around the abandoned Akitsiraq classroom, Mr. Ukaliannuk spoke about how his community looks to the students to help a society at a cultural crossroads. Inuit youths no longer learn from elders and parents; they absorb their lessons from Dick and Jane reading books and media that pump out MTV pop culture. The result is often alcoholism, crime and despair.

Some of the law students know exactly where they want to go; others face tough choices. Ms. Robinson, for instance, is torn between courtroom litigation and helping troubled youths as a legal defender and a role model. Ms. Redfern, who landed the honour of clerking at the Supreme Court of Canada for Madam Justice Louise Charron, is on a clear road to a sparkling career.

Ms. Inutiq, currently articling at the Nunavut Justice Department, gestured at a pile of boxes that had been dumped on the floor of her new office. "That's the shrimp case," she said with a wry grin, referring to a long-running constitutional challenge involving Nunavut fishing rights that has been place in her lap.

"I didn't even want to be a lawyer," she said minutes later, picking her way across streams of water, rushing from melting snowcaps on a nearby hillside and carving a path through the road. "I went to law school for the education," she said. "I don't believe in the social institution. The whole European Canadian legal system -- family law, human rights -- it's all reactionary."

A woman whose calm manner disguises a remarkable inner toughness, Ms. Inutiq said the true value of her legal training was the analytical skills she picked up and a degree Ottawa mandarins will notice when she stands on their doorstep, pushing for new policies and rights in Nunavut. "My legal training gives me the tools to have that perspective and confidence. If somebody tells me that something can't be done, I can say: 'Of course, it can be done.' "

Dean Petter knows that some critics will claim the standards were unfairly lowered for the Inuit students, that they may not be as skilled as other lawyers. If they were to encounter the astute, articulate graduates of Akitsiraq, he said, they would see their error.

Mr. Justice James MacPherson, a respected Ontario Court of Appeal judge who lectured at Akitsiraq, added a personal endorsement: "It is a totally bona-fide law degree," he said. "The students were personable, had a wonderful sense of their own legal system and were keen to integrate it into mainstream constitutional law. I have no doubts they can be lawyers and leaders."

Still, the very topic makes Ms. Robinson irate. Sitting in the cramped Iqaluit courthouse law library, her face clouded with anger. "So often, what is unconventional is seen as inferior," she said. "As progressive as Canada is, I think there is still a feeling that anything aboriginal is inferior, that anything provided for aboriginals is token and not legitimate."

If necessary, she said, she will prove the legitimacy of Akitsiraq by moving to the legal cauldron of Toronto one day. "I would prove to them that a kid from Iglulik with her Akitsiraq law school degree can swim with the sharks and keep her head up. I'd like to prove, at some point in my career, that this degree was the best."

Hopes are high for a second go-around. Prof. Wright argues that Akitsiraq could inspire similar degree programs for aboriginal accountants, mental-health professions or public administrators -- in Canada and abroad.

Meanwhile, Ms. Gallagher-Mackay is slogging away on a detailed proposal for Akitsiraq Two. The University of Victoria is willing to do it all again, according to Akitsiraq's southern director, Kim Hart Wensley. Federal Justice Minister Irwin Cotler, whose department kicked in about 20 per cent of the original program cost, is also likely to sign on again.

But the most important player, Premier Okalik, sounded less enthused. "This program took lots of resources from the government," he said. "It was successful, but it was also expensive. I don't see the same level of support for a second time."

Sure, the price tag is high, Prof. Wright conceded: "People are bowled over by how much it costs. But when you consider the long term, it is worth it. They need Inuit to do these things, rather than bringing people up from the South all the time who don't know the culture. Now that we know how to do it, why let it die?"

The 11 Akitsiraq lawyers may very well yield "a future premier, judges, and members of the legislative assembly," she said. "I'm expecting them to be government ministers, deputy ministers, and leaders at the highest levels. We were always aware that the law school was training leaders."

Brave new lawyers in a brave new world.

Kirk Makin is The Globe and Mail's justice reporter.