January 16, 2004

Lack of remorse gets Arvaluk nine months in jail

"I'm not the one who wanted to get into a fight"


James Arvaluk's stubborn lack of remorse was his downfall this past Monday, as Justice Earl Johnson added a nine-month jail sentence to the disgraced former Nunavut cabinet minister's tattered résumé.

Jailhouse blues: Once a cabinet minister in two different governments, former Nanulik MLA James Arvaluk is now a correctional centre inmate. (PHOTO BY PATRICIA D'SOUZA)

So ends a case whose tortuous journey through Nunavut's overburdened court system began early in the morning of Aug. 26, 2000, when a bloody and battered Sophie Sangoya, Arvaluk's former girlfriend, showed up at the Coral Harbour RCMP station to complain that Nunavut's minister of education had just beaten her up.

To this day, Arvaluk, 55, insists he did not want and did not start the fight, which produced a 14-stitch gash to the inside of her lower lip and permanent nerve damage to her face.

Dressed in black jeans and a black turtleneck sweater, Arvaluk sat quietly alone at the defence table, his hands folded in front of him. Court staff were not able to make a telephone link with his Yellowknife lawyer, Peter Fuglsang, but Arvaluk asked Johnson to proceed.

He didn't much like what the judge had to say.

"I'm very angry right now," Arvaluk told reporters in a low voice, moments after court adjourned. "I'm not the one who wanted to get into a fight. It was me who was trying to prevent it."

But unlike Justice Howard Irving, the elderly Alberta judge who found Arvaluk not guilty after his first trial in June 2001, Johnson didn't buy that story.

After a retrial held March 13, 2003, in Coral Harbour, won by the Crown after a successful appeal of Irving's decision, Johnson found him guilty.

Then, after months of procedural delay, Johnson heard sentencing arguments from lawyers on Nov. 28. Crown prosecutor Steve White asked for a nine- to 12-month jail sentence, while Arvaluk's lawyer, Peter Fuglsang, asked for a conditional sentence, with an order requiring Arvaluk to do one year of community service.

Again, Johnson didn't buy Arvaluk's pleadings. And he cited Arvaluk's lack of remorse as an aggravating factor supporting a jail sentence.

"He has failed to satisfy me that he has begun the healing journey..." Johnson said, noting that Arvaluk made no apology, showed little remorse, and displayed no sign of accepting responsibility for beating his victim.

All that creates little basis for a conditional sentence based on "restorative" justice principles, Johnson said.

On the other hand, Johnson found strong reasons for a sentence that punishes the crime and deters others from committing it. Spousal assault, Johnson said, "is a serious problem that must be denounced wherever it rears its ugly head."

And he pointed out what's been obvious from the beginning: that Arvaluk's career-destroying criminal convictions all happened because of things he did while drunk.

"Mr. Arvaluk is still in denial about his alcohol problem," Johnson said.

He suggested that Arvaluk's denial and lack of remorse are part of a pattern, quoting directly from trial evidence given by another victim of Arvaluk's drunken violence: a woman who Arvaluk sexually assaulted in 1995 after a hot-tub party at his residence in Yellowknife.

"James has never acknowledged what he did to me," said the woman, who was forced to testify three times because of mix-ups in the conduct of the 1995 trials.

At the time, Arvaluk was still MLA for the Aivilik constituency in the legislative assembly of the Northwest Territories. For a time, he had served as the NWT's minister of education, but left cabinet after being investigated for another sexual assault, alleged to have occurred in 1980 in Rankin Inlet.

After a trial, he was found not guilty on the 1980 charge. But in a later trial on the 1995 incident, Arvaluk was convicted of two sexual assaults and sentenced to five years in prison.

He resigned his seat, which Manitok Thompson then picked up in a May 1995 by-election, and won again in the general election held in November 1995.

In the meantime, one of Arvaluk's hot-tub convictions was overturned on appeal, and he ended up serving only two and a half years. That gave him plenty of time to prepare a run for the Nunavut legislative assembly in the Feb. 15, 1999, election.

Despite his criminal past, he won that seat, and a spot on Nunavut's cabinet. Premier Paul Okalik appointed him minister of education, the job he held when Sophie Sangoya went running into the summer night to lodge an assault complaint with the RCMP in Coral Harbour.

"This case is a lesson to all the people of Nunavut on the invidious effects of alcohol abuse..." Johnson said in this judgment. "I hope you can put this behind you and help the people of Nunavut understand the dangers of alcohol abuse."

After serving his prison term, Arvaluk will live under the terms of an 18-month probation order. During that time, he must abstain from any intoxicating substance, including alcohol, and seek anger management and substance abuse counselling.

He must also give a sample of his DNA for storage in an RCMP data bank.