Arctic law: Maliiganik Tukisiniakvik celebrates its 40th birthday
Founding director Dennis Patterson to give keynote speech Nov. 15 at legal aid clinic's birthday bash
Over its 40 years of legal service, education and law reform in Nunavut’s Baffin region, Maliiganik Tukisiiniakvik evolved from a pilot project on a shoestring budget, operating out of a small office in Iqaluit, to an envied model for providing justice for marginalized people.
“The first thing that’s a huge success about Maliiganik is that the model endured,” Sen. Dennis Patterson, the founding executive director of the legal aid organization, said while sitting in a coffee shop at Iqaluit’s Four Corners.
Patterson, who will give the keynote address at Maliiganik’s 40th anniversary celebration Nov. 15 at the Frobisher Inn, spoke passionately about the work the organization has done since its inception.
While he did so, Patterson often looked wistfully at some imaginary point in his vision as he recalled memorable, meaningful anecdotes.
“The pilot project became the core method of providing access to justice for Inuit and all Nunavummiut, and others, nationally,” Patterson said, referring to the legal aid clinics opened in Nunavut’s other two regions, as well as in the Northwest Territories and even Newfoundland, all based on Maliiganik’s model.
The current executive director of the legal aid organization, Mark Mossey, agreed with Patterson while speaking from his second floor office in Iqaluit’s Inuksugait Plaza — a definite step up from the Butler building office, now a jewellery store, that Patterson started in.
“This organization started 40 years ago with a focus on public legal education, law reform and representation,” Mossey said, “and that’s still the same today.”
But the 40-year road traveled by Maliiganik was neither smooth nor easy at times, Patterson, a Baffin resident since the 1970s and former territorial justice minister, explained.
When Maliiganik was created, an NWT circuit court, based out of Yellowknife, administered justice in the Baffin region, Patterson said.
The circuit court system left much to be desired though, Patterson said.
Lawyers from Yellowknife never spent more than a few days in the communities and were only able to spend a few hours with their clients.
“Lawyers never got a chance to know their clients, let alone their families and the communities in which they lived. And then they were gone, to be replaced on the next circuit by other Yellowknife lawyers who were eager to see the eastern Arctic, buy a few carvings and then get back to their private practice,” Patterson wrote in an advanced copy of his keynote speech shared with Nunatsiaq News.
“It was very much fly-in and fly-out justice.”
The Inuit Tapirisat of Canada — now called Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami — spearheaded a proposal, led in part by Constance Hunt, now an appeal court judge in Alberta, based on the idea that there was a better way of administering justice to the people of the eastern Arctic.
“The compelling thesis of the ITC proposal was that a resident lawyer, who lived year round in the community, working under the supervision of a local board of directors, and training and working with local Inuit trained as paralegals, could much more effectively represent Inuit in conflict with the law than the traveling circuit court [could],” Patterson wrote in his speech .
Every Baffin community, except for Grise Ford, now has a trained Inuit paralegal working with Maliiganik.
“I give great credit to the paralegals I’ve worked with for enlightening me about the realities around us,” Patterson said.
And the current director Mossey sees the promotion of the court worker program that trains local Inuit as the key to increasing access to justice.
“In reality it might be hard to ever place a full-time lawyer in some communities, but we can have very capable, knowledgeable court workers who know the community, the law, and the language, able to offer those front line services,” Mossey said.
“Knowing the culture, the community, the language, the law: that’s access to justice.”
Patterson recalled a story from the early days of Maliiganik’s existence, about a Coral Harbour man who had been given a ruffed hawk by his daughter after the bird had imprinted itself on her.
A wildlife officer seized the bird and charged the man with the illegal capture of a wild animal.
When the man led other hunters to the wildlife office to protest the bird’s seizure, demanding its release, the wildlife officer also charged him with obstruction of justice.
Patterson flew up to Coral Harbour to act as the man’s lawyer and began assembling a long list of elders and community leaders willing to testify about the offense to cultural and traditional values these charges represented.
“It was only through Inuit court workers that I was able to meet very wise local people who helped me with this defence,” Patterson said.
The prosecuting team arrived — “with great pageantry and splendor” — only to announce the charges were dropped, after seeing the long, impressive list of respected community members willing to give evidence and testify against the charges.
Some 30 years later, when Patterson was teaching at Nunavut Arctic College in Iqaluit, he received a beautiful harpoon on a wooden mount and a note from his former client in Coral Harbour.
“I was carrying a heavy burden when I was going to court a long time ago … even though I was using Inuit traditions to adopt an animal,” the letter reads.
“I know this thing is just an object but it will be yours and I made it for you … Thank you very much, Dennis.”
Jack Anawak, a former member of parliament and the current chair of Maliiganik’s board of directors, said that Maliiganik and its Inuit court workers will continue to be an integral part of the Nunavut justice system.
That’s because it continues to inform and represent clients who are often ignorant of the law and too poor to afford a private lawyer.
Maybe even more so, Anawak added, sitting in his cluttered living room surrounded by plants, as Nunavummiut continue to grapple with social issues amidst big development plans for the territory’s natural resources.
“I think Maliiganik will always be important,” Anawak said. “If people are going through mental anguish, they’re going to keep doing not-so-good things… there’s always going to be those people that need legal advice and assistance.”
The organization has come a long way from its beginning, Patterson said, but its mandate to provide legal education, representation and reform remains just as relevant today as in the 1980s, when he and others at Maliiganik filmed a mock jury trial to show people what a court proceeding actually looks like.
Since those early days, the legal aid organization branched out from only providing representation in criminal matters, to including civil, poverty, family and human rights matters.
And while challenges remain, such as training and retaining more Nunavummiut lawyers, Patterson said the organization is mature, established and flourishing.
“I think Maliiganik will continue to be a key to access to justice for Inuit, as an advocate for reform to the justice system, and to educate people about their rights and responsibilities. Now we just need more locally trained, northern lawyers.”