Nunatsiaq Online
NEWS: Nunavut November 18, 2016 - 8:30 am

Nunavut’s sorry lack of mental health care goes on trial

Case involving troubled young man turns into an indictment of the GN’s woeful incapacities

THOMAS ROHNER
The transcript of a court proceeding held last July in Pond Inlet to sentence a troubled young man who pleaded guilty to about a dozen charges, show the prosecutor, defence lawyer and judge all denouncing the lack of mental health services available in Nunavut. (FILE PHOTO)
The transcript of a court proceeding held last July in Pond Inlet to sentence a troubled young man who pleaded guilty to about a dozen charges, show the prosecutor, defence lawyer and judge all denouncing the lack of mental health services available in Nunavut. (FILE PHOTO)

Like flies on a courthouse wall noting the absence of just rehabilitation options, two lawyers and a judge looked at an accused person with pity and hope inside a makeshift courtroom in Pond Inlet.

All three were in agreement that the accused—a young homeless man with a track record of alcoholism and suicide attempts—needed serious help.

But at a sentencing in July in the Baffin community, all three agreed that help for the repeat offender is almost non-existent in Nunavut.

A transcript of the proceeding, recently acquired by Nunatsiaq News, shows many issues raised in this case mirror the same issues raised by a coroner’s inquest in Igloolik that wrapped up Nov. 10.

Those issues include a chronic lack of services for Nunavummiut with mental health issues and the explosive potential for violence between such individuals and the police.

Lawyer Joey Murdoch-Flowers represented the “deeply troubled man,” whose identity Nunatsiaq News is not publishing.

“What are we doing in our community to support individuals who have addictions? Who have suicidal ideation and actions and mental health issues?” the defence lawyer asked Justice Cassimir Herrold.

“It’s something that we see all the time in these courts, and to be honest it breaks my heart to see the underserviced and inadequate resources for people like [the accused]. Rather than providing an adequate resource for individuals with these troubles, the only option left, your honour, is jail.”

It was with a “heavy heart” that Murdoch-Flowers said he agreed to the joint submission to send the accused to jail for one year, minus 40 days for time served.

The accused, 25, pleaded guilty to a dozen charges July 21 that ranged from mischief to assault and firearm related offences.

According to facts read into the record by Crown prosecutor Ivan Nault, the charges stem from three incidents earlier in the year between February and June.

In all three incidents the accused appeared drunk and distraught, resisted arrest, became violent while in police custody, but, once sober, took responsibility for his actions.

In one incident, the accused was trying to bum a smoke from his sister.

When she refused, the accused became angry and threatened to kill himself.

He took a rifle from the porch and moments later shots were heard by a number of residents, including a group of “distraught” and “crying” children who told police they saw a man with a rifle.

The rifle, which was never found, is believed to have been thrown, loaded, on the ground in a high-traffic pedestrian area close to a playground.

“I saw some little kids yesterday out playing baseball where the gun was allegedly thrown. That rifle could have been picked up by anybody,” the judge said.

Murdoch-Flowers said it’s not the accused’s first brush with suicide.

“In his life, he has actually shot himself. He has a scar that he showed me on his shoulder with a little bullet hole,” the defence lawyer said.

In another incident, a resident found the accused, who appeared drunk, on his porch in February wearing nothing but a tee-shirt and jeans.

“[The accused] has no fixed address in Pond Inlet. He was going from place to place and seeking refuge, and was refused that refuge and reacted with violence,” Murdoch-Flowers said.

The defence lawyer pointed out that in each instance the accused, who had a “troubled upbringing” and is “illiterate,” was in distress.

“I have gone looking for resources for my clients to help them along, and too often I find not enough resources. This is one of those files where my client needs some serious help. Indeed, the risks of having a gun left around children are very high… But equally risky is allowing this individual to continue with no support,” said Murdoch-Flowers.

“I endorse Mr. Flowers’ submissions and adopt them as my own,” prosecutor Nault said.

The accused apologized when he addressed the court.

“If I hadn’t drank alcohol I wouldn’t have done any of that,” the man said.

Herrold said that statement is a step in the right direction for the accused, who the judge called “engaged,” “calm,” and “seemed like just a wonderful young man,” when sober.

Herrold, recently retired, said he had come up to Nunavut as a deputy judge for the past eight years.

“What cries out to me is the terrible lack of resources for people who need help. We have [coroner’s] inquests. They look into suicides. They make some wonderful recommendations, and then nothing happens to them. Money, funding, choices,” the judge said.

Recent coroner inquests into two deaths in Igloolik in 2012 and into Nunavut’s sky-high suicide rates have resulted in dozens of recommendations that aim to address Nunavut’s need for mental health resources.

“Resources… have to be increased. And if they aren’t, we’re just making a mockery of the recommendations in the inquests,” the judge said.

But the court system has its own failings.

For example, the accused man was on a probation order not to drink even though he’s a known alcoholic.

And the judge imposed $700 worth of mandatory victim fine surcharges to a man who has only had periodic employment as a dishwasher and janitor in between his run-ins with police.

On Oct. 21, the Liberal government introduced Bill C-28, which would give judges discretion to waive victim surcharges for those who can’t pay. That bill has received second reading but has not yet passed the House of Commons.

The judge found reason for optimism too, firstly because the accused took responsibility for his actions once sober.

And the judge said the elder in court who offered his counselling to the accused is another positive potential in this case.

Unfortunately, much of what the elder said is not understandable on the English court transcript, likely due to translation difficulties—another ongoing issue with Nunavut’s justice system.

When the accused is released, he will have a local probation officer as a resource as well, Herrold said.

But, like the lawyers and the judge, she will probably tell the accused that “she has her hands tied behind her back… She will probably be as frustrated as we all are, saying I’m trying to get you these resources, these helps, [but] I’m not sure I can, but I’m going to do my best,” the judge said.

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