Criminal defence law in the north: Part One.

AuthorDavison, Charles

It seems that almost every lawyer who has travelled from southern Canada to practice law "North of 60" ends up writing about his or her experiences at some point. Almost all of those who are drawn to this part of Canada are struck by the geographical and physical beauty of this land, and by the personal, cultural and social situations and histories of the peoples who have lived here for generations before us.

I confess I am no different. I first started coming to the Northwest Territories to travel on circuit with the Territorial Court in the spring of 2010 when I was still living and working in Edmonton. Over the following two years the place, the people, and the experiences, grew upon me to the extent that after more than 25 years of practicing law in Edmonton I decided to close my office there and to resettle in the north. At the end of June, 2012 I made my last court appearances in Alberta, packed my car, and drove north to begin a new chapter of my career and my life. For the last 18 months I have worked as criminal defence counsel in Yellowknife as a member of the legal aid organization (the Legal Services Board of the Northwest Territories) which provides representation for the indigent who find themselves in conflict with the law.

Canadian history includes some dark and terrible moments involving efforts by white European society to subjugate and destroy aboriginal communities and culture on a widespread basis.

In the next three columns I will try to describe some aspects of criminal defence practice in this part of Canada's north, from both a personal and professional perspective. In so many ways and on so many levels, this setting is one of stark contrasts: the land is at once beautiful and intimidating; and the climate varies from surprisingly hot and dry in the summer, to cold and dark in the winter. The communities where we work as defence counsel also reflect contrasts, as they are both afflicted by deep-rooted social problems and personal tragedies, and blessed with resilient individuals and aspirations which cannot be denied.

In general terms, the substantive law is the same here as it is in every other part of Canada. The Criminal Code applies across the country, of course, and it is enforced in the Northwest Territories (and the other territories as well) by the R.C.M.P. (there are no municipal or territorial police forces in Canada's north). Just as the police operate complicated undercover operations to detect drug...

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