Judges making a difference

In June 2017, 29-year-old Sandra Ameralik, who had six children and was 29 weeks pregnant, stabbed her husband, Howie Aaluk, with a kitchen knife, and he died. Sandra was charged with second-degree murder. More than three and a half years later, she was acquitted by Justice Susan Charlesworth in a courtroom in Iqaluit, Nunavut.

At her trial, Sandra testified that her much larger husband had subjected her to physical violence for many years and that, when she stabbed him, she just wanted to stop him from hurting her unborn baby.

In her decision, Justice Charlesworth said that the years of abuse “led to Ms. Ameralik justifiably taking physical action against the deceased as she perceived him to be a threat to her and her unborn child. It is clear to me that there were no other means available to Ms. Ameralik to respond to the threat posed by Mr. Aaluk.” (emphasis mine)

Aaluk had been charged numerous times in the past, but the charges were often dropped because Sandra did not appear in court to testify. At her murder trial, Sandra explained that she had been too afraid to testify against her husband lest he fight or hurt her, so she pretended she couldn’t get a babysitter and stayed at home.

Justice Charlesworth noted the systemic shortcomings in Nunavut’s justice system and commented that, had supports been available to allow Sandra to testify against Aaluk, the course of the family’s history might have been quite different.

Police-reported family violence is 10 times higher in Nunavut than the Canadian average, which Rebecca Kudloo, president of Pauktuutit Inuit Women of Canada noted is “part of the horrific legacy of colonization, relocation of Inuit and the effects of residential schooling. . . .Women have no place to go . . . and you can’t just move to another house because all the houses are overcrowded.”

Just mercy

In 2019, a young Inuk mother was convicted of two criminal offences related to serious abuse against her five-year-old son. She was given a conditional sentence of two years less a day on one charge and a consecutive three-year suspended sentence on the other.

While the assaults on her son were severe, the woman’s lawyer noted that she came from a family plagued by generational alcohol abuse, child abandonment and violence, was just 16 years old when she had her son and had had five children before she turned 23.

The Crown appealed the sentence, seeking a jail term of two years less a day.

The Nunavut Appeal Court agreed with the Crown that the original sentence had been “demonstrably unfit” and sentenced the woman to jail time. However, the Court then stayed that jail time out of concern for the negative impact foster care would have on the woman’s four-year-old daughter, who lived with her and was in no apparent danger. The Court was influenced by the Crown’s “firsthand account of the limited resources available in the north to care for children without parental support and the bleak future of those in foster care.”

In commenting on the case, Ryerson University’s School of Child and Youth Care associate professor Kim Snow said:

“[I]n Nunavut, there is an absence of children’s services, so these kids end up down [south], in what we call outside paid resources. And the outcome for these kids is disastrous. They become disconnected from their language and culture; they are very often subject to . . . serious occurrences; they are at risk of going missing; and the potential for abuse increases because there [aren’t] the natural safeguards of those around them who would naturally protect them. . . If the mother can be supported to raise [the daughter], that interrupts the cycle of colonization that removes young people, sends them down south and dislocates them.”

“We need to act”

In 2018, a 14-year-old Indigenous girl (C.H.), her sister and a friend went into a hotel suite with at least five men. Over the course of the next several hours, everyone became intoxicated. One of those men was later charged with sexual assault and touching for a sexual purpose with respect to C.H.

At trial, British Columbia Provincial Court Judge Alexander Wolf found that “a young, vulnerable girl was sexually violated by a male.” However, because C.H. could not identify her assailant beyond a reasonable doubt, he acquitted the accused.

In a respectful decision that explained in plain language various criminal law concepts and the criminal court process (the decision is worth reading for this reason alone), he made clear what a finding of not guilty does not mean:

“Please do not mistake the concept of an acquittal with the concept of innocence.”

Judge Wolfe, a member of the Kwikwasut’inuxw Haxwa’mis nation, addressed the issue of violence against Indigenous girls and women in his decision:

“Indigenous females have a greater chance of being victims to spousal violence. They have an increased chance of being sexually abused while in care, and sexually assaulted when out of care. If you are a female teenager in jail, chances are that you are an indigenous girl.”

His decision was also a call to action:

“When I began these reasons, I introduced this idea: When we talk about the ‘criminal law’ we are talking about the idea that we as a society are bound by certain laws that restrict our behaviour. When we break these laws, we are breaking our promise to the community to abide by the same rules. And when we break the law, we are hurting and injuring not only the individual victim, but the whole community.

“While I am duty-bound to come to the legal conclusion I have, you as a community have other options.

“This case is illustrative to me that there is intergenerational trauma caused by the residential school system that has flowed from our grandmothers down to our grandchildren.

“In this case, somebody from the [omitted for publication] First Nation harmed this young girl from the [omitted for publication] First Nation. A sense of harmony in our community has been lost and needs to be restored. . . . I hope there is an opportunity to pursue restorative justice approaches to healing the communities involved. . . . I would welcome the opportunity to be part of any community driven restorative justice approach that might be undertaken. I have been part of healing events in other places. These healing events can be transformative.

“We need to do something, we need to act. If we do not act now, when will these horrible crimes against our young girls and women ever end?”

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