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Editorial: There can be no justice without supports

Justice Paul Bychok worries lenient sentencing shows ‘there is little justice to be found for Inuit women in the criminal justice system’

The issue: Gender-based violence
We say: Safe options desperately needed

The holidays, though a time of joy and celebration, can be a stressful time for many.

Pair everyday struggles with an ongoing pandemic and you’ve got a perfect storm for intimate partner violence.

The number of women and girls experiencing violence at the hands of an intimate partner, spouse or relative is nearly impossible to calculate as more than 80 per cent of incidents go unreported, according to one Statistics Canada estimate.

A 112-page report that Pauktuutit Inuit Women of Canada released in January states the rate of violent transgressions against Inuit women is 13 times higher than for women in the rest of Canada.

But those numbers don’t show how Nunavut women fleeing violence are often trapped in a repeating loop of trauma due to lack of adequate services.

Then we must consider that even when these violent acts occur, are reported to the proper authorities and prosecuted, the victim still may not see justice done.

Justice Paul Bychok expressed his frustration in a decision released in November after he was forced to impose a “lenient” sentence on a Kugluktuk man convicted of twice assaulting his girlfriend. Following plea negotiations, Crown prosecutor Gary Wool had the court delete a choking charge, which Bychok “expected the Crown to allege (as) an aggravating factor to the common assault.” The offender subsequently pleaded guilty to common assault and a bail breach.

In a 2019 Macleans interview, Deirdre Bainbridge, a nurse who chairs the Ontario Domestic Violence Death Review Committee, called strangulation a major red flag, in which an abuser literally has the victim’s life in his hands: “Someone strangled to unconsciousness but left alive is seven times more likely to be killed than if never strangled.”

Back to Bychok. “The joint submission did nothing to help dispel the perception that our justice system devalues the lives of Inuit victims of crime. I am certain this omission would alarm and dismay all informed and reasonable Nunavummiut,” the judge stated.

He noted that there’s a risk that lenient sentences can reinforce the perception that “there is little justice to be found for Inuit women in the criminal justice system.

“Inuit women, and all Nunavummiut, deserve a justice system that meaningfully addresses gendered violence,” the judge wrote. “There is a need and a role for Parliament to reopen debate on this vitally important aspect of our criminal justice system.”

Bychok is right, but justice alone is a cold substitute for supports for women and families with nowhere else to go.

Nunavut RCMP Chief Supt. Amanda Jones said in 2018 that new family violence shelters would be of great benefit to women trying to leave violent situations.

“It’s a frustration for a lot of our members, they feel they have nowhere to direct the client to, a safer environment,” she said. “Our members feel sometimes that they’re very alone to try and solve the issues.”

The Department of Family Services has proposed new family violence shelters in Pangnirtung, Baker Lake, Pond Inlet and Gjoa Haven. Those are badly needed.

Second-stage housing – a facility offering long-term, secure housing with support and referral services designed to assist women while they search for permanent housing – is another needed and asked-after support. The absence of such housing affects women and children at their most vulnerable.

Parliament must also address the ever-growing need for housing – transitional and permanent – to protect our most vulnerable and give them hope for a safe future.