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GN office that will seize property obtained through crime will be operational soon

Georges Hickes 2
“You have your $50,000 truck in the driveway and you don't work, so the first question is where did you get the money to buy the truck... Where is your income? Where is the letter of gift from somebody?” says Justice Minister George Hickes of the asset forfeiture investigation process that will go through the courts in an effort to repossess property that was obtained through criminal activity. photo courtesy of the legislative assembly

The Government of Nunavut will soon have its Civil Forfeitures Office operational, and individuals unable to prove how they legally acquired expensive possessions could wind up in court defending the legitimacy of ownership.

The new office, based in Iqaluit, is designed to seize the proceeds of crime. It will rely heavily on referrals from the RCMP, which will sometimes be based on tips from the public.

“Civil burden of proof is a lot lower than criminal burden of proof. It would give us the right to be able to go to an individual and how did you get that 2020 truck? Where is your income? Where is the letter of gift from somebody?” Justice Minister George Hickes said in the legislative assembly on March 14, adding that a court must side with the government before property can be confiscated and disposed of. “Where that burden of proof criminally is a lot harder to challenge, but through civil courts it’s a lot easier, where the impetus is on the person being accused to substantiate their burden of proof of where they got the funds from to be able to purchase those vehicles.”

Stephen Mansell, deputy minister of justice, said the department would bring an application for forfeiture in such cases and then the court would order the “respondent” – the person being accused – to provide proof of how an object – like a new pickup truck – was obtained.

Iqaluit-Niaqunnguu MLA Pat Angnakak urged the government to ensure that anyone who stands accused will know what their rights are.

Aivilik MLA Patterk Netser commended the government for creating the office.

“There are a lot of bootlegging and illegal activities that are happening in all our communities and this would be a great tool to curb the violence that it’s causing in our communities,” he said. “There’s illegal activities in all of our communities where drug dealers, bootleggers have a pile of equipment, certainly in their yards, and obviously all the equipment is bought through illegal drug trade ... For many years people in the communities lives have been damaged by these activities and sometimes it seems impossible to stop them. I’m very glad that we’re going to see this coming out. Then the selling of cannabis and alcohol illegally ... something will be done about that. It’s good to see things that don’t help lives; something will be done about these things that don’t help any lives. So I have better expectations now.”

Hickes said he anticipates that the office, which will initially be staffed by a director and two staff, will open as of April 1.

He emphasized that it's important for members of the public to come forward with information. He added that there will be a communications strategy to inform Nunavummiut of how the process works.

Mansell said, “If we got just the tip, then we would have to gather the information from whoever provided it to us and then decide if we had enough to go to court. With respect to the actual repossession, the minister’s right, it would probably be the sheriffs that execute that, and then we’re working with CGS (Community and Government Services), because once you have the thing, then you need to put it somewhere and sell it and do all that stuff.”

Angnakak noted that the courts are already busy. She asked whether they will have the capacity to take on asset forfeiture cases.

Hickes replied, “I don’t anticipate it being a big burst.”

Mansell added, “If we see a big influx and a lot of work, and we might have to talk with the court and see how they’re doing, but initial rollout, I think it should be fine.”

Angnakak also mentioned the challenge of obtaining a lawyer, as she knows from consulting with the Legal Service Board that there's already a “big, long wait list” for legal counsel.

Netsilik MLA Emiliano Qirngnuq asked how members of the public will be protected after they provide tips about their neighbours potentially possessing the proceeds of crime.

Mansell didn't provide a clear answer.

“We haven’t sorted out exactly what the public tips might look like, but I understand the concern about protecting people who might be informing on other people in a very small community,” he said.

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