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FROM HANSARD: Justice a challenge in the North


The following is an edited exchange taken from Hansard in the legislative assembly March 15. Kam Lake MLA Kieron Testart is questioning Justice Minister Louis Sebert about the latest Macdonald-Laurier Institute's second Report Card on the Criminal Justice System, released March 5, which again gave the NWT failing grades in many categories.

TESTART: On March 5 the Macdonald-Laurier Institute released its report on the state of justice in Canada, with the Northwest Territories ranking 12th in the rankings of Canadian jurisdictions. I would like to ask the minister of justice what his comments are on the findings of this report, and whether or not he agrees with them. Thank you.

SEBERT: I have not yet had an opportunity to review the Macdonald-Laurier report, but I think we have been concerned over the last two years about some of the methodology. We don't think, in many ways, it correctly reflected our situation where we have vast distances and have a very small population. I do note that with respect to some of the more objective findings, such as the time required to get to court, we were near the top.

TESTART: It's somewhat unfortunate the minister hasn't had time to look at this report. It was released earlier this month. I would assume it would be of interest to him and his department, but some of the findings do address what the minister's just spoke of. The report mentions the challenges the North face, but we also have the second highest rate of violent crime in Canada and the highest rate of property crime.

The report also found that the Northwest Territories funds little on legal aid compared to other jurisdictions. We received an F in support for victims, according to this report, with the lowest proportion of restitution orders in Canada. I would like to ask the minister of the state of programs that support victims in the Northwest Territories, if he could speak to those.

SEBERT: The Victims Service Program is a fundamental component of how we provide support for victims in the Northwest Territories. There are 11 community-based victim services in eight different communities.

They service those communities, and they also travel often with the courts to other communities to assist with victims, not necessarily with the courts, so I think they sometimes travel with the courts, but they do act in all the communities, including not only the larger ones. So there is victim assistance coverage for the whole of the Northwest Territories.
Admittedly, there are victim assistance workers only in eight communities, but they do serve the whole of the North.

We are always concerned about these programs. We are always seeking to improve them. I think we have come a long way. Perhaps we have further to go.

TESTART: The report also gave the Northwest Territories an F in costs and resources, and found that, even though we are the most policed jurisdiction in Canada, it's an expensive system.
The corrections system was also found to be very expensive. It doesn't seem to be lowering our rates of crime or lowering the number of people who are incarcerated. What is the minister doing to address the high cost for our justice system, that doesn't seem to be getting us the results moving up the list rather than moving down?

SEBERT: Of course, costs are always a concern. As I mentioned earlier, one of our problems is we are serving a vast territory with a very small population, so on a per capita basis, yes, our costs do seem very high. We are always looking at ways to reduce costs and reduce also the amount of criminal activity in the Northwest Territories through such initiatives as DVTO Court and Wellness Court.

TESTART: I think, when reports like this come out, they shake the public's confidence around our justice system. I'm wondering if the minister can commit to reviewing the report and providing a response or some sort of public statement on what he sees as the strength of our system, if he does in fact disagree with these reports? Can he commit to read the report? Thank you.

SEBERT: Yes, I will undertake to read the report, and certainly I would be prepared to answer questions in the future about the report, or perhaps make a statement with respect to it. I do want to say something about the legal aid system. I was a long time working in that system and so worked often with lawyers from other jurisdictions.

They found it to be the gold standard generally of legal aid systems. We had quite a bit of coverage, so there were not people who were unrepresented in court. I think it's very easy to defend the legal aid system itself. I will look at the report and certainly be happy to answer questions or make statements if required with respect to the findings of the report and our response to those findings. Thank you.