12 months in jail recommended for woman who set Charlottetown apartment fire

·3 min read
About 20 people were displaced after a fire on Euston Street in Charlottetown in the early hours of April 6, 2021. Grace May Sark eventually pleaded guilty to lighting the fire. (Tony Davis/CBC - image credit)
About 20 people were displaced after a fire on Euston Street in Charlottetown in the early hours of April 6, 2021. Grace May Sark eventually pleaded guilty to lighting the fire. (Tony Davis/CBC - image credit)

The lawyer for a woman who set fire to a Charlottetown apartment building is asking a P.E.I. judge to recognize the woman's Indigenous heritage and difficult life situation as he hands down a sentence in the case.

Grace May Sark appeared in court Wednesday by video link from provincial jail, where she has spent 86 days in custody, following the arson on Euston Street 14 months ago.

"'Most of the women who are in prison in Canada today are Indigenous women," Trish Cheverie, Sark's defence lawyer and the director of legal aid for the province, said after the hearing. "That's a wake-up call for us. We're doing something terribly wrong."

Cheverie and Crown prosecutor John Diamond jointly recommended a sentence of one year in provincial jail, followed by a period of probation that includes counselling.

In April of 2021, Sark was renting a room in an apartment leased by a male tenant of 224 Euston Street, Diamond told the court as he read some of the details of the crime into the record.

The night of April 5, she got into a disagreement with the man while "on a mind-altering substance," according to Diamond. The tenant told her to leave in the morning.

Around 5 a.m. on April 6, the building's fire alarm went off.

Brian Higgins/CBC
Brian Higgins/CBC

The male tenant found a pile of burning clothes in Sark's bedroom within his apartment. He and two other people, including a police officer, ended up needing hospital treatment for minor injuries.

Twenty people in the building were forced out of their homes.

Police found Sark that morning at a nearby doughnut shop. Diamond said she was admitted to hospital and turned herself in to police after her release. She was charged with arson after the fire marshal found evidence of gasoline in the fire-damaged bedroom.

'Her past is horrific'

"She's fortunate to be alive," Diamond told court, referring to Sark's troubled life. "Her past is horrific."

In preparation for sentencing, justice workers at the Mi'kmaq Confederacy of P.E.I. prepared what's called a Gladue report, based on interviews with Sark and other people familiar with her situation.

Following a 1999 decision by the Supreme Court of Canada, Gladue reports must be presented to judges before Indigenous offenders are sentenced. The reports provide information that may be unique to Indigenous offenders, including trauma caused by attendance at residential schools, colonial violence, foster care and adoption, or substance abuse.

Tony Davis/CBC
Tony Davis/CBC

To date, the Mi'kmaq Confederacy of P.E.I. has prepared nearly 60 Gladue reports, according to the group.

"I wish every person on Prince Edward Island could read a Gladue report," Cheverie said after the court proceedings. "They are incredibly stunning accountings of what's happened to these people over generations … it's painful to read."

The Crown and defence are also jointly asking the judge to order Sark to pay restitution for damage to the building. That would include about $250,000 payable to an insurance company, and $10,000 to the owner of the building.

Everything gets reduced to money, which is probably not the healthiest thing. — Trish Cheverie

The Crown and defence agreed there was little chance Sark could ever come up with that kind of money. Judge Jeff Lantz told the court Sark would have to "win the lottery" to do so, given her circumstances.

After the hearing, Cheverie called the restitution discussion a "symptom of the kind of justice system we have. Everything gets reduced to money, which is probably not the healthiest thing."

Lantz adjourned sentencing until June 23 at 2 p.m., to examine Sark's Gladue report in greater detail, and to receive an update on the exact amount of restitution owed.

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