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Courthouse serving Cree and Inuit in northern Quebec burns, further delaying justice

The fire started Tuesday night. Investigators are still trying to determine the cause of the fire.  (Submitted by Julia Blais-Quintal - image credit)
The fire started Tuesday night. Investigators are still trying to determine the cause of the fire. (Submitted by Julia Blais-Quintal - image credit)

The justice system for the Cree and Inuit in the northern Quebec community of Whapmagoostui — located on the banks of the Hudson Bay near the Grande Rivière de la Baleine — will face even greater delays after the village's courthouse went up in flames this week, leaving behind only charred remains standing in the ice and snow.

Firefighters fought to contain the flames that erupted Tuesday night, and the cause of the fire remains unknown at this stage of the investigation, said Patrice Abel, an investigator with the Nunavik police force.

"When the fire started, there were two detainees with three guards from Quebec correctional services, but they had time to go out," said Abel.

The fire did not cause any injuries or deaths, but it dealt another blow to an already backlogged docket that is slowing down the judicial process for people living in the community.

Lawyers, clerks and a judge had travelled north to the village from Amos, Que., in the Abitibi-Témiscamingue region, to hear more than 100 cases.

Julia Blais-Quintal, one of the defence lawyers who works at the courthouse, says she losts hundreds of files.
Julia Blais-Quintal, one of the defence lawyers who works at the courthouse, says she losts hundreds of files.

Julia Blais-Quintal, one of the defence lawyers who works at the courthouse, says she losts hundreds of files. (Submitted by Julia Blais-Quintal)

The travelling court visits Whapmagoostui and the neighbouring community of Kuujjuarapik just three times a year, down from the seven or eight times in years past because of a lack of judicial resources.

Julia Blais-Quintal, one of the defence lawyers who works at the courthouse, says the delays have put both defendants and witnesses who had been waiting for their day in court in legal limbo.

"There are people who are detained at the moment, and they were expecting to have their trial this week or to settle their files and get sentenced," she said.

"There are also victims who were expecting to come testify for the trials that were fixed for this week and all of this was cancelled."

The courthouse hosted the travelling court three times a year. But it was also a valuable community meeting place.
The courthouse hosted the travelling court three times a year. But it was also a valuable community meeting place.

All that remains of the courthouse is a smoking ruin, leaving the community without a space that it used to host traditional activities. (Submitted by Vivianne Sheshamush)

Blais-Quintal says court dates scheduled for Wednesday, Thursday and Friday were cancelled, a significant loss when court visits are so rare.

Hundreds of files belonging to the defence and the Crown were also lost in the fire, with only some of the evidence and documents backed up on digital files, according to Blais-Quintal.

"It will be difficult to rebuild all those physical files and also, since we only sit three weeks a year in this community, court time is very valuable. We've [already] lost three days, so it will have an impact," said Blais-Quintal.

Blais-Quintal says the court was originally scheduled to return in April but that date has been moved up to February to deal with the cases that were supposed to be heard this week.

In September, the Crown prosecutors' office, the Directeur des poursuites criminelles et pénales (DPCP) revealed, following reporting from La Presse, that 126 criminal cases had been dropped in Nunavik and Abitibi-Témiscamingue — 99 of which came from travelling court moving between James Bay and Nunavik.

Quebec Justice Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette blamed the Court of Quebec for procedural delays, while defence lawyer Louis-Nicholas Coupal, who practised law in Nunavik for 10 years, blamed a lack of resources, which he said makes it "nearly impossible" for the system to process all its cases.

More than a courthouse

In the fire, the Whapmagoostui not only lost its courthouse, it also lost a vital community space.

The building was used for hosting community projects and traditional activities.

"The people from the community were very emotional with that loss, and I think it's important that we don't forget about that," said Blais-Quintal.

"It was a really beautiful building that made the people from the community proud and they lost that."

Listen|An interview in Cree with Chief Robbie Kawapit about the courthouse: