'No justice in the Yukon,' Greg Dawson's family says after killer's sentencing

·4 min read
Greg Alvin Dawson was 45 when he was killed by Connie Thorn in their Riverdale apartment in 2017. Thorn was sentenced on May 13 but his family says they haven't received justice.  ( Ta'an Kwäch'än Council  - image credit)
Greg Alvin Dawson was 45 when he was killed by Connie Thorn in their Riverdale apartment in 2017. Thorn was sentenced on May 13 but his family says they haven't received justice. ( Ta'an Kwäch'än Council - image credit)

Greg Dawson's family likes to remember his smile and gentle presence, the way he would occasionally show up at a relative's doorstep and ask for a coffee, or a bite to eat.

"(He) knocks on the door, 'Hey cuz, I'm hungry. Can I get two eggs and two slices of bread?'" cousin Mary Dawson recalled.

He'd sometimes share the meagre meal with friends, an act family members said showed his true nature — someone who didn't have very much, but would still make an effort to help others.

But memories of Greg Dawson are now tarnished with the knowledge of how he died in 2017. The 45-year-old Ta'an Kwäch'än Council (TKC) citizen was killed by Connie Thorn in their Whitehorse basement apartment, with Thorn evading arrest until two years later when she was charged with second-degree murder.

The 52-year-old pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of manslaughter this year. A Yukon Supreme Court judge gave her a five-year sentence on May 13 — the sentence requested by the Crown — but with credit for time spent in jail prior to sentencing, Thorn will only be incarcerated for two and a half more years.

One of Greg Dawson's sisters said hearing that felt like a slap to the face — like her brother's life didn't matter.

"There is no justice in the Yukon," Valerie Dawson told CBC News the week after the sentencing.

"I hear that from a lot of my family members, friends."

Jessie Dawson, a cousin, agreed.

"We've gone through many losses," she said, "and we relied on a system that let us down."

Review of Gladue reports needed, chief says

The Dawson family isn't alone, according to Kwanlin Dün First Nation (KDFN) Chief Doris Bill.

Although a TKC citizen, Greg Dawson had many close ties to KDFN.

"I think more and more, we're seeing families going through this type of thing," Bill said.

"We're seeing these lenient sentences being applied to some very, very serious cases and it has to change. It can't continue down this road."

One thing Bill said she thought was in particular need of review was the use of Gladue reports, especially in cases involving serious violence or death.

Gladue reports are documents that examine systemic issues — for example, being an intergenerational survivor of residential schools — that may have influenced an Indigenous offender's actions. The reports are done at the request of an offender and must be factored into sentencing.

Thorn, who is Métis, had a Gladue report done as part of her sentencing process.

Bill said that while she understands the intentions behind Gladue reports, which include addressing the over-representation of Indigenous people in Canada's corrections systems, she questions whether reports should be done for offenders who have caused death.

"There may be cases within homicides where it can be applied, but I think we need to really scrutinize how it's applied in these crimes," she said.

"It's leaving a lot of hurt, anger and frustration in its wake. The families are not happy with the system."

System 'unbalanced,' says family

Members of the Dawson family said they were particularly frustrated by Thorn's Gladue report because Greg Dawson also experienced a number of traumas and hardships. However, cousin Shirley Dawson said they never had a chance to fully present that side of the story to the court, something she thought showed how "unbalanced" the system is.

"We could have probably wrote a Gladue report on our cousin Greg's life, you know?" she said. "So it's not only (Thorn) who is having a tough time."

Jessie Dawson said she felt her family had been re-victimized by the court process — the sentence, the Gladue report and the constraints placed on family members' victim impact statements and attire.

The family made memorial t-shirts with pictures of Greg Dawson on them; Jessie Dawson said they were told they couldn't wear the shirts in court because they might unduly influence the process.

"It never served us any justice," she said of the experience.

Bill, for her part, said she's reached out to other Yukon First Nations chiefs as well as the territorial justice minister to discuss her concerns about Gladue and how victims and their families are treated as cases go through the courts.

She had also raised the issue during hearings for the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, but wants to push the conversation further.

Judges and other members of the justice system need to be a part of the larger discussion about Gladue, she said, so they can truly understand the impact sentences have on not just individual families, but entire communities.

"You stand by as a leader and watch your people hurting because of a system that's not treating them well," she said.

"To rely on someone's background to get a lenient sentence — I don't think that's right."