IQALUIT, Nunavut — A Nunavut judge who acquitted a woman of murder for killing her abusive spouse in self-defence is warning that the territory's cycle of domestic violence will continue unless victims get adequate support.
Sandra Ameralik of Gjoa Haven was charged with second-degree murder after she stabbed her spouse and father of her six children, Howie Aaluk, once in the chest with a large kitchen knife during an argument in their home in June 2017.
Ameralik was 29-years old and 29 weeks pregnant at the time.
She testified at a trial held last October that her husband had physically abused her for years. She told court she was not trying to kill Aaluk that day, but was trying to stop him from hurting her and her baby, and had been aiming for his arm.
A foot shorter than her husband, she told court that they had been yelling at each other in the kitchen and he went toward her and told her to stab him.
In a decision released Wednesday, Justice Susan Charlesworth ruled that Ameralik was not guilty of second-degree murder or the lesser offence of manslaughter.
Ameralik's defence lawyer, Alison Crowe, said the acquittal is the first in Nunavut in a case using battered woman syndrome as a defence. A 1990 Supreme Court of Canada decision ruled that the syndrome is a legitimate explanation for self-defence in the courts.
Gary Magee, the Crown prosecutor in Ameralik's case, said his office has not yet decided whether to appeal.
The judge said in her ruling that Ameralik had suffered years of violence at the hands of Aaluk which, "led to Ms. Ameralik justifiably taking physical action against the deceased as she perceived him to be a threat to her and her unborn child."
"It is clear to me that there were no other means available to Ms. Ameralik to respond to the threat posed by Mr. Aaluk," Charlesworth wrote.
The trial heard that there were several times, going back to 2010, when Aaluk was charged with assaulting Ameralik. Most times, the charges were dropped because she did not attend court.
"Ms. Ameralik also said that she usually did not go to court because Mr. Aaluk would tell her to stay home and say she could not find a babysitter, or her children were sick. She said she was afraid if she went to court 'that he was going to either fight me or hurt me,'" Charlesworth wrote.
The judge said there are "systemic shortcomings" in Nunavut's justice system.
"We will not know how the course of this family’s history might have changed had Ms. Ameralik had the support to follow through with testifying against Mr. Aaluk in any of the trials for charges of intimate partner violence that were brought against him," she said.
Statistics Canada figures show police-reported family violence in Nunavut is 10 times the Canadian average.
Rebecca Kudloo, president of Pauktuutit Inuit Women of Canada, said Nunavut's high rates of domestic violence are not new, but "part of the horrific legacy of colonization, relocation of Inuit, and the effects of residential schooling."
Kudloo pointed out that when Ameralik killed her husband, there was no shelter or safe house in Gjoa Haven.
Across Inuit Nunangat, which represents regions of the Northwest Territories, Nunavut, Nunavik and Newfoundland and Labrador, 70 per cent of communities do not have shelters for women and children fleeing violence.
"Women have no place to go if there’s no shelter. And up North in an isolated community, you can’t just move to another house because all the houses are overcrowded," Kudloo said.
A recent federal government announcement to build five new Inuit-specific shelters is good news, said Kudloo, but more funding for shelters is needed.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 2, 2021.
Emma Tranter, The Canadian Press