Nunavut’s chief justice hangs up his robe

April 12 was a sentimental day for Chief Justice Neil Sharkey.

On the eve of his 75th birthday, the mandatory retirement age for federally appointed judges in Canada, Sharkey worked his final day Friday in Nunavut’s court.

“I’m going to miss the busyness and I’m sad to leave, but it’s time,” he said in an interview with Nunatsiaq News.

“At 75, full-time work is not necessary.”

Sharkey’s legal career in the North began in Yellowknife in 1983 as a Crown prosecutor.

In 1986, he moved to Iqaluit — then called Frobisher Bay — and served as executive director of Maliiganik Tukisiiniakvik Legal Services.

Sharkey was the first lawyer to be called to the Nunavut bar, in 1999. He was appointed as a judge in 2008 and became senior judge (later renamed chief justice) of the Nunavut Court of Justice on Oct. 1, 2016.

Reflecting on his lengthy legal career, Sharkey recalled some of his unique experiences working in Nunavut. One of those was in Sanirajak (then called Hall Beach) in the mid-1980s when he was prosecuting the case of a youth accused of murder.

There was no hotel in the community at the time, so Sharkey ended up sleeping on the lower part of a bunk bed while the accused killer had the top bunk.

“The males stayed in one bunkhouse and the females in the court party stayed in the other bunkhouse … so, for a week I was with the accused guy,” Sharkey said.

“The reason I got the bottom bunk was because I was the tallest person… it was just tremendous.”

Sharkey described the 2014 murder trial of Ruben Arnakallak as one of the significant cases during his time as a judge.

The trial was held in Pond Inlet, in front of an Inuktitut-speaking jury. In Sharkey’s earlier legal days, jurors needed to be English speakers.

He remembered the experience of that trial as otherworldly. Narwhals were in the bay and the shots of hunters’ rifles woke him up every morning.

“I didn’t need an alarm clock every morning for seven weeks,” he said.

The Arnakallak case is also one where Sharkey said he made what he feels was one of the most important decisions of his legal career.

When a juror became conflicted in the case, the Crown tried to have the trial moved to Iqaluit.

Citing previous legal precedence regarding the role of the circuit court system in communities, Sharkey decided the case should remain in Pond Inlet, where the incident was alleged to have taken place.

“It’s an important case in our precedent,” Sharkey said.

In the end, Arnakallak was acquitted by a jury.

Looking forward, Sharkey expressed hope about the future of Nunavut’s justice system.

He said there are more Inuit entering the legal profession as lawyers and other court staff positions.

“In my lifetime, we’ll see an Inuit judge here,” he said.

Sharkey also said it’s important for Nunavut’s justice system to continue being present in all communities. Although technology has allowed court to be conducted remotely in some cases, being present is vital.

He also said he wants to eventually see resident judges in Rankin Inlet and Cambridge Bay.

“We’re not the Iqaluit Court of Justice, we’re the Nunavut Court of Justice,” Sharkey said.

“We do techno-hearings, remote hearings to the communities for emergency matters and family matters sometimes, but we don’t want to get sucked away with it.

“We don’t want technology to keep us from our community commitment.”

So, what does Sharkey do now that he is retiring?

He has a lot planned, he said, the first of which is staying put. After all, Iqaluit is where he and his wife Anne Crawford, a fellow lawyer, raised their family.

“I love living here, I love Nunavut, I love Iqaluit and this is my home, so I’m going to stay here,” Sharkey said.

He said he hopes to spend time volunteering with community organizations and working on some personal writing projects, including a possible book and legal blog; he plans to write about things he “can’t talk about as a judge.”

People might see Sharkey around on the streets more often, because he hopes to start a walking club in his new-found free time.

“I want to get back to the thin man I was 10 years ago,” he joked.

A swearing-out ceremony will happen April 13 at 3:30 p.m. at the Iqaluit courthouse, followed by a reception and outdoor Toonik Tyme games hosted by Crawford. No replacement has been named yet to succeed Sharkey.

“I just feel so happy and privileged to be the chief justice of the Nunavut Court; like, it’s a real privilege and it’s a great responsibility, but I just enjoy it,” Sharkey said.

“I’m the luckiest guy in the world to do it because it’s the best job in the world.”

Jeff Pelletier, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Nunatsiaq News