Open Space in Baker Lake:

Nunavut Justice

Larry Peterson

March 18, 2000

When I was asked to facilitate a conference in Baker Lake on Community Justice issues, I was excited. I had not worked with Inuit groups before. I had worked with other Canadian aboriginal groups, but not the Inuit and not so far North.

I was also excited because the Sponsor of the event was a friend with whom I had worked on homelessness issues in the now somewhat distant past. She had been hired by the new Nunavut Commuity Justice Division to work in Kivalliq Region to assist the development of local Community Justice Committees. The Committees are to be composed of a cross section of the community: age, gender and experience. Key members of those committees are the community Elders and leaders who are appointed. The Justice Committees are appointed by their Hamlets. They are to develop alternative forms of justice for those convicted of minor offences, allowing them to stay connected to their community. The Baker Lake Committee insisted that it host the event.

Baker Lake is the only inland community of Inuit in the new Territory of Nunavut. For the last 40 years, the 1600 inland Inuit who used to roam after Caribou for survival, have been gathered in Baker Lake. The community now has housing, power, water and septic tank systems (all above ground due to the fragile permafrost landscape), health and social services. It even has a Northern store with KFC and Pizza Hut on site. It is well know for the Baker Lake Prints, wall hangings and soapstone carvings.

In early October, there was about 4 inches of blown snow on the ground, -8 C temperatures with substantial winds. The Iglu Hotel (their spelling) was hot on one side and cold on the other. Our meeting room was toasty warm, however. As an indication of the weather, my departure flight out of Baker Lake was cancelled because of the wind and the snow. We had to get a charter flight mid-day so that some, but not all, of us could get home for Canadian Thanksgiving.

The theme for the event was "Effective Community Justice Committees". The hope was that the Inuit community members would connect and learn about what Community Justice Committees could be and that all the stakeholders would better see their interconnections. In good community organizing and Open Space fashion the sixty participants included a variety of stakeholders such as the RCMP, Legal Aid, Nunuvut Justice, Justices of the Peace, Government of Canada and local social services and victim support staff.

The broad framework for the design was already in the mind of the sponsor when she sought funding. I made my contributions by long distance telephone and e-mail. The sponsor was clear that she wanted to set the context for the Committees and to clarify their mission and mandate. This was to include input from the Minister of Justice and the Chief Justice of the Nunavut Court who would both only attend for one day.

The event design was like a number I have negotiated with sponsors lately. The first day was for setting the context and providing input and also gave a reason to invite certain special or politically important people. The sponsor also invited Inuit leaders from some other regions to tell stories of Community Justice Committees that had more experience than the Committees in this region. However, the first day was not just "input".

After the initial welcome and announcements, all stakeholder groups were engaged in drawing a map showing the role of their organization or committee and its relationship to the others in the room. As each group placed its drawing on the map, we then identified the links. It is a complex justice system. The RCMP provides policing. The Federal Government provides the prosecution. The Territory of Nunavut provides the Legal Aid lawyers upon which most rely and the judge. A host of other services, such as those for victims, are provided by various funding sources including Federal, Territorial and Hamlet governments. As stated earlier, Community Justice Committees are appointed by their Hamlets who get their funding from The Territory and other sources.

There were a number of important "ah ha’s" in the mapping process The map stayed on the wall for the rest of the three days. It was even included in the event report as a digital photo. One of the comments on the map illustrates the learning, "No wonder both the accused and victims get so confused as to what is happening."

The second day began with sponsor describing the goals, givens and parameters for the Open Space portion. I Opened the Space with the aid of an interpreter as 80% of the participants spoke Inuktatuk as their primary language. We did have the best of modern translation equipment, with lightweight headsets for all.

I was surprised at the number of people who put up topics. Over half of the participants put up a topic and most were written in syllabics. However, only half of those who put up topics actually led discussions. I thought I had been clear about the "responsibilities" associated with putting up a topic. I am not quite sure how that was translated. However, I do believe that many of the participants got into the flow of the opening and decided they wanted to say something.

The space was opened for a morning and afternoon, then after early evening news there was a break to prepare for the community feast that evening. Some new topics did go up at the following morning news and we closed the space after lunch. We scurried during lunch to get all of the reports that were written translated and posted. (We were even able to give a copy to each Committee before they left, pictures and all, thanks to our wonderful local arrangements staff person.)

The stakeholder groups, including the Committees, were the ones who would implement the ideas generated during the discussion. So for "convergence" they did a "walkabout" to read the reports and then met to discuss which reports or which of the ideas discussed were priorities for their group. Each group was asked to identify the top five items that deserved their immediate attention. The follow-up will be by the groups with the support of the Regional Community Justice staff person as requested. Although, some side meetings with funders were already taking place in the Open Space.

After that converging exercise, we met for the closing circle. It took 2.5 hours. For the talking piece I used a quartz rock with veins of pink, which is the color of the soil in Baker Lake and the snow when it is light. As the rock was passed, everyone spoke. It began with one elder who had expressed earlier concerns that the white folks, "kablunaks", had not come to her session on Inuit Traditional Justice. Her comments were brief, but as the rock pass around the circle, another elder gave her back the stone and asked her to say more. As the rock continued around the circle, many expressed their thanks for the learning, for the different people who came, for the leadership from the local committee to the planners and facilitators. Some were quite emotional. Some told personal stories related to the justice system.

The Mayor had been invited to welcome the participants on the first day and he decided to return as much as he could. He was present at the closing and gave gifts to all participants, a nice gesture.

A contentious issue at the event related to domestic violence. In traditional Inuit culture, it is not against the rules for a husband to hit his wife, under certain circumstances. All agreed that the addition of alcohol and stress had increased this pattern with some men and a few women. Many felt that the RCMP should not have to intervene. However, Canadian law is clear that spousal abuse is illegal. Some women have gone to the police. During the closing, a younger Inuit of some standing in the territory told the story of being sexually abused by a teacher. She was glad that she had the recourse of Canadian Law to deal with the situation.

It appeared to me that many of the dead "caribou" got on the table at this event. (There are no moose this far north.) One Open Space session included a role-play that many participants and the RCMP found helpful. The dialogue seemed to be genuine but the differences are real and will not be resolved easily. Traditional Inuit Justice does not agree with Canadian Law at places. Community Justice Committees have some real and difficult journeys to take on the road to being more effective. The event and the Open Space did create the conditions for many to have the conversations as to their next steps on that journey.

The funders were happy with the event. I received the following comments from one.

  • "You knew instinctively what to do and let the participants take ownership of their workshop. You were well prepared, spoke slowly to allow the interpreter to follow you and you ensure that your eyes and voice were "traveling" across the room even when you were not moving. I appreciated your walking around inside the circle Friday morning as it demonstrated that everybody was important and would get a chance to talk should they choose to do so. A meeting of that size needs a firm hand in a velvet glove as we say in French."
  • As a facilitator I had some learning reinforced by this event.