Nunavut: Canada’s Highest Lawyer

For five of my twelve years here in Canada’s Arctic I was, by a very wide margin, ‘Canada’s Highest Lawyer’. Having trumpeted that fact, however, I should hasten to add that the impressive sounding title had nothing whatsoever to do with skill, ability, or even my standing in the profession, but rather came about as a pure accident of latitudinal geography…

After working for two years as a staff lawyer at Maliiganik Tukisiinaiakvik, the Legal Aid office in Iqaluit, I accepted a posting to the High Arctic branch office in the little community of Pond Inlet at the north end of Baffin Island. Pond Inlet is the fourth most northerly community in Canada and, at 72 degrees, 41 minutes north latitude, that meant that I was the most northerly practicing lawyer, not only in Canada, but on the whole continent. As I was all by myself, professionally speaking, it also meant that there were no other lawyers within a 1300 kilometer radius; a density of legal professionals that would no doubt please most people…

Legal Aid provided me with a pretty nice little house down on the shore. The picture you see above would have been taken in March, or possibly April, and the sea remains frozen up there until late July or August. During the three months or so that it is ice-free however, my wife and I were close enough to be able to hear the waves breaking on the beach when we were in bed. You can probably see, in the picture, that the power lines to our house are thickly coated in frost. Pond Inlet gets very little wind except in early November and mid-March so, during the deepest part of the winter, the whole town, especially telephone poles and fences, takes on a lovely, soft, fuzzy look.

I did a lot of my work from my house while in Pond Inlet, but I was also provided with an office for meeting clients. The house you see above, only 200 yards from my residence, was my office for the last two years of my stay. For the first three years, I worked out of a little blue trailer beside the airstrip fence that was bitterly cold and without working plumbing for almost the whole of my occupancy. This wasn’t a terrible difficulty most of the time but it did mean that, on occasion, I was reduced to peeing in pop-cans and then disposing of them later. Not an ideal situation, I grant you but I suppose, from the point of view of maintaining my professional standing in the community, it was better than simply doing it through the window.

Then, as now, most of my work consisted mostly of flying to various communities for the scheduled Court circuits. The High Arctic branch office covered the hamlets of Pond Inlet, Clyde River, Igloolik, Hall Beach, Arctic Bay, Resolute and Grise Fiord but I also travelled elsewhere from time to time. When I left Pond Inlet (and my employment with Legal Aid), it was decided that the branch office should be closed because, other than Pond Inlet itself, it was no easier or cheaper to serve the other communities from up there than it was from the head office in Iqaluit. Indeed, to get to Arctic Bay, a mere few hundred kilometers to the west, It was necessary for me to fly 1300 kilometers south to Iqaluit, spend a night at a hotel, and then fly 1300 kilometers north again the next day! Hardly a cost-saving proposition…

A lot of flying is done aboard small aircraft chartered by the Court. The general practice is for the defense lawyers and prosecutors to fly in to a given community a day or two ahead of the Court to interview clients and witnesses. My flights into the communities are thus usually on larger, more comfortable commercial planes).  Afterwards, though, the court party usually travels together, either to the next community, or directly home again in the case of single community circuits.

Once in the communities, travel is a little more… well, haphazard. Often, the police provide rides but it is not uncommon to arrive at an airport several kilometers from town with out any transportation laid on. One time, quite a few years ago, the Court party was picked up at Clyde River airport by a single police vehicle and two tiny pick-up trucks driven by locals. I rode into town a freezing 3 kilometers in the back of one of these and discovered, after I brushed away some snow, that I was sitting on a pile of frozen dead seals.

By the way, the inadequately dressed fellow crouching at the feet of your truly in the above picture is Malcolm Kempt, another defense lawyer. He also writes a blog, called I love you, 2012, in which he describes, amongst other things, some of his experiences here in the north. It is well worth a visit…

The accommodations in some places we visit are often a cut or two below palatial. The rule, when you check into a northern hotel is that you rent a bed and not a room. Bathrooms are very often communal and it is not uncommon to have to share your sleeping space as well. Thankfully, I mostly have only had to double up with members of the court party who I already know, but at times I have had to bunk with strangers. I should add, though, that in the twelve years since I first started doing circuit work, the conditions in many hotels have improved enormously, but it is still possible to stay at places where you run out of water, have staff not show up to cook meals, or (as was the case on my last trip), bake in eighty degree heat because the thermostat is broken and the windows won’t open.

On the subject of facilities in the north… the above picture (I kid you not) shows my ‘office’ whilst Court was in session in Igloolik a few weeks ago. Having to interview clients in hallways, staircases or police vehicles does little to enhance the job but on the bright side, the toilet in the Igloolik Community Hall, though smelly, was at least warm… Some years ago, while in Cape Dorset, we were supposed to have access to the Hunters and Trappers Organization office to meet people before the Court arrived but, unfortunately, the person with the key had left town without making it available to us. Accordingly, since everybody had been told to meet us at that particular office, I, and the young law student who was assisting me that week, spent two days in the snow outside the building conducting interviews. We were dressed warmly enough as it happened but, being winter, the ink in our pens kept on freezing, making note-taking just a little bit tricky, to say the least.

All hardships aside, travelling with the same group of people to community after community ultimately makes the work something more than just a job, and the sense of team-work (which is an absolute necessity up here), really makes it all worthwhile.

And… perhaps best of all, the scenery we get to see while flying from place to place is absolutely spectacular.

Anyway, I hope my readers will enjoy this brief introduction to Nunavut, and the joys of circuit travel across the Arctic. I have had quite a few encouraging comments on the subject so far, and, is people are still interested, I plan to take a closer look at some of the communities and share a few of my adventures in future posts…


33 thoughts on “Nunavut: Canada’s Highest Lawyer”

  1. What a fascinating post! Travel to the Canadian Arctic is high on my list for the near future – thank you for providing such a great amount of detail! And congratulations on your Most Highest distinction!

  2. Thanks for sharing this. So interesting! As a member of the bar, I can say unequivocally that the thought of “no other lawyers within a 1300 kilometer radius” is a happy thought indeed. Please do share your future adventures. And, if I might ask, what brought you there in the first place?

    1. Economics and a desire for a bit of adventure brought us up here, I guess. I practiced law in New Brunswick for ten years but it is all but impossible to practice criminal law down there without also doing other stuff (real-estate, family, etc)… all stuff I hated, basically. Up here I have dome nothing but criminal work (prosecution and defence) for the last twelve years. Suits me much better and I like the relative informality…. what sort of practice do you have?

      1. Spent most of my career at a big firm. Now have a small boutique litigation firm. (Yay—I seldom have to dress up!) We represent mostly local governments, insurers and some corporations. The good thing is: I know nothing practical. Makes it easy to turn family members and friends down!

  3. Really fascinating! I have to admit that I have been really curious about what it was like to work and live so far north. This definitely satisfies some curiosity, but my interest is piqued for more! The furthest north I have been? The Arctic Circle in Finland for an art show. Long story! But I remember it being really cold. I went in March, so it was apparently warmer than what it was. I think I smoked tons of cigarettes just for the fire! Blech! But it was warm!

  4. Hi,
    Loved the post, a very interesting read, and great photos. I don’t think I would be able to handle such cold weather, good on you. 🙂

    1. The cold is surprisingly easy to get used to due to the lack of humidity. On our first Christmas with family down south, my wife and I left home at -30 where we were perfectly comfortable. We arrived in New Brunswick where it was only -2 and were freezing! The damp cold really gets into your bones 😦

      1. Actually spousal abuse is 11 times the national average and violent crime is generally higher than in the south, largely fuelled by alcohol, which is prohibited in some communities, severely restricted in others.

  5. Oh yes, you have to share more – fascinating stuff this! That being said, I doubt very much that I would be able to cope with that cold… I can barely handle our South African winters! Your photos depict the cold very well!
    🙂 Mandy

  6. Wow, that is tough stuff. I worked for legal aid in B.C. as a law librarian. (And also have worked for private firms) So your services were greatly needed/appreciated. I’m certain the cases you dealt with were a window into some problems up there in the Far North.

    1. Here in Iqaluit, the lights are just a few degrees from being directly overhead but we actually face south to see them. In Pond Inlet we were too far north to see them except on one very rare occasion where we saw the ‘inside’ of the aurora far to the north… we were actually seeing the part that would normally only be visible from Russia.

  7. You had me at “Canada’s Highest Lawyer”. Saskatchewan Chief Justice Ed Bayda was a dear and close friend. I see the same delightful, wry humour in your writings.

    1. I confess I had to Google Mr Justice Bayda … Did he ever sit in this part of the world? Nunavut (both now and before when it was part of the NWT) has ‘fly-in’ Judges on a regular basis to supplement our regular small bench.

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