Bella Coola, in BC’s Central Coast area, is a Provincial Court team’s destination four times a year. Judge Brent Hoy has held court there for the last four years. He describes his circuit like this.
“It’s a 70 minute flight from Vancouver but we get “weathered out” all too often. When that happens, departure can be delayed by a day or more, or the flight may be diverted to Anahim Lake. There, arrangements must be made to rent a school bus for a two hour drive through Tweedsmuir Park and over the infamous “Hill”, an access road built in1953 down an 18 degree grade from the Cariboo Chilcotin plateau to the valley floor. The trip is spectacular, but sometimes tense - especially in winter when snow and ice combine with hair pin turns, no guard rails, multiple single lanes, pull outs and steep drop offs.
Waiting at Anahim Lake Airport for a break in the weather to Bella Coola.
Bella Coola has a population of about 1700, the majority members of the Nuxalk First Nation. There is a new Band Office and a spectacular school in Four Mile, an expansion of the Nuxalk Nations community. In 1793 Sir Alexander Mackenzie of the North West Company arrived in this lush valley. He was followed a century later by Norwegian settlers who came by sidewheel steamer.
The mouth of the Bella Coola River.
Our court team comprises Registry staff, sheriff, Crown, defense and family lawyers, and sometimes a youth probation officer. We bring all our files and the equipment necessary to run court - recording devices, computers, video equipment, and specialized equipment like witness screens and hearing aid devices - with us on the plane.
Court is held in the Moose Hall, a community building used for activities like bingo and, in the past, movies. We fashion a court room using the available tables and chairs. It is a community event when court convenes, with as many as 50 people attending to watch.
The courthouse at Bella Coola’s Moose Hall.
Barring transportation delays, court starts Monday afternoon. Family court matters are heard through Tuesday, and the balance of the week is usually devoted to criminal files. Because the demands on court time are so precious, every effort is made to maximize its use and accommodate those who appear. It is not uncommon to run court until 6:00 pm and occasionally hearings have continued as late as 11:00 pm.
Judge’s office, used also as the settlement conference room.
In addition to court duties I and other members of the court team commit to regular meetings with the Nuxalk Wellness and Safety Committee to help create community based dispute resolution mechanisms to deal with appropriate matters during the three month gaps between court sittings.
This circuit court is a respected institution with an important role in the community. How well it is received was demonstrated strikingly in November 2011 when the Nuxalk Nation hosted a dinner and traditional dance in Nuxalk Hall to mark a change of judges. About 150 people attended, including Chief Judge Crabtree. After formal speeches Judge Spence and I were seated in the middle of the hall. First the children displayed their dancing skills, and then adult dancers including three Chiefs performed. It was a captivating and enriching experience.
The costumes and masks were spectacular. Across the top of each mask were a series of short narrow sticks arranged vertically with eagle down entwined between them. As the dancers shook their heads, the down became disentangled and swirled in the air and across the floor in rhythm with the movements of dancers and the drums. It seemed to envelope everyone in the hall. Finally, there was a dance of friendship where all were invited to the floor.
I continue to thoroughly enjoy my experience in Bella Coola. Outside of court duties each visit has its own unique and interesting events. We have attended a memorial services for an important elder and celebrated a birthday for a young girl at Four Mile Reserve. There is a fascinating petroglyph site tucked along a creek. We’ve been introduced to a delicacy called “schlect” - a smoky flavored salmon jerky. I’ve heard the terrifying, hair raising low guttural roars of two grizzlies vying for territory outside the cabin I stay at. I’ve met several people who are passionately committed to the long term welfare of the Nuxalk Nation. I am grateful to be part of that process and honoured to be a judge in this community. “
Totem welcoming the hoped for return of the eulachon to the Bella Coola River. The last run was 23 years ago. In past times this area marked the start of the grease trail to the Interior.