Justice North of 59: B.C.’s Northern Circuit Court - Atlin, Good Hope Lake, and Lower Post

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Note: Judge Russel Mackay died on December 22, 2015. First as a lawyer and then as a judge he served the people of British Columbia with dedication and compassion. He acted as a mentor to many people, changing lives with his empathy and kindness. Judge Mackay wrote this account of his work on the Northern Circuit Court in the year before his death. It reflects his energy, enthusiasm and zest for life, his wicked sense of humour, and the dignity and respect he accorded to everyone.

Every four months a Provincial Court judge, lawyers and court workers spend a week holding court along the B.C. - Yukon border. To get to some of B.C.’s most northern communities they leave the province, flying to Whitehorse, the Yukon capital, before returning to B.C. in rented SUVs.

Judge Russell MacKay has been travelling this circuit for the last two years. He reports that he finds the experience both familiar and foreign - familiar in that he is doing the same work, but foreign in that the surroundings, people and protocols are utterly different from what he is used to in the Lower Mainland.

Here’s how Judge Mackay describes his weeks in the north.

“The first sitting of the circuit takes place on Monday in Atlin. The landscape here is astonishing. This, I think, is how people unfamiliar with Canada might picture our country - towering mountains, gin clear lakes and streams, bountiful wildlife and clean, richly oxygenated air. There are approximately twice as many moose up here as humans. This historic community is set next to Atlin Lake, the largest natural lake in B.C. There are about 600 people in the area including the Taku River Tlingit First Nation. Court is held in the historic old courthouse which features some interesting taxidermy in the hall corridor. I always feel as if I should enter the courthouse on horseback!

Atlin Courthouse

The court party - including Crown and defence lawyers, 2 sheriffs, a probation officer, a clerk and various other court workers - usually has a pot luck dinner in the evening after court, sometimes featuring a rousing card game, sparkling conversation or the occasional ukulele sing-along.

When court comes to Atlin we are the biggest show in town!

On Tuesday we drive 5 ½ hours to Watson Lake, Yukon. Travelling on the Alaska Highway provides excellent chances to see wildlife. In February, 2014, an entire wolf pack crossed the highway in front of my vehicle. I had a UBC student intern along for the trip whose previous exposure to the “north” was Grouse Mountain. For the balance of the trip his jaw remained somewhere down around his knees!

Watson Lake is the base for our remaining sittings. It sits just above the B.C. border in rolling forested country. On Wednesday morning the court party travels down to Good Hope Lake - a tiny First Nations community in the middle of the northern Rockies. The scenery is as breathtaking as at Atlin although the community is more impoverished. Much of the criminal list here is resolved by way of guilty pleas, with Crown and defence counsel applying restorative justice principles in a co-operative fashion.

Caribou on the road to Good Hope

On Thursday we hold court at Lower Post which is located on the Kaska Dene First Nation reserve. The short trip down often leads to encounters on the road with bison, although so far I haven’t experienced a full roadblock. At Lower Post we hold court in the administration office which, ominously enough, was the old residential school building now repurposed and refitted. Our courtroom is really a boardroom with a large table around which we all sit. This facilitates a more inviting atmosphere for those attending and participating in the court process.

After Court finishes in Lower Post it’s time for the 6 hour drive back to Whitehorse and an overnight there before getting on a southbound jet.

I cannot overemphasize how warm and hospitable the people on this circuit are. In the 2 years that I have travelled up here, I have made many friends and been treated very well by virtually everyone I encounter. I am very mindful of the fact that the court team is the “face” of the Provincial Court on this wonderful circuit and of the need to treat people with dignity, respect and compassion inside and outside the court. Every trip up north is a different adventure and has been a rewarding experience for me. I feel blessed to be able to do this work.”

December sunrise - 10:15 a.m.!