An intern’s perspective on Circuit Court

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In a unique program developed by the Provincial Court of BC and UBC’s Allard School of Law, students spend a term interning in the Court. As they conduct legal research for and are mentored by judges, they gain perspectives that enrich their understanding of the court system and their communities. Accompanying a judge on a circuit court is a highlight of each student’s term with the Court.

The program is now in its 9th year. Students’ travel expenses are paid by a grant from the Law Foundation of BC. Current intern Brett Weninger reports, “It was incredible to experience a glimpse of life in a rural northern community and observe the important relationships that have been built between the Court and the community. I went to Kwadacha and Tsay Key Dene for 5 days in late February. Both are small aboriginal communities tucked away in the Rocky Mountain trench with a population of around 300 people each. Both are only accessible by flying in or driving more than 350 km on a forestry road from Mackenzie. Internet access and other amenities are also very limited.

The Journey
I first flew to Prince George and met the court team – the judge, sheriffs, clerks, duty counsel, Crown counsel, counsel for the Ministry of Children and Family Development, probation officers, social workers, a Native Court Worker, and a cook. We had to pack all the food in with us as there are no restaurants or grocery stores (just a general store with prices reflecting its remoteness) in each village. From Prince George we flew an hour north and landed on a snow and ice covered runway in Kwadacha.

In Kwadacha, the entire team stayed in a 2 story house. It was tight quarters - most people shared rooms but fortunately everyone had a bed. There is no courthouse in Kwadacha so court was held in the band office overlooking the Finlay River. It was a very picturesque setting with sunny blue skies and the frozen river sitting still between the mountains. At one point I looked outside and watched a wolf walk right along the riverbank about 10 meters from the window! I later learned this was ‘Lake’, the full wolf that lives in town, and we would see her regularly.

Photo credit: Curtis Jones

After 2 nights in Kwadacha we packed everything and boarded a school bus to travel to Tsay Keh Dene. We stayed there for the next 2 nights and held court in the Adult Education Centre. I stayed with some of the team in apartment style accommodation above the school’s gym. We walked to and from court, but most of the residents used skidoos on the roads to get around.

Court in Kwadacha & Tsay Keh Dene
The dynamics of a small rural village and its non-traditional setting give circuit court a unique feel. The entire court team has to work together, adapt to the different surroundings, and pitch in to complete various tasks in unusual circumstances. Before court started everyone participated in a smudging ceremony. Then the judge and court participants sat around a board room table to deal with family and criminal matters. Because court is only held three times a year in Kwadacha and Tsay Keh Dene, court days can be long. On the first day court sat until 8:30 pm.

Photo credit: Curtis Jones

Community involvement is imperative. Because nearly everyone knows the people appearing, it is vital the Court builds trust in the community. In both villages Judge Roderick Sutton met with community leaders to hear about the pressing issues facing the community.

Both communities have faced hardships and challenges. Many matters in court involved substance abuse and/or violence stemming from this difficult past. Many community members were forced to attend the Lejac Residential School that operated from 1922 until 1976. Construction of the WAC Bennett dam flooded traditional lands and uprooted traditional ways of life. Both events have significantly impacted the First Nations’ lifestyles and contributed to social problems. There is now a growing focus on restorative justice and the use of traditional healing camps as part of probation orders and sentencing.

Something a little different
On our last night in Tsay Keh Dene the school principal lent us the keys to the school gym and conveyed our invitation to students to join us for basketball. After dinner Judge Sutton, Crown counsel and I opened the gym, and played pick-up basketball with about a dozen teenagers. Several parents and other members of our court team cheered us on for over an hour. It was especially rewarding to be able to interact with community members outside the court room. I’d like to think we started a tradition and a basketball game will become a regular event on circuit court!

Experiencing life in a northern aboriginal town while learning about the history and seeing firsthand the value and benefits a circuit court provides was truly an invaluable experience. Circuit court is one of the best things I have experienced in law school and one that I will always remember.”