Former Tlicho grand chief Joe Rabesca will not be going to jail for sexually assaulting a woman in Behchoko, N.W.T., last fall, after a judge sentenced him to a year of probation late Thursday.

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Joe Rabesca stands outside the cultural centre in Behchoko, N.W.T., where his trial is taking place, during a break in proceedings on Wednesday. ((CBC))

Territorial court Judge Brian Bruser also ordered Rabesca, 62, to perform 150 hours of community service, as part of a sentence the judge said is aimed at rehabilitation.

Bruser imposed a number of conditions on Rabesca's sentence, including orders that Rabesca keep the peace, be of good behaviour, attend counselling for the next 12 months, and have no contact with his victim. If he breaks the conditions of his sentence, he could face jail time.

Rabesca was found guilty on Wednesday of groping a woman who had entered his Behchoko home in mid-October to ask him why he was not attending Tlicho assembly meetings.

The incident took place while Rabesca was embroiled in a leadership dispute with the Tlicho government. Members had pointed out that he was not going to any meetings, even though he was grand chief at the time.

'Worst day of his life'

At Rabesca's sentencing hearing Thursday morning, two people from Behchoko told the court that Rabesca's behaviour was out of character and the assault took place on a day when he risked losing his job.

"This may have been the worst day of his life. Everything he defined himself by was gone," defence lawyer Laura Stevens said in the courtroom, which was packed with more than 100 elders and other community members.

But in handing down his sentence, Bruser said Rabesca's actions were wrong and may have made that day the worst day of his victim's life.

Rabesca addressed the court earlier in the day, his voice shaking as he said he was "very, very sorry" for what happened and he wanted to get out onto the land so he could heal.

Touched woman's buttocks

The woman, who cannot be identified under a court-imposed publication ban, testified on Wednesday that she went to Rabesca's house one afternoon in mid-October to talk to him.

Rabesca was sitting on his bed when the woman questioned him. After they were done talking, she shook his hand and gave him a hug.

But as she turned to leave, Rabesca reached out and touched her buttocks, the woman testified, adding that she heard Rabesca giggle.

A second woman who was in the room when the incident took place testified that Rabesca was on the verge of tears after the victim questioned him, but he laughed as though he thought touching the woman's buttocks was a joke.

Both women said they saw numerous beer cans in the room, and the second woman said she suspected Rabesca was drunk.

Rabesca did not testify on Wednesday, but Stevens argued that the touching was inadvertent, describing it as an everyday type of contact that was not intended to violate the woman.

The Crown argued that the touching could have been an act of power and control.

Leadership dispute

Rabesca, a longtime Dene leader who was most recently elected Tlicho grand chief in September 2009, had refused to attend the aboriginal government's last two assemblies last year, making him eligible for impeachment.

Longtime colleague Dan Marion told the court on Thursday that Rabesca was frustrated with his role in the Tlicho assembly, and that frustration peaked when Rabesca walked out of a leadership meeting on the day of the assault.

Rabesca told the court that he walked home from the meeting and turned to alcohol. All he could think about at the time was how he could feed his family if he was going to lose his job, he said.

The leadership dispute later came to a head on Oct. 20, when Rabesca asked the assembly to grant him three months of paid leave  so he could deal with personal issues. That request was denied.

The Tlicho government announced two days later that Rabesca had "effectively resigned" as grand chief.

Mixed feelings

In March, Tlicho members elected Edward Erasmus  as their new grand chief. His term runs until September 2013.

Many of the 100 Tlicho members and others who came to watch Rabesca's trial cheered and clapped after Bruser read out the sentence. Some went up to hug Rabesca or shake his hand.

"People had been feeling kind of sad because he had been a leader for so many years for our Tlicho region. So after the verdict, I still have mixed feelings," Behchoko resident Marilyn Martin said outside court.

Marion said the support that Tlicho people showed for Rabesca reflects their respect for the former leader, not disrespect for the sexual assault victim.

"I don't think they were people pro or [against] or in between. I think they were very scared Joe would go to jail. They do love Joe in their own way," he told CBC News.

With files from the CBC's Elizabeth McMillan