Tlicho is his 1st language, but court records show Indigenous man went on trial without an interpreter

A legally blind man from Behchoko, N.W.T., is facing sexual assault charges, but when he went to court the proceedings were done in English — a language he says he does not fully understand — and he had no interpreter.

Behchoko, N.W.T., man says he didn't understand legal proceedings, signed court documents he couldn't read

Chris Dryneck (left) says he went through a sexual assault trial without having an interpreter present and didn't understand what was going on. (Jamie Malbeuf/CBC)

A legally blind man from Behchoko, N.W.T., is facing sexual assault charges, but when he went to court the proceedings were in English — a language he says he does not fully understand — and he had no interpreter.

Chris Dryneck's first language is Tlicho, and his education in English is very limited. He stayed in school until the third grade, but says he was taken out after being bullied for his disability.

He can't read or write in English. CBC had an interpreter present for its interview with the man.

"He understand only simple words," said Mary Therese Dryneck, his sister. "When it comes to court he doesn't understand what they're saying."

'I asked for an interpreter'

Dryneck was charged with sexual assault in November 2016.

Seven court appearances are listed in court documents obtained by the CBC. An interpreter is listed as present at only one, on Feb. 12, when the judge was supposed to hand down her decision.

The records show Dryneck informed the court two months before his December trial that he does not understand English well.

That occurred during a teleconference between Dryneck, Justice Shannon Smallwood, a Crown prosecutor and an agent representing Dryneck's lawyer Steven Fix. During that conference call, the records show Smallwood told Dryneck to speak with Fix about an interpreter.

Under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, anyone who "does not understand or speak the language in which the proceedings are conducted … has the right to the assistance of an interpreter." Indigenous language rights are also protected under territorial legislation.

Dryneck said he asked Fix for an interpreter "three or four times," but he never got one, until Feb. 12 — more than a month after the trial was adjourned for a decision. He said Fix told him he didn't need one.

"I asked for interpreter," said Dryneck. "And when I went to court for two days there was no interpreter there."    

The Northwest Territories Official Languages Act states that any person in court is allowed to speak in any of the territory's nine official Aboriginal languages, including Tlicho.

"They told me to sit there and be quiet," said Dryneck. "That's what I did." He sat in trial for two days and says he didn't understand the proceedings.

The Criminal Code says the court will make interpreters available to assist the accused during the preliminary inquiry or trial.

Northwest Territories Language Commissioner Shannon Gullberg wouldn't comment on this case specifically, but she said interpreters are brought in on a case by case basis and it is the court's responsibility to make an interpreter available.

Signed with an 'X'

Dryneck said his lawyer had him sign paperwork, but he didn't know he was signing the agreed statement of facts. He had to have Fix point to the exact location on the page to sign, because he couldn't read the document in front of him.

"I can't sign my name. I can't read and write," he said. 

Dryneck signs his documents with an X, a fact noted in court records. On Dec. 5, the first day of the trial, Smallwood confirmed the agreed statement of facts was marked with an X, documents show.

When reached by CBC News, Fix said he couldn't comment because Dryneck has since filed a complaint against him.

The court record states Fix was in a position of conflict on Feb. 12 and was unable to act for Dryneck.

Ngan Trinh, a spokeswoman for the Northwest Territories Justice Department, said she couldn't comment on the case because the case is still before the courts.

But she did note that an interpreter was present on Feb. 12, and is scheduled to be at Dryneck's next hearing on March 7.