Montreal

An Inuk's fight for a new justice system in northern Quebec

George Kauki has seen Nunavik's justice system from all angles — as a rare Inuit police officer and a detainee charged with a violent crime. Now, he wants to reform the system for the realities of Nunavik, and is helping others by taking them out on the land to reconnect with Inuit ways of life.

George Kauki wants a justice system adapted to the reality of Nunavik instead of imposed from the south

George Kauki, 35, and his dogs in Kuujjuaq, Que. Kauki has been a police officer and faced criminal charges, and now he wants to reform Nunavik's justice system. (Olivier Plante/Radio-Canada)

George Kauki takes out his axe. In a few strokes, he chops off six slices of frozen caribou for Panda, Yapper, Nanuk, Sakuk, Kajuk and Atsak.

Tied on a long chain under Nunavik's autumn sun, the Inuit dogs crunch through the meat provided by their master.

A few years ago, the roles were reversed, as Kauki was the one sustained by these trips to see his dogs. Under house arrest, after being involved in a violent altercation, he obtained the court's permission to take care of his pack.

"I got an hour to do this daily. Just that one hour of freedom, going to my dogs when I was on house arrest, helped me so much," he recounted.

Now a father of two, Kauki works in a rehabilitation centre for people struggling with addiction issues in Kuujjuaq, Que., Nunavik's largest community.

As part of his job as a "land specialist," he helps participants to learn or relearn Inuit traditions, to heal their inner rage and better understand the intergenerational traumas that haunt them. In short, to follow the same course that he has already charted.

One of Kauki's Inuit dogs eating caribou meat. (Olivier Plante/Radio-Canada)

But Kauki would like to go further. He is now working to make the justice system adapt to the realities of Nunavik, instead of forcing the Inuit to conform to a model that was imported from the south.

And the judicial process in northern Quebec is in dire need of an overhaul, according to a number of officials and experts who have spoken to Radio-Canada as part of an investigation into Nunavik's justice system.

A rare Inuit policeman

The 35-year-old has seen the justice system from all angles. For three years, he was a police officer patrolling many of the 14 communities that make up the northern Quebec region of Nunavik. He didn't want to carry a handgun at the time, judging his word to be his best weapon.

Kauki was a police officer in Nunavik for three years, but left in part because of the stress of enforcing the law where everyone knows each other. (Submitted by George Kauki )

"People just feel threatened by a firearm," he said. "The main thing I always used when I entered the house to take care of a situation was my mouth to calm people down. Just ask what's wrong and what's going on, trying to solve the problem."

But the hours were long. Above all, the work generated unbearable pressure. In these communities where everyone knows one another, it is not easy for an Inuk to apply the law. After three years, he turned in his badge.

"Overworked, stressed out, especially dealing with family and friends was very tiring, mentally and physically," he recalled. 

Shortly after retiring, Kauki fell on the other side of the law. After a night out with friends in 2011, he ran into an ex-colleague who was on duty. During a confrontation, Kauki seriously injured the police officer, and began his own journey through the northern Quebec justice system.

"He grabbed me, and that's when my defence mode kicked in. I just lost it from there on. Just rage came out of me," he said. 

"I ended up injuring a police officer pretty bad and I wanted to commit suicide, which was the tough part for me, and wanted to just end it right there. But I eventually calmed down and looked at the situation and I said, 'I have to go through this. It's too late.'"

If you are thinking of suicide or know someone who is, help is available nationwide by calling toll-free 1-833-456-4566, texting 45645 or chatting online with Crisis Services Canada.

If you feel your mental health or the mental health of a loved one is at risk of an immediate crisis, call 911.

A series of obstacles

Kauki quickly experienced the many challenges that are inherent to Nunavik's legal system: the recurring delays before appearing in front of a judge, being flown into detention thousands of kilometers to the south, and the constant struggle to obtain efficient services.

His transfer to the Amos detention center in Abitibi, prior to his bail hearing, was particularly painful. Like many Inuit on their way to a prison in the south, this ex-policeman was paraded in front of members of his community at the Kuujjuaq airport.

"Literally, I had to lose my dignity and respect of the people. People had to look at me in the airport in a weird way while I was cuffed up, shackled up and a police officer on my side. It was very embarrassing."

In Amos, he saw detainees from the south quickly get their bail hearings, while he waited nearly three weeks to get back to Kuujjuaq for a court hearing

His first lawyer suggested that he plead guilty and end it quickly, predicting he would get a year in prison. He got a new lawyer, even if it meant paying out of his own pocket, because he wanted to avoid a jail sentence at all cost.

He also had to go south to find a psychologist to assess his case, because the only psychologist in Kuujjuaq was a friend of the victim.

The courthouse in Kuujuaq. There is no permanent detention facility in Nunavik, which means that the accused in detention while they await court appearances are held thousands of kilometres away. (Olivier Plante/Radio-Canada)

Rehabilitation

In the end, Kauki's new lawyer helped him to stay in Nunavik, where he was confined to house arrest. During this period, he had to pick up his weapon at the police station every time he wanted to go hunting and bring it back when he returned. 

Still, he says that avoiding prison was essential to his rehabilitation. And those hours of freedom on the land gave him hope.

"The land brought me peace, kept me thinking straight … so that I could only focus on what's ahead of me rather than stay stuck with my head," he said.

Kauki says being on the land brings him peace, and he is sharing that experience as a 'land specialist' at a rehabilitation centre for people struggling with addiction issues. (Olivier Plante/Radio-Canada)

Like Indigenous people across the country, George Kauki says it is impossible to understand his situation without considering the history of his people and the consequences of European colonization.

He grew up in poverty, suffered from the housing shortage that is a key cause of the high crime rate in Nunavik, and was affected by alcohol consumption. Having been sober for several years, Kauki invokes the need for individual responsibility when he talks to his clients at the rehabilitation center.

"I try and relay the message that you're in control of yourself, and don't let anyone else control you," he explained. "There may be some obstacles in the way, but you'll eventually get past them."

Reforming the system

Kauki echoes the concerns of many Inuit when he denounces the disconnect between the justice system and the traditional culture of the north.

"The system was created by white people, people from the south, so it's not made for Inuit people. People don't even know what the law is. We're not taught law school in our schools. We just stumble upon it."

Justice among Inuit communities had long been under the control of the community and elders. Problems were resolved more quickly, inside the community, with an emphasis on rehabilitation. The long-term solution for the Inuit, according to Kauki, is to return to these traditions.

Kauki and his dogs. He has considered a career in politics, but his criminal record held him back. (Submitted by George Kauki)

The ex-officer believes that the role of the police must be reviewed. He is particularly inspired by the work of Mohawk peacekeepers.

"They're not there to drop the book on you. Peacekeepers could literally just calm the situation down, separate the people and monitor the people," he said. "If things were kept at peace, I think things would be so much more different up here."

Kauki has considered a career in politics, but says his criminal record held him back. Until he decides whether or not to enter the public arena, he is working on the creation of an association called the Nunavik Civil Liberties Association, which will defend the interests of the Inuit in terms of access to housing, education and justice.

"We have no such things in Nunavik for equal rights. We barely get anything over here, compared to what you guys get down south," he said. "I want to move into something where I can actually make change in the region, in my community."

WATCH | The full documentary Enquête documentary, Justice in Nunavik:

 

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