Judge demands more help for addicts after Dettah manslaughter case

Justice Louise Charbonneau railed against “sorely lacking” provisions for N.W.T. addicts as she sentenced a 31-year-old for the drunken manslaughter of his uncle in Dettah last year.

N.W.T. Supreme Court justice wishes treating addictions was ‘more of a priority’

A view of a courtroom in Yellowknife. Justice Louise Charbonneau called for more resources to fight substance abuse in the territory during a sentencing hearing Friday. (Mitchel Wiles/CBC)

A leading judge has urged the Northwest Territories to address "sorely lacking" supports for addicts following an alcohol-fuelled manslaughter in Dettah.

Stanley Abel Jr. beat his uncle, Herman Abel, to death in March 2016 — but was too drunk at the time to recall his actions. The 31-year-old was sentenced to five years in prison last Friday.

He had been drinking daily in the weeks leading up to the attack, the court heard, while alcohol had caused him to black out or be held in police cells a number of times in the past.

Justice Louise Charbonneau, who heard the case in the Supreme Court of the Northwest Territories, used Abel's sentencing to speak out against at a perceived lack of help for the territory's addicts.

"Before Herman Abel's death, Stanley Abel did not think his drinking was problematic. That is an indication of how normalized [such behaviour] is for some members of our community," Charbonneau said.

"Resources to help people address addictions issues are sorely lacking in this jurisdiction. It seems clear that we need far more resources to address this social problem.

"We can only hope that some day, having more resources [...] will be made more of a priority."

'The ultimate tragedy'

Speaking outside court, Crown prosecutor Marc Lecorre reinforced the judge's comments.

"In the N.W.T., as the judge said, there is no residential alcohol treatment centre. This case underscores the tremendous problem that alcohol abuse is here in the N.W.T.," said Lecorre.

"Really, this case is the ultimate tragedy with respect to alcohol abuse: where someone was killed as a result. And of course, it's for everyone's good — it's for the greater good of society — that access to rehabilitation be there for those that need it."

Stanley Abel Jr. heads into the Yellowknife courthouse Friday. He was sentenced to five years in prison for manslaughter for killing his uncle while drunk. (CBC)

The territory's lack of a residential treatment facility and a broader concern over addictions are recurring topics at the current session of the legislature.

Last week, health minister Glen Abernethy noted the territory has an ongoing financial commitment of $16.5 million for the area of mental health and addictions. However, he conceded that more money was required and the territorial government would "have to be creative" in a time of slow economic growth.

Abernethy aspires to introduce a new sobering centre to Yellowknife — which the minister acknowledges is not the fully fledged treatment centre other MLAs have demanded — but his department has run into problems in its quest to find a suitable downtown location.

"Yes, we don't have a facility-based treatment facility in the Northwest Territories," added Abernethy last week, "but we have contracts with four very reputable, high-quality institutions or facilities in the south.

"There are a multiple number of programs available to residents in the Northwest Territories. We have community counsellors throughout the Northwest Territories, we've been running on-the-land programs across the Northwest Territories with our Aboriginal partners. We have piloted and we're looking to do more pilots of a mobile treatment option, which is a treatment-type program that can move from region to region.

"I'm not saying our system is perfect. We've clearly got work to do […] but the people told us clearly they want options and today they have more options than they've ever had. We can do better, we will do better, but we're moving in the right direction."

Closer to family 

Justice Charbonneau noted, in handing down Abel's five-year sentence, that his crime could not be solely attributed to alcohol.

"Many people drink to excess and do not become violent," she observed, adding that the "brutal, senseless" beating "cannot be explained only by the fact that Stanley Abel was drunk. That anger and that rage has to come from somewhere."

Charbonneau also recommended that Abel be held at a facility in the North as opposed to a southern prison, so as to be closer to his family as his rehabilitation begins.

As he was led away, Abel expressed hope that the judge's wish would be heeded by the corrections system.

"I know most of my family were kind-of hoping he'll stay close to us in the North," said Abel's cousin, Beverly Fatt, outside court.

"Our family has been going through quite a bit after the incident. I think this is going to have a little closure for us now."