What is trauma-informed justice? Yellowknife lawyer says more people need to know about it

Lawyer Peter Harte says all of his clients in the criminal justice system should be treated differently because of their past trauma, but that isn't happening. At an event Monday, Harte hopes to raise more awareness about this trauma-informed justice.

Lawyer Peter Harte says offenders' decisions and behaviours could be rooted in trauma

Peter Harte, a Yellowknife lawyer, is running a program on Monday to help raise awareness about trauma-informed justice — something he says needs to be understood better in the N.W.T. criminal justice system. (Emily Blake/CBC)

A Yellowknife lawyer is trying to raise awareness about trauma and how it affects victims and offenders in the N.W.T.'s criminal justice system.

Peter Harte says trauma-informed justice is needed in the territory, where impacts of the residential school system and high rates of violent crime and addictions are present.

He is heading an event Monday to raise awareness in the territory's justice system about the topic. Harte said he invited police, Crown prosecutors, clerks, corrections workers and workers at the North Slave Corrections Complex, among many others, to the event.

What is trauma-informed justice?

Trauma-informed justice tries to debunk the assumption that all individuals have freely made choices that put them in the criminal justice system, according to Harte. 

Harte said this particular approach to justice is recognizing that often many behaviours and choices are profoundly influenced by traumas the individual experienced in the past, and that current enforcement of justice — like incarceration — can "compound that trauma."

The approach emphasizes practices and policies that respond to that underlying trauma, instead of "simply punishing" the crime itself. Harte is trying to raise awareness of the approach in the territory.

2015 stabbing-death case sparks curiosity

Harte's curiosity for the topic piqued when he worked on the case of Beverley Villeneuve of Ndilo, N.W.T., who was charged with manslaughter in the stabbing death of her partner Archie Paulette in 2015.

"I was trying to come to grips with how this nice, quiet woman had found herself involved in a homicide," said Harte, who was Villeneuve's defence lawyer.

Harte said he was asking Villeneuve questions about her background when she told him her earliest memory. Villeneuve described being under her baby sister's crib with her brother, her mother was passed out on the bed, and there was screaming and sounds of a physical fight in the other room.

"This was her earliest memory that she could come up with — was being scared out of her mind that these guys were going to come into the room," said Harte. 

Villeneuve was sentenced to five years incarceration in 2017.

There are ripple effects. More and more people end up traumatized.- Peter Harte, Yellowknife defence lawyer

Harte said his research into trauma following this case developed a strong conviction.

"[It] led me to believe that the people that we're dealing with in court, for the most part, find themselves there because of the trauma history that has taken place in their childhood," said Harte. 

Harte said after learning more about trauma-informed justice, he reflected on the Villeneuve case.

"If I knew more about what had been behind her conflict with the law and her history with life living on the street, [then] I would've been able to do a better job helping her in court."

All clients should be treated differently, Harte says

Harte says all of his clients in the criminal justice system should be treated differently because of their trauma; but that isn't happening.

"I think it was urgent 15 or 20 years ago. [The] N.W.T. and Nunavut have the highest crime rates in Canada," said Harte. 

"Those crimes almost always involve individuals who are on the receiving end of violence or who are experiencing violence as witnesses … and every time a violent offence takes place, there are ripple effects. More and more people end up traumatized."

To see CBC NWT's Facebook video of the trauma-informed justice event click here and here.

With files from John Last and Marilyn Robak