Court shuts down in remote community, forcing some to travel hundreds of kilometres

Manitoba’s provincial court has shut down on Shamattawa First Nation after it couldn’t find any space consistently available to hold legal proceedings in the remote northern community — potentially forcing residents to travel hundreds of kilometres to appear before a judge.

The court announced last week all matters scheduled for Shamattawa will instead happen for the foreseeable future in Thompson, a city about 360 kilometres west of the First Nation.

While that notice came on Nov. 9, courts spokesperson Aimee Fortier said in an email the court hasn’t sat in Shamattawa since Aug. 8 — more than three months ago.

Chief Jordna Hill said there isn’t anywhere to hold court in Shamattawa because the buildings that have been used before are experiencing utility issues: the wellness centre has no water and the band office doesn’t have water or heat.

“The pandemic shut everything down for two years … and after that, we were kind of having issues with the sewer and water [service] to the facilities that were holding court,” Hill said in a phone interview.

“It took a while to get things going after everybody got back to work, and we’re still having issues.”

Moving the court out of Shamattawa was done “very reluctantly” and only after discussions with Hill, Manitoba provincial court Chief Judge Margaret Wiebe said in a statement provided by Fortier.

“Ultimately, matters have to be heard and if that cannot happen in the community, arrangements are necessary so these matters can be heard in court, in fairness to all court participants,” that statement said.

‘No way that they can afford to leave’: chief

Hill said he learned of the decision about a month ago, after discussions between the court and the First Nation failed to lead to a solution that would keep hearings in Shamattawa.

He said he understands why the court made its decision, but told officials the change could make it hard for many in the community to get to their appearances.

For most people facing court hearings, “there’s no way that they can afford to leave the community,” he said, adding a return flight from Shamattawa to Thompson typically costs over $1,000.

That’s a steep price, especially for those on social assistance — which Hill said is the case for many accused on the First Nation.

Shamattawa has a winter road for a brief portion of the year, but making the trip that way is expensive too, and only possible for people who have their own vehicles, Hill said.

Manitoba’s provincial court announced last week all matters scheduled for Shamattawa will instead happen for the foreseeable future at provincial court in Thompson. (Google Street View)

Financial help is provided for victims and witnesses under subpoena who have to travel to attend Manitoba’s provincial court, a provincial spokesperson said in an email. But for people accused of crimes, it’s up to them to find the money to get there.

Accused offenders also still have the option to apply to appear remotely by phone under certain circumstances, a new provincial court practice directive issued Monday says. 

The factors taken into account include the accused’s location and financial situation, but a judge still needs to grant permission for someone to appear remotely in matters such as dispositions, bail hearings and contested applications.

Court spokesperson Fortier said special considerations could be available in addressing the situation in Shamattawa.

While it’s possible someone may not have access to a phone, Fortier also said that doesn’t happen very often and the court and judges “understand the challenges with the lack of technology.” 

When that’s happened in other communities, for example, phone access has been provided through a band office or the RCMP, or a person’s lawyer has appeared on their behalf.

“The court does its best to find a solution by engaging the other criminal justice participants” to provide access, Fortier said, adding those participants could also include the Crown, legal aid, defence counsel and the community.

Repairs coming, feds say

The province and the provincial court both said they’re continuing to work with Hill and the community of Shamattawa to bring court proceedings back as soon as possible.

Hill said Shamattawa has requested funds from Indigenous Services Canada to help fix the problems that are preventing provincial court hearings in the community. 

Megan MacLean, a spokesperson for that federal department, said it’s working with the First Nation to help arrange for a contractor to be in the community next week to fix the heat in the band office.

Technicians from the Manitoba First Nation water and wastewater instructors program are also going to Shamattawa to determine the cause of the water issues and help with repairs, MacLean said in an emailed statement. 

Hill said he hopes those services will be back up and running in less than a month.

MacLean did not detail any new funding for Shamattawa, but said the community’s annual water and wastewater funding for operations and maintenance is approximately $1.6 million.

The department also provides the community roughly $683,000 in annual band base capital funding for infrastructure expenses, the spokesperson said.

Another project to expand and upgrade the community’s water treatment plant, originally scheduled to be completed by this month, is now expected to be finished by April, MacLean said.

Once that’s done, Shamattawa is expected to be able to lift its boil water advisory, which has been in place since 2018.

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