The short, gray-haired man swayed a little as the sixth or seventh beer began to impose itself. The pretty young woman looked very attractive, to the extent an invitation was offered for her to join him in his room. She declined, but the man would not be denied. An older woman, witnessing the interaction, stepped between them and delivered a resounding slap to a very startled face. Offended and embarrassed, the little man staggered to his room. Falling into bed, he slept fully clothed. A few hours later his turbulent sleep was interrupted by a loud clanging that coincided with a throbbing in his head. The gray-haired man begrudgingly extricated himself from his warm blankets and lurched towards the bathroom. One look in the mirror caused him to wince as he was reminded of the previous evening. He ran his finger along a red welt across his cheek. He was scheduled for Court in an hour….as the presiding judge.
As a novice Probation Officer, I was introduced to this world that seemed to offer its own peculiar form of justice. Based in Terrace, B.C., I would set out once per month for a seven-day tour of the northwestern corner of British Columbia in a four wheel drive jeep. I would, generally alone, rumble along the gravel, or ice, roads that linked such communities as Stewart, Dease Lake, Atlin, New Aiyansh, Greenville, Telegraph Creek, and many more. My job was to visit probation clients between Terrace and the Yukon border in an attempt to ensure their compliance with the Court’s wishes or alert authorities if they were remiss. I was also required to attend the various Court proceedings held along the countless miles of wilderness that is northern British Columbia. My trips would be planned to somewhat coincide with the Court circuit while visiting my clients along the way.
Approximately once monthly, Court staff would ascend upon a community in several vehicles, process those in conflict with the law, and move on to a new community. The populace would appear on warrants, appearance notices, or shackled to an RCMP officer. In most towns, community halls, dance halls, or gyms doubled as makeshift courtrooms. Stewart and Atlin had actual courthouses but, otherwise, these small communities hosted Court with their own resources.
It was always an event for the locals when the Court came to town as everyone knew who would be appearing and were very likely related in one way or another. Children missed classes, businesses closed and whole families would attend to support their countrymen, or women. The RCMP would be ever present to ensure order and civility. Court staff would arrive with their briefcases full of documents ready to prosecute, defend, record, and judge.
I had been introduced to the north by my boss who had travelled these roads for many years and was a well-known and colourful figure in his own right. He travelled with me on one trip, showing me the ropes, and then set me free to succeed or fail as best I could. Even though my boss had a certain weight in the northern Court system, I soon learned that the judge was all powerful. Whatever he decreed was gospel which could be uniquely interpreted by his particular character, experience and biases.
On my first appearance in Court, I was reciting a history of a wayward fellow when I was abruptly interrupted by his honor. “Mr. Allen”, he snorted, “The Court will not hear your report in this current manner.” Somewhat taken aback, I enquired as to the error of my ways. I had delivered several such dialogues in Probation Officer training, without interruption or criticism. Looking down from his perch he angrily declared that he would not accept acronyms in his Court. I was to use the complete term for each word irrespective of its simplicity or commonality. For example “B.C.” would be “British Columbia”. Gulping, I avowed to never again shorten a word while speaking before the Court. He was the boss.
I soon learned how to abide by the rules and became a functioning facet of the Court staff. While attending Court my role was to provide information about the poor soul or felonious transgressor who had the misfortune to be adjudged. As I was only a transient participant in these small villages, my familiarity was usually only with the more recidivistic malefactors. Frequently the judge would adjourn a case prior to sentencing, whereby I would corner the offender in the back of the courtroom and conduct a harried enquiry. I was expected to return with the individual’s background information, reasons for his wayward behaviour, a plan for his recovery, and a recommendation for sentencing…..all within a half hour. I would interview the client, his family if available, and local interested parties, such as a social worker, the RCMP officer involved, and, occasionally, the offence victim. With scattered notes and a jumbled idea of the circumstance of each sinner, I would present my findings to the Court and hope for the best. The judge frequently relied completely on my judgement and would make a ruling, word for word, by my recommendation. It seemed in these situations he was bestowing his powers to me but, as always, he had the final say and could completely disregard me if he chose. My largest number of such presentations in one sitting was 13. There were few adjournments and justice appeared to be done, although how effective and appropriate some may question.
Northern communities, however, don’t always rely on the Courts for justice. On one occasion in the tiny community of Telegraph Creek I arrived a day before Court to visit my various clients when the local chief and a counsellor approached me to explain their concerns regarding a certain member of the community. It seems a young First Nations boy of about 16 years was causing a serious problem. He had broken into the local, and only, store that provided the town’s groceries, liquor, guns, and post office. The problem being that he had committed his deeds on three successive occasions in two weeks and absconded with snacks, liquor and guns. He would later be found having a little party with himself and discharging his plunder among the Telegraph Creek citizenry. The chief suggested that if he was not removed from town immediately, the young man would be taken on a canoe trip whereby his homecoming would be doubtful. I, consequently, had a few words with the judge and quickly escorted the young rogue to a safer habitat south of the 50th. He eventually returned to his community when he had, presumably, learned the error of his ways some two years later but at least he did return.
Many northern judges seemed to bring with them a certain flare. They didn’t usually become intoxicated in the local bars and make unwelcome advances to young maidens, but they ran their courts as little kingdoms. The aforementioned incident progressed to an even worse conclusion as his honor, with red welted face, found himself presiding over his love interest’s mother the very morning of his awakening….and the very mother who had provided his face alteration. This act of indiscretion was, however, not his first, or final, and resulted in his quiet removal from the north. I guess I learned that judges are human after all!!
Some judges are very stern and maintain a distance from clients and community alike. This is likely a wise method to conduct business, as their detachment allows for the administration of justice without awkward influences and, in the case of the welted one, potential litigation of their own. Not all judges are built alike however. One magistrate I recall had a propensity for adjourning Court in mid proceedings to do a little social work in his chambers. It seemed peculiar, however, that he was more likely to instigate such a gathering when the defendant was an attractive young woman. As I said, judges are unique and run their Courts as little kingdoms.
Some judges, it seems, seek to avoid the limelight, as in media, while others flock to it like those dastardly flies on a Dease Lake summer evening. I recall one occasion when the full Court staff and I arrived in New Aiyansh for a morning Court session to be greeted by natural gas fumes in the lodge where we were to conduct our business. It did not appear the problem would be fixed any time soon and there was no other suitable accommodation immediately available. The judge, consequently, directed everyone to join him at the tailgate of his truck. He conducted Court from this perch with a clerk taking notes, as lawyers, Crown, and defendants were brought before him and his tailgate. Everyone thought this amusing and fairly unique. During the return drive to Terrace the local radio station was already broadcasting the story, some two hours after Court, describing the incident in detail with his honour the only participant actually mentioned….several times.
As I am sure you are aware, the north has all those characteristics ascribed to being northerly, especially in the winter months. I was required to set out on my treks once per month regardless of rain, sleet, snow, temperature, or break up (that very muddy time at the end of winter). I generally travelled alone and this was a time before cell phones, at least in the provincial government. After one particularly harrowing trip I enquired of my boss as to the possibility of installing a short wave radio in my vehicle. He scoffed at the idea sighting his numerous forays through the north over the previous decade without incident. I also survived the north, obviously, but I recall several times when a communication device would have come in handy and healthy.
I was frequently required to seek my passage on unplowed roads in white-out conditions with snow reaching above my axels. My little jeep would churn through the tundra at 5 kilometers per hour and always managed to reach its destination. On one occasion, in such conditions, while attempting to reach Stewart well past nightfall, I developed a flat tire. This was nothing in itself as the roads are very rough in the north, none are paved, and many consist of volcanic ash that shreds tires to the extent I always carried 2 spares. On this occasion the snow was 2 feet deep with a layer of ice underneath. Stopping to change the tire in darkness about 50 kms from Stewart, I managed to crank the vehicle onto a jack but the lugs were frozen solid and every time I wrenched on a lug, the vehicle would slide forward and topple off the jack. After several attempts I dug through the snowbank in a ditch until I found several large rocks. I used two to stabilize the vehicle and one to smash the wrench, finally dislodging the lugs. I, thereafter, carried a large rubber hammer and firewood that could have various uses.
I spent two years in the north and recall it with fond memories of adventure and extreme challenge facilitated by the undeveloped nature of the land, its vastness, and the unique qualities of the people, both clients and peers. I think those who remain in the north feel part of a frontier that is lost to those in the southern reaches of our province. For me, I had other aspirations and interests that could not be met by remaining in the north, warm weather being somewhat foremost. I have no regret in experiencing that time which, I believe, helped to influence my future career and mold my perspectives on life in general.