Law Society of BC teaches PLTC in Nunavut

“Not only had they died, they had perished and they had not just perished they had perished miserably.”

– Margaret Atwood’s introduction to Frozen in Time, Beattie & Geiger, 2004, Douglas and McIntyre

Ms. Atwood was referring to the ill-fated Franklin expedition of 1845. Captain Franklin and his company died while trying to navigate part of what is now Nunavut Territory. Nunavut was established on April 1, 1999 and about 30,000 people call it home. It makes up approximately one fifth of Canada’s landmass and, if it were a country, it would be the 14th largest and most sparsely populated in the world. The Law Society of BC sent PLTC Instructor Ian Guthrie to Nunavut’s capital, Iqaluit, in January 2006 to teach the first-ever Professional Legal Training Course offered in the territory.

Ian Guthrie, in Nunavut.For four months, Ian lived in Iqaluit, which to the “southern eye” is treeless, featureless and frigid. He taught nine articled students. For them, it was the culmination of a journey that began in 2001 when the Akitsiraq Law School was created by the Nunavut Arctic College, the University of Victoria Law School and the Akitsiraq Law School Society. It was supported by the Law Society of Nunavut and the Governments of Nunavut and Canada.

The name of the law school, “Akitsiraq,” means “to strike out disharmony or wrongdoing” in Inuktitut. It was a one-time program designed to produce more Inuit lawyers in the Territory. When it was established, there was only one lawyer of Inuit origin in Nunavut. In 2005, 11 Inuit students who enrolled for the courses in the Nunavut-based school graduated with their LL.B. from the University of Victoria. The nine that Ian taught in the PLTC program all had articles in Iqaluit. Another articled in the Northwest Territories, and one was chosen to clerk for the Supreme Court of Canada.

Ian said that soon after he arrived he adapted to the glacial environment, with temperatures of minus 25 to minus 50 degrees Celsius that were often accompanied by wind speeds of 20 to 100 kilometres per hour. The lowest temperatures and highest wind speeds resulted in “blizzard days,” and all activity in Iqaluit stopped—the schools, the courts, the stores and even the legislature closed. Unless there was a medical emergency, there were no pedestrians, taxis, cars or snowmobiles on the road. If it wasn’t overcast or a blizzard day, there was daylight from about 9:00 am to 2:30 pm.

Ian said he walked everywhere and just bundled up. He described the sunshine as prairie-like, intense and penetrating against the whiteness of the land. He said when the sun rose, it arced only a few degrees in a parabola over the southern horizon, and at first reminded him of a large forest fire on the cusp of the earth: orange and yellow.

It was common, Ian said, to see Inuit hunters of seal, polar bear, caribou and arctic wolves heading out to the land or the sea ice on snowmobiles towing a kamik (sled), with their rifles slung across their backs. If successful, the hunters would take the hides and begin the tanning process by nailing them to sheds next to their homes. About a month after Ian arrived, a polar bear was spotted near the hospital. At about the same time, wildlife officers in Apex, a suburb of Iqaluit, were forced to shoot two arctic wolves.

The Akitsiraq students and members of the Nunavut bar greeted Ian warmly. The PLTC course he taught was essentially the same as the one he has taught BC students for years, but this time, the students were Inuit and derived their ancestry from those who thrived and lived in that inhospitable land for some thousands of years. Ian observed that the students made significant progress, particularly in the core skills of writing, drafting, advocacy and interviewing.

The classroom he used was at the Old Residence annex of the Arctic College where other students were studying Inuit history, computer science, hair dressing, art and Inuit culture and skills. Ian arrived one day and saw that in the classroom next to his, there were two frozen seals. Once thawed, they were skinned and the edible parts were eaten. The Akitsiraq students told him this was (along with arctic char, caribou, ptarmigan and walrus) “country food,” and that it was still savoured by the Inuit and often eaten uncooked. Ian tried it, but generally cooked for himself, or went for soup and sandwiches at the Fantasy Palace Coffee Shop and Tanning Salon where, presumably, before the “Tanning” part closed, a patron could sip a cappuccino while bronzing.

The Law Society of BC played an important role in an historical event — the education of nine new lawyers in Canada’s newest territory. The Law Society is obliged to the many people in Iqaluit who assisted with administrative support, classrooms, office space and accommodations. Principal amongst them is Susan Hardy, Legislative Counsel, Department of Justice, Government of Nunavut. The Law Society is also obliged to: Ian Guthrie, who taught the PLTC course and, as a result, moved his life to Iqaluit for months; Lynn Burns, Deputy Director of PLTC; Katherine Potter, Registrar; and Alex Crabtree, who provided technical support and did all the heavy lifting in Vancouver to ensure the success of the endeavour.