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Northern legal history left out in the cold
By Geoff Ellwand
December 17 2010 issue

Justice John Vertes of the NWT Supreme Court sits with a carving that is part of a collection depicting famous Northerntrials.  [Photo by Bill Braden for The Lawyers Weekly]
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It is a remarkable collection of Inuit legal art and nothing of its kind exists anywhere else. But in spite of its rarity and importance it remains largely under wraps.

It has fallen into a bureaucratic no-man’s land. Because of security concerns, and the fact neither the territorial nor the federal governments will fund adequate display facilities, the unique collection now languishes, except for occasional exhibitions, in storage in Yellowknife.

The Sissons/Morrow Carvings depict some of the most important trials in Canadian and Northern legal history. It consists of 27 pieces including one very important stuffed duck.

For more than 20 years the collection was on display at the Yellowknife courthouse, but after renovations to the building in the 1990s it ended up in what proved to be a very insecure display cabinet in the building’s foyer. In 1999 and then again in 2000 the doors on the cabinet were jimmied and several of the pieces were stolen or damaged. So the collection was packed away.

It has been taken out for a few special occasions, such as exhibitions at The Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery in Toronto in 2005 and later that year at the Confederation Centre of the Arts in Charlottetown. It is currently on display until May at the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre in Yellowknife.

But the fact the collection is in storage most of the time does not sit well with the current trustee of the collection, NWT Supreme Court senior judge, Justice John Vertes.

“I’m not happy” Justice Vertes says standing in an empty courtroom of the Yellowknife courthouse. He is surrounded by boxes and packing foam looking at a few examples from the collection. “These carvings represent historical landmarks in the justice system in the North,” he says as he carefully moves a piece that depicts a 1959 case in which the court, for the first time, recognized custom marriage. The carvings he says “belong to the people of the Northwest Territories and they should be on display.”

But acquiring a secure display space has proved impossible.

The courts are funded by Ottawa, but under the Constitution the courthouse is owned by the Territorial government. Justice Vertes cautiously says he has had “some discussions” with the NWT government about “doing some further renovations” but says there is nothing to report. Justice Vertes says under certain special circumstances the court might entertain the possibility of a group of firms or private institutions funding a secure display space. But he says such a gift would raise several significant problems, “it is very difficult for us [the court] to receive favours from private individuals, private firms, simply because of the appearance that we might give a favour in return.”

Perhaps understandably, Bill Erasmus, the NWT regional chief of the Assembly of First Nations, is much less cautious. “I think what is important,” he says “is that the appropriate people get together and work on this as quickly as possible.” Chief Erasmus says every day the collection is not on display is a lost opportunity for it to inspire a young person, or remind a lawyer that law is indeed a high calling. Erasmus takes a special interest in the collection, not only in his role with the Assembly of First Nations, but because of his studies in anthropology when he was in graduate school at the University of Alberta. “There is no doubt it is important,” he says.

The Law Society of the Northwest Territories referred queries about the Sissons/Morrow collection to one of Yellowknife’s most senior lawyers and one of its longest serving members, Austin Marshall. Marshall says anyone who knows about the collection in the legal community is concerned about its low profile. But he says the longer it is in storage, the fewer are the practitioners, especially young practitioners, who will be aware of it. Despite these concerns, though, Marshall says as far as he knows the Law Society has no plans to officially push for the return of the collection to public view.

The works were commissioned by the first two resident judges of what is now the Supreme Court of the Northwest Territories. Justice Jack Sissons served from 1955 to 1966 and Justice William Morrow was on the bench from 1966 to 1976. Both judges oversaw the many difficulties caused by the coming together of Canadian law and traditional practices in the North. They applied the law but also sympathetically recognized customary practices and in so doing cut new legal trails, some of which were later recognized by the framers of the Constitution Act 1982.

Justice Sissons started the collection soon after his arrival in the North when he began to take his court on circuit to some of the most under populated areas of the NWT. After the conclusion of one of his first trials, he was given an evocative carving by a man he had acquitted of murder in what may have been a case of assisted suicide. Certain types of suicide were part of Inuit traditional practices.

Subsequently, Sissons commissioned carvings of other important cases and Morrow carried on the tradition when he became a senior judge. When Sissons retired he took the collection to Edmonton with him, but on his death the collection was given to the people of the Northwest Territories. “Whoever is in the position of senior judge,” says the current senior judge, Justice Vertes, “has the responsibility for their safekeeping and for their display.”

The collection includes carvings rendered in whole or in part in stone, ivory, caribou antler, soapstone and metal. But one piece is a stuffed mallard duck. It was an exhibit in a groundbreaking 1962 trial surrounding the aboriginal right to hunt migratory birds for food. Justice Sissons, in a carefully written judgment, overturned a lower court ruling which found a treaty Indian, Michael Sikyea guilty of killing a migratory bird out of season. The case ended up before the Supreme Court of Canada where, in those pre-Charter days the original conviction was upheld. The case was subsequently cited in several key post-Charter Supreme Court judgements on aboriginal rights including Delgamuukw, Marshall and Van der Peet.

In honour of the 55th anniversary of the re-establishment of the Supreme Court of the Northwest Territories the collection is now on display at Yellowknife’s Northern Heritage Centre until May. But it is only a stop-gap measure and supporters continue to believe a permanent display is needed.  Justice Vertes says the sculptures “are part of our collective heritage, and it is only right that the people be able to view them first-hand.”

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