Mark Rendell

Yellowknifers: The Lawyer

Lawyer Sarah Arngna'naaq is a fly-in prosecutor with some experience of how a life can go off-track

The fans are spinning loudly in a cavernous Kugluktuk or Gjoa Haven gymnasium, where a temporary court has been set up and Sarah Arngna’naaq has just called someone to the stand.

“I’m trying to get a witness [to tell] their stories – whether they’ve been assaulted or sexually assaulted, or somebody has broken into their house and stolen stuff – [it’s] this big open space where they have to project their voices… and you can’t hear what they’re saying. It’s a super weird setting.”

Welcome to Sarah’s world of fly-in courts, where parties of lawyers, judges, and sheriffs traverse the North by plane, dispensing justice to the remotest of communities. For one or two weeks every month, the 28-year-old prosecutor, volunteer firefighter and mentor lives in hotels and works in gymnasiums across Nunavut’s Kitikmeot region.

Although Sarah works in Nunavut, she’s been living in Yellowknife for the past two and a half years; she also spent many of her formative years here. She was born in Baker Lake, Nunavut’s only inland Inuit community and the geographic centre of Canada. Her father, Silas Arngna’naaq, was an NWT MLA before the creation of Nunavut; the family moved to Yellowknife when Sarah was seven to be closer to his work.

Her early teen years in Yellowknife were marked by trouble. “They were just problems,” she says. “I became a rebellious teenager and my mom thought it was best to relocate me to a different place, so I had the opportunity to restart, try to rebuild myself.”

When she was 14, Sarah, her mom and her sister moved to “probably one of the whitest suburbs in Ontario,” in Kingston. “I still found my alternative group of friends and I still managed to push the boundaries, but those boundaries were kind of pulled in so it helped reign me in, I guess… I don’t know if I would have become the person I am if she hadn’t relocated us.”

Sarah clearly got her act together, going on to study business and international development at Trent University, then law at the University of Victoria. She returned to Yellowknife during a co-op in her first year of law school, and then moved back up after graduation. Since then, she’s become a part-time firefighter with Yellowknife Fire Division and a mentor for young women through the YWCA and Big Brothers Big Sisters.

Sarah’s background puts her in a unique position in the North’s criminal justice system: “The fact that I’m female and the fact that I’m aboriginal, and I stand up and say, ‘Look, whatever is happening is wrong’ — I hope that has some kind of impact.” And having made it through troubled teenage years, Sarah says she’s able to approach her work with a certain insight.

“It allows me to put myself in the shoes of the people that are in these files.  When they talk of someone being blackout drunk and out of control, I can picture that kind of situation… I imagine a lot of people working in the justice system haven’t necessarily experienced these things first hand… I also sound like a crazy person when I say, ‘We should give this person a chance.’

What are your earliest memories of Yellowknife?

I probably have a couple first memories: going to Winks and getting potato spuds and slushies, so awesome! Then probably biking up and down the Frame Lake Trail, to and from the museum all summer. The museum was cool to go check out, and my dad worked at the Ledge, so it was just an easy and safe place to bike. We’d go in the museum and check out the polar bear and play in the kid’s area. I went to a number of schools. I started at Range Lake, where my mom was a teacher, and then I went over to Sissons where I did a few years of French immersion, then I went over to William Mac and then I started at Sir John before we left.

What’s your favourite thing about Yellowknife?

The outdoors. No matter what time of year it is, there are great things you can find to do outside. A lot of walking around no matter what the temperature is. I’ve got my dog – he’s a Shepherd/Rottweiler cross kind of thing – so we go out and do between half an hour and an hour every day, so I get to really appreciate outside. Frame Lake Trail and Tin Can Hill are the two favorites, because they’re so close and so accessible and he can go off-leash in both those areas. So we’ll go and do the back part of Frame Lake Trail and Tin Can Hill, then out on the lakes. And during the winter, it’s a bit easier because you can access wherever.

What’s your least favourite thing about Yellowknife?

Housing costs. It drives me nuts how expensive it is to live in Yellowknife. I’m pretty sure it’s up there with Toronto and Vancouver – maybe not Vancouver, but Victoria – and it’s not the same size, so the costs should not be that high. And I think it may even be as expensive as Iqaluit, but we have a road to get to Yellowknife, so it doesn’t make any sense to me why it’s so expensive. I would love to own [a house] one day. Whether I’m ever going to in this market is a different question. And as a lawyer to be complaining about that I can only imagine what other people are experiencing in this market.

How do you spend your winters?

All year long, I’m walking around outside. During the winters it’s a lot more walking, or a little bit of skiing sometimes, just around on the lakes. I also do some more indoor things like swimming or yoga. And I really like volunteering, because then I get to be social and interact with people.

How do you spend your summers?

Kind of the same, only I’m wearing different clothes and I jog a lot more in the summer. I go and run the dog, better exercise for him, better exercise for me. I like to swim a lot, so I’ll go with the dog and jump in the lake — Long Lake, not the Big Lake. And not Frame Lake, I’ve always been a little bit wary of swimming in Frame Lake. I’ve heard that it’s safe to swim in but people just don’t do it for some reason, I don’t know what it is. I like canoeing, but I don’t do as much because of the dog. He does not like canoes at this point, and he’s 75 pounds, so if he’s not comfortable, nobody is comfortable in the canoe. I’m working on that.

What kind of opportunities have you found in Yellowknife that you don’t think you’d find elsewhere?

You can find things here that you can’t find in the south in all realms of life. I don’t know if in the south I would have become a part-time firefighter. And unless you’re living in a smaller community, you probably wouldn’t have access to the great outdoors to the same degree. I think if I was living in the south I would be living in a big city, so you just wouldn’t get access to the same green spaces you get up here. I’m also getting experience professionally doing work that I probably wouldn’t be doing in the south. I’d probably still be doing very minor matters if I was a crown in the south with only a year under my belt. Up here, I’m taking on bigger files, and I get to use my discretion. If I’m not comfortable taking a file I say, ‘I don’t know if I should be running this file.’ Which I have done a couple of times, because I’ve been handed files that I just wouldn’t be comfortable running myself.

Are you a Yellowknife Lifer?

I think that probably depends on a couple of things to be determined in the next few years of my life. But I would say I’m probably a northern lifer. I’ll be in and out of the North probably throughout my life, because it has a special place in my heart and I think there’s a lot of good work to be done up here, and I’m probably in a position to at least help contribute in some way.