Jury trials will continue on Island but in COVID-19 safe distance venue

SUDBURY – Following Island-wide alarm over a plan to move jury trials from the Gore Bay courthouse to the hub centre at Laurentian University, starting in January, efforts are underway to find a suitable location on Manitoulin Island. The Manitoulin Hotel and Conference Centre has confirmed that they are now in conversations with the ministry to provide a venue for jury trials on Manitoulin Island.

The Expositor reached out to the Attorney General’s office to discover the details of the plan and how it might impact Island residents.

“Throughout the COVID-19 emergency and recovery our government has been working with justice partners to keep the judiciary, jurors, court staff, litigants and witnesses safe and maintain the administration of justice across our province,” said Brian Gray, spokesperson with the Ministry of the Attorney General. “The ministry continues to work with the Superior Court of Justice to plan for upcoming jury trials.”

Mr. Gray went on to note that “in some courthouses there is not adequate space to maintain physical distancing during all aspects of jury proceedings. In these instances, movement of some functions of jury proceedings to another court or temporary off-site location may be required. The ministry is working with the judiciary to determine where relocation of jury proceedings is indicated.”

A letter addressed to the United Chiefs and Councils of Mnidoo Mnising (UCCMM) from Justice M. Gregory Ellies noted that conducting jury trials during the COVID-19 pandemic “is a challenge.” The justice noted that the physical distancing required between both the jury panel from which jury members are chosen and the selected jury in particular is difficult to maintain. “Like the courthouses in a number of smaller centres in the Northeast Region, the courthouse in Gore Bay is too small to accommodate a jury trial with these precautions in place,” he pointed out.

Justice Ellies went on to note that the Attorney General is responsible for providing the facilities necessary to administer justice, while scheduling decisions are under the authority of the court.

“When we initially began to work with the ministry on identifying a facility for jury trials, it was clear that options were very limited,” wrote Justice Ellies. “The ministry asked us to work with one facility per region.”

Justice Ellies continued stating that the size of the community and its geographic location relative to other court sites in the region were among the court’s considerations, but that “no consultation took place with any justice stakeholders or First Nations communities given limited options.”

But Justice Ellies advised the UCCMM that “concerns you expressed in your letter and those of other stakeholders have been conveyed to the Ministry of the Attorney General with a request that the ministry identify a location on Manitoulin Island to hold jury trials. I am advised the ministry is making significant efforts to identify an appropriate site on the Island.”

“The ministry is aware of the potential impacts of relocating jury trials, especially for Indigenous communities,” said Mr. Gray. “It is a priority to ensure that—where possible—jury proceedings can remain within the jurisdiction.”

But Mr. Gray went on to reiterate that “Gore Bay has been identified as a location where there is currently not adequate space to host jury trials and relocation of matters may be required.” He also noted that temporary off-site space is being investigated within the District of Manitoulin and assured The Expositor that “no other court matters in Gore Bay are identified for relocation at this time.”

Health and safety remains the key concern in attempting to ensure that jury trials resume to provide an accused’s day in court in a timely manner, so “all off-site locations will undergo health and safety assessments by the Public Services Health and Safety Association and security assessment by local police services,” said Mr. Gray.

“We haven’t inked an agreement yet,” said Corey Stacinski, “but they have reached out to us to start sometime in January. I think it was (Aundeck Omni Kaning) Chief Corbiere who was quoted in your story as saying ‘why not the hotel?’ It was right after I read that in the newspaper that I got a call (from the ministry).”