Ministry confirms jury trials will continue on Manitoulin Island

MANITOULIN – The Ministry of the Attorney General will explore and engage municipalities and First Nations on Manitoulin Island in an effort to find a suitable location to hold Superior Court jury trials during the COVID-19 pandemic. Both the Town of Gore Bay and the Manitoulin Hotel and Conference Centre confirm they have been in conversation with the province about providing a venue for Superior Court of Justice jury trials on the Island.

“Again, I spoke to Attorney General Doug Downey and he was not aware that a final decision had been made and that jury trial courts were going to be moved to Sudbury,” said Algoma-Manitoulin MPP Michael Mantha, last Friday. “The Minister assured me that they will be engaging available locations to hold the courts in Gore Bay.” 

“I told the attorney general that I had heard about this a month ago, that a letter had been forwarded by Island First Nations to his ministry and they had received no response,” said MPP Mantha. “There are plenty of places on Manitoulin Island, lots of places can look at having the jury trial courts.”

In an update from Mr. Mantha on Tuesday he told the Recorder “the attorney general and I have daily conversations and I have stressed the need for the courts to remain locally in Gore Bay. He told me that discussions had been held in the ministry office about relocating the jury trials in Sudbury in January, but that was all this was—discussion. The ministry is looking at local locations to meet the needs of the courts and to provide the court services locally. The suggestion is that they (jury) trials will begin in January, so the ministry has plenty of time to look for a suitable venue in Gore Bay.”

Stasia Carr, clerk for the town of Gore Bay told the Recorder on Monday, “we received an email (last) Friday from Infrastructure Ontario asking about a possible location in town that could be used for the courts. We are suggesting the courts could be held at the community hall.”

A representative of the Manitoulin Hotel and Conference Centre in Little Current has also confirmed that they are now in conversations with the province. 

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 for 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.” 

At a Manitoulin Municipal Association (MMA) meeting held last Thursday evening, chair Ken Noland told the members, “I will share some information I received from our MPP Mike Mantha. He received word from Attorney General Doug Downey that the ministry is looking at alternative locations in Gore Bay to hold jury trials.” 

“I’m not surprised we are now getting this response to questions,” said Al MacNevin, mayor of the Town of Northeastern Manitoulin and the Islands (NEMI). “They didn’t consult with municipalities or First Nations, especially the town of Gore Bay. This just isn’t right.” 

After further concerns were expressed by MMA members as to how this situation had been originally handled by the ministry and the concerns with the lack of consultation and any thought of moving the courts to Sudbury, the group passed a motion to have a letter sent to the attorney general voicing the MMA’s concerns despite the new information provided by the province.  

The MMA in their letter to the attorney general dated October 26 state, “the MMA wishes to express their opposition to the removal of jury sittings from Gore Bay to Sudbury. This decision did not include any consultation with the Manitoulin municipalities or First Nation communities.”

“The proposed change will create undue hardship on many people needing to participate in these jury trials. The availability of transportation for many becomes an issue. Travel time one way can be in the range of two to three hours depending on where the person resides on Manitoulin. The costs associated with travel and accommodation can create added financial stress.”

“Jury trials have been held in Gore Bay in the District of Manitoulin for many years and have provided much needed employment for our communities,” the MMA letter continued. “If this decision has been based on the need for more space for social distancing there are other locations in the Town of Gore Bay that would provide the required space. The Gore Bay curling rink is an option and has been used for jury trials in the past. Other locations throughout Manitoulin Island may be options as well.”

“We are prepared to work with the court system in providing a suitable location for jury trials to continue on Manitoulin Island,” wrote Mr. Noland in his capacity as chair of the MMA.