Deaf as a post

Distributing copies of the Canadian Charter of...

In 2004 and 2005, the peculiar case of Bobby Suwarak gave rise to the question of whether the Nunavut Court of Justice was able to give the man the kind of fair trial that is guaranteed by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. (PHOTO BY MARC LOSTRACCI, WIKIPEDIA CREATIVE COMMONS LICENCE)

The allegations that gave rise to this story of yesterday, “Police lay charges in Arctic grave desecration,” appear to have created a huge uproar in Baker Lake these past few weeks. Now that the story is widely reported, I expect it’s generating coffee shop gossip all over Nunavut this morning.

What interests me, though, is that the accused in the case, one Bobby Suwarak, now 40, owns a lengthy back story.

He’s deaf. Unlike most deaf people in North America, he never learned American Sign Language. He uses a form of sign language that Dr. James C. MacDougall, a psychologist at McGill University, calls “Inuit Sign Language.”

So during his last set of encounters with the territorial court system in 2004 and 2005, when he faced serious sexual assault allegations, Suwarak’s deafness earned him some minor fame.

Even before his court appearances in 2004 and 2005, Suwarak’s disability made him an object of sympathetic attention.

(From Nunavut Hansard: April 26, 2000)

Hon. Jack Anawak: Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to inform the Legislative Assembly about the accomplishments of Bobby Suwarak, an inmate of the Baffin Correctional Centre. Mr. Suwarak has been at the Baffin Correctional Centre since September of 1999. He is unique because he is deaf and is limited in his use of sign language. While he does not use the American Sign Language which is common among the deaf, he and his friends and family from Baker Lake have worked out a special sign language for his use.

(interpretation) Mr. Suwarak needed his interpreter from Baker Lake, Mr. David Kautaq, if he was going to be able to participate in treatment programs at BCC. I am pleased to say that the staff at BCC made arrangements with Northern Stores, who employ Mr. Kautaq, to allow him to move from Baker Lake to Iqaluit on a temporary transfer as an interpreter. Mr. Suwarak then worked with the psychologist at BCC and Mr. Kautaq and was able to engage in treatment programs.

Mr. Suwarak then indicated that he wished to attend school. He has limited formal education because of his disability. With the help of the teacher at the Baffin Correctional Centre and his interpreter, he enrolled in Arctic College for upgrading.

(interpretation ends) I am pleased to report that last Thursday, Mr. Suwarak received the Literary Council Award for Student of the Year at a ceremony at Arctic College. This was a well-deserved award that paid tribute to Mr. Suwarak’s hard work and dedication.

(interpretation) I would also like to point out that this kind of success story is a good example of what could be accomplished when the staff at the Baffin Correctional Centre get co-operation from private interests such as Northern Store and community members like Mr. David Kautaq. I also want to congratulate Arctic College for their willingness to take Bobby Suwarak as a student, and Mr. Dan Page, Mr. Suwarak’s teacher, for his dedicated work. With this kind of co-operation between the government and community institutions and individuals, we are going to achieve more successes like this. Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

This continued even after the serious criminal allegations that brought him to court faded from memory — and the court system.

At the same time, Jamie MacDougall went on to document and describe Inuit Sign Language, using grants from the Nunavut government’s Department of Culture, Languages, Elders and Youth.

(From Nunavut Hansard, September 16, 2008)

Hon. Louis Tapardjuk (interpretation): Thank you, Mr. Speaker. I rise today to inform my colleagues of a very important project aimed at documenting for the first time ever the development and use of Inuit Sign Language in Nunavut.

Mr. Speaker, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms provides a high standard to accommodate the use of sign languages in government services. Through policies, programs and services we can promote the use and culturally appropriate development of Inuit Sign Language in Nunavut.

The Department of Culture, Language, Elders and Youth also recognizes the uniqueness and importance of Inuit Sign Language. It is different from any other known sign language, and virtually no resources exist for it.

With thanks to the Department of Justice for initiating this project, I would like to especially thank the minister on my left for that, for the Department of Culture, Language, Elders and Youth provided funding to the Canadian Deafness Research and Training Institute to promote the use of Inuit Sign Language, by way of its 2007-08 and 2008-09 Grants and Contributions Program.

Mr. Speaker, I would like my colleagues to join me in congratulating the Project Lead, Jamie MacDougall, and his colleagues as well as key Nunavummiut who participated in this project:

Bobby Suwarak, Baker Lake
Yvo Samgushak, Rankin Inlet
Philip Ugjuk, Rankin Inlet
Louisa Ugjuk, Rankin Inlet
Kawtysie Kakee, Pangnirtung
Johnny Umingmak, Taloyoak
Clayton Ungungai, Baker Lake
Rhoda Idlout, Taloyoak

Mr. Speaker, this is also a historic day for this Legislative Assembly as we are providing for the first time interpretation of our proceeding in sign languages.


Deaf Nunavummiut will gather in Iqaluit from September 15 to 19, 2008 to launch and learn how to use the new CD-ROM, glossary and story book.

These resources will be used for teaching and training. Once again, I congratulate them for their achievements. Thank you, Mr. Speaker.


So far, so good. It’s always heartening, in some quarters at least, when a new group identity can be either — as the case may be — discovered or invented.

But your sceptical content provider does have some awkward questions.

The first is whether the Nunavut court system can now provide Bobby Suwarak with a fair trial under the Charter of Rights. Will MacDougall’s work on Inuit Sign Language give judges and lawyers the tools they need to communicate with him?

Second, will this man get some help for the problems that keep landing him in court? And will the community get some protection from those propensities?

People have devoted much attention to Suwarak’s deafness and the sign language that he uses. At the same time, these recent allegations are not the first sex-related charges this man has faced. In 2004 and 2005, he faced charges of sexual assault and break and enter with intent to commit an offence. The latter charge is often laid in home invasion cases.

Of course, we must acknowledge his right to be presumed innocent. But it’s obvious that deafness is not Bobby Suwarak’s only problem.

Incidentally, I couldn’t help noticing how the graveyard incident provoked weeks of discussion in Baker Lake, especially on the community radio. I suppose that’s natural.

In Nunavut however, hundreds of living people, especially women and children, are sexually assaulted every year. And nobody ever talks about it.

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