What’s it like to practise criminal law in Iqaluit?

“It may take a lot of work and patience to get to a point where my client trusts me to do my job”
Lana Walker

It’s a well-established fact: if you’re in trouble with the law, you need a lawyer to fight on your behalf against the mighty power of the state. Most criminal defendants, aware of this reality, look forward to the moment that defence counsel arrives at their side. In the North, however, it’s more complicated. “When I meet with potential clients, they do not see me as a desirable piece of the equation,” says Lana Walker, a criminal-defence lawyer based in Iqaluit. “My clients may place me in the same category as the RCMP and the Crown.”

In Nunavut, close to 85 percent of the population, which hovers around 39,000, is Inuit. And, throughout the territory, the consequences of colonialism — poverty, inadequate housing, an ever-increasing prison population — are on display. “Because of that background, it’s very challenging to forge a solicitor-client relationship,” says Walker. “It may take a lot of work and patience to get to a point where my client trusts me to do my job.”

In December 2014, seven years into her legal career, Walker closed down her solo practice in Toronto. One month later, she moved to Iqaluit to begin working at the Legal Services Board of Nunavut, the territory’s legal-aid organization. Over the past five years, she’s also built a family. Along with her partner, the warden of a community halfway house, Walker has a three-year-old daughter and an eight-month-old son. Earlier this spring, when we spoke on the phone, she was at home on maternity leave. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed how she decided to practise in the area of criminal defence and what led her to the North.

Let’s start at the beginning of your career. As a law student, at Dalhousie University, was it your plan to practise criminal law?

Not at all. After my second year of law school, I wasn’t even sure I wanted to practise law. I was leaning toward becoming an academic and going into teaching.

But that didn’t happen. So what changed?

In my third year, I took part in the school’s criminal-law clinic. There were about 12 of us in the class, and we were paired up with either a Crown or a defence lawyer. I was assigned to a lawyer at Nova Scotia Legal Aid, who worked with youth before the justice system. We spent hours together.

One day, we went to the courthouse to conduct bail hearings on behalf of new arrests. It was one of the most jarring experiences of my life. It was so difficult to witness people in the cells in total distress. But the duty counsel were acting as their lifeline, using their legal skills to give them some peace and reassurance. For the first time, the academic side of law crystalized with the human side. It was extremely moving. At that moment, I knew that I had to be a criminal-defence lawyer.

How did you act on that ambition?

The formal recruitment process had long passed, and it was much too late to find a good articling placement. So I decided to take an academic year.

That brought me to Toronto. I enrolled in a thesis-intensive master’s program at Osgoode Hall. Over the next year, I worked toward that degree — which, to be honest, I never finished — and started to send out applications for an articling position. During that process, I interviewed at Hicks Adams, a top criminal-defence firm in the city. I really loved the energy of that place, so, when they offered me a job, I accepted it.

Describe what life is like at a busy downtown defence firm.

It was intense. There were two other articling students, and we worked until 10 o’clock every weeknight. We’d take Saturday off, and then we were back in the office on Sunday. Once I was hired back as an associate, the hours were a bit less intense, but I still worked well into the evening. I ate most of my dinners at the office.

Did working such long hours sour your enthusiasm for criminal law?

Had I not been so passionate about the work, it probably would have. But those hours were getting me closer to the end goal of being a better lawyer. I was learning the trade. For the most part, it was a great experience.

Three years into your career as an associate, you left to found your own firm. What motivated that decision?

By that point, I had been bringing in my own work, and I felt ready to take control of my career. In 2011, I was doing a jury trial, and my co-counsel, Sean Robichaud, had just opened a law chambers. His vision was to create a space for younger lawyers who were just starting out on their own. He had the infrastructure in place to make the transition easier. I also didn’t have kids or a mortgage, so it was the right time to go out on my own.

Four years later, you closed it down and moved to Iqaluit. How did that happen?

After a while, all of the things that are wonderful about being self-employed start to nag at you. Yes, you get to set your own schedule and select your own clients, but that means you have to take care of the entire business yourself. That can be a grind. It was becoming difficult to maintain all of the running around.

Around that time, I spoke to a colleague who had moved to Rankin Inlet in Nunavut to work at Legal Aid. And she told me about a program where lawyers in the South would travel to the community for a couple of weeks and do some circuit work. (Editor’s Note: Most remote locations in Nunavut don’t have a permanent courthouse, so the Court of Nunavut will travel to communities on a rolling basis. These visits are called circuits. The core actors in the criminal-justice system — a judge, clerk, interpreter, prosecutor, defence counsel, reporter, court security — arrive to conduct judicial proceedings. In larger communities that have a high need, visits can be as frequent as every six weeks; in more remote areas, a circuit might not arrive for six months.)

In 2014, I participated in a two-week circuit program in Rankin Inlet. Everything that, as a sole practitioner, I would have had to cover financially was taken care of, including the transportation and the hotel. There was an infrastructure in place. I came back to Toronto thinking, I could practise in the North. The pace of life was also a bit different. And it seemed like an interesting place to work full-time. One month later, the Legal Services Board of Nunavut was looking for full-time defence lawyers in its Iqaluit office. I sent in an application — and, after I had my interview, I was hired on the same day.

Talk about the caseload at your office. What percentage of criminal cases in the region does it handle?

I’m hesitant to give you an exact number, but our office probably handles the majority of the cases on Baffin Island.

What advice would you offer to someone who wants to follow in your footsteps?

Don’t accept an articling position because it’s your only offer. If you have the luxury of delaying your articling until you find a job that will give you the skills you need to move forward, then do it. Articling lays the foundation for your career.

You also need to build and maintain your professional network. I might work in the North, but I still call on my colleagues and friends in Toronto. We rely on each other for advice and for precedents. We’re connected technologically, so you can take that network anywhere.

Moving to the North can be an ethically fraught decision. It’s not uncommon for professionals to move North for a brief period of time, save up money and then return to the South. Have you thought about that dilemma?

That’s a valid concern. After being here for more than five years, I’ve seen people come and go quite quickly. There’s a huge turnaround. And that’s a problem. I think it’s important for our clients to have lawyers who live in the community, who have a deeper level of understanding of the issues at play. I, personally, am trying to invest my time and energy into the community.

Illustration by Chloe Cushman.