There is an old proverb that “the mills of the gods grind slowly.” It seems especially apt when considering the delivery of legal services to northern communities in Canada’s Prairie provinces.
Serena Puranen is among Manitoba’s most northern-based lawyers. She is one of the roughly 20 practitioners who make up the defence bar in Thompson, some 760 kilometres from Winnipeg. No Manitoba community north of Thompson has lawyers or law offices.
Puranen says the legal community in Thompson is struggling to do its job. “The demand is so high and the resources are so scarce,” she laments. She points to the distances, the shortage of legal and police staff, the lack of judges and Crowns, the lack of time and the abundance of bad weather.
In Churchill, for example, northeast of Thompson on the shores of Hudson Bay, the circuit court flies into town four times a year (weather permitting). Court is held in the local Royal Canadian Legion. Waiting times for court appearances can be significant.
Saskatchewan’s most northerly lawyers are the least far north of the entire Prairie legal community. The last northern community to have full-time resident lawyers is La Ronge, about 600 kilometres from Regina. That lawyer is Rick Bell, a long-time member of the community (see story to the right).
In Alberta, the last northern stop on the legal highway is Fort McMurray, some 430 kilometres northeast of Edmonton. There are no resident lawyers any further north and justice to remote areas comes via generally fly-in circuit courts.
Technically, it looks as if Fort McMurray’s Don Scott is not only the most northerly lawyer in Alberta but operates the farthest north law practice across the Prairies. He acknowledges it is only a matter of chance that his law office happens to be in the northern part of Fort McMurray, thus beating out competitors by a few kilometres. But as a long-time community activist who was just elected mayor of Fort McMurray, he is quick to say, “If I am the most northerly lawyer, then it is something I am proud of.”
As in the other provinces, Alberta’s northern communities are served by a circuit court and fly-in lawyers, some of whom come from “Fort Mac” and some from as far away as Calgary.
Lawyer runs the only private practice in northern Sask.
I'm an eccentric son of a bitch.”
That is the way Rick Bell, 57, describes his refusal to adopt email or any other electronic means of communication other than a telephone. It’s something, he says, that annoys (perhaps understandably) the folks at Saskatchewan’s Ministry of Justice.
Bell has been practising in La Ronge, Sask. for close to 30 years and is now semi-retired, but he continues to do things his way. La Ronge is a community of a little more than 2,700 people on the shores of rugged Lac La Ronge and it is something of a service centre for northern Saskatchewan. On the legal front, there is a courthouse in town, a handful of Crown attorneys and a six-person Saskatchewan Legal Aid office. Bell says there is a lot of work. “The Crown attorneys up here get experience like no other. In five years, they get 10 years’ worth of court experience, it’s so busy.”
These days, Bell does criminal law. When he first returned to La Ronge, he ran a full-service practice, but he says he has had enough of the headaches and complications that type of practice creates. Now, he deals strictly with clients facing criminal matters. About 40 per cent of his business is in town and about 60 per cent is on the fly-in circuit that serves communities all over the northern part of the province.
On a fly-in basis, the court serves a vast area stretching into the most northern parts of the province. Bell says he loves the northern life and loves living in La Ronge. He grew up in Fort Smith in the Northwest Territories, but he finished his last two years of high school in Calgary. “But my heart was always in the north,” he says. “The day I graduated from high school, I went and joined my dad in La Ronge.”
Bell left once more for the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon. “I got my undergrad and my law degree there,” he says. At first, he tried to keep a home in Prince Albert but, in 1995, he made a final, full-time return to the northern town.
Bell acknowledges there are challenges in practising in a remote location, but, he says “there is an ethos up here, an approach to dealing with clients, which makes this a special place to practise.”