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‘Thank God we created this,’ says Edmonton judge and architect of mental health court

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A lanky young man with thick glasses steps up to the front of the courtroom. He is charged with shoplifting and failure to appear but just finished a mental health therapy program.

“It sounds like you did a great job,” provincial court Judge Janet Dixon says warmly. “Because of the work you did (the Crown) is withdrawing the charges.”

The man pulls himself up a little straighter. “OK, thank you,” he says, before striding out of the courtroom.

It has been eight months since the launch of Edmonton’s mental health court, designed to help ease the backlog in the justice system and respond to the growing number of cases that involve people with mental health problems.

Since April, more than 2,340 accused have appeared on the docket.

The court draws on the collaborative expertise of dedicated judges, duty counsel, Crown prosecutors, healthcare and social workers, sheriffs and community agencies.

“At the end of every day I come away from that court saying, ‘Thank God we created this,'” Assistant Chief Judge Larry Anderson, one of the architects of the mental health court, told CBC News.

“Every day there’s at least one or two of the matters where I say, ‘You know, we could never have done this in another courtroom.’

“Chances are it just would have gone over for a longer period of time and come back without anybody ever actually having been able to sink their teeth into it.”

Criminal cases up 90 per cent

Since 2012, criminal cases in Edmonton have shot up by 90 per cent, putting significant pressure on the court system and especially docket court, said Anderson.

He cites the province’s justice system database which shows that in the 2012-13 fiscal year there were 24,113 new criminal cases. The current fiscal year, 2018-19, is on track to see nearly double the number of new cases, at about 46,000.

Anderson estimates at least 10 per cent of those charged with crimes in Edmonton have mental health problems.

He said while accountability is part of the equation, the goal of the court is to reduce the likelihood that someone will re-offend by tackling the mental health issues that put them there in the first place.

Without a mental health court, it would be “very difficult to identify and then promptly and properly respond to the underlying needs of those who enter the justice system due to mental health problems,” Anderson said.

Unlike conventional courtrooms, mental health court moves at a slower pace. Judges can make quicker, more informed decisions based on access to the real-time expertise of a forensic psychiatrist and mental health nurse, and computerized medical files — all of which provide a more holistic view of the accused.

The orders are going to be much more meaningful to the person and are much less likely to be breached.– Assistant Chief Judge Larry Anderson

“The orders are going to be much more meaningful to the person and are much less likely to be breached,” said Anderson. “That’s one of the problems that many people face when they have mental health challenges is that they just find they’re back into the system because they can’t meet the expectations that are placed on them.”

Judges may also ask someone to check in with the court after sentencing to monitor their progress.

“It’s rewarding to the individual who recognizes that courts actually care and want to see the person succeed and want to be want to be a part of their successes,” said Anderson.

Family matters

Back in court, a sheriff removes a young man’s handcuffs and takes him to the prisoner’s box for a brief appearance as he beams a gap-tooth smile toward the gallery.

“I see your dad’s here,” says Dixon, as a man waves a hello from the row of wooden benches. “Thank you for attending.”

Family members are playing a more significant role than anticipated, Legal Aid lawyer Amna Qureshi said in an interview. For instance, family members weigh in on the suitability of bail conditions and the availability of supports. Sometimes they help the court better understand the family’s overall struggles.

“If the ultimate goal is to stop recidivism … then why not involve the people that are going to be there when they’re not in conflict with the law?” said Qureshi.

Legal Aid lawyer Amna Qureshi says mental health court is breaking down barriers among groups who have a historically traumatic relationship with the justice system. (CBC/Peter Evans)

But there are other benefits too. Qureshi said the informal nature of the proceedings is reducing barriers among groups such as Indigenous people who have a historically traumatic relationship with the justice system. Elders are given a voice in the courtroom.

“That is important in terms of reconciliation and being culturally sensitive to what type of sentences are appropriate,” said Qureshi.

While the court is still in its infancy, future plans include a practicum in the new year for law students at the University of Alberta. They will take on the duties of the social workers, officially called “justice navigators,” who help connect clients with supports.

There are also plans to study the economic impacts of mental health court and measure the extent the court is achieving its objectives such as reducing recidivism, creating healthier lives and increasing respect for the justice system.

“The likelihood of those outcomes increasing is pretty high because you simply see the way people react,” Anderson said.

In court again, Dixon is sentencing a pregnant woman who pulled a fire alarm.

The woman, in a yellow sweatshirt, appears via closed-circuit TV from the Edmonton Remand Centre, where she is being held. Court hears about her family history, which includes residential schools. She struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder and addiction after growing up in foster care.

The woman says she wants to get help to take care of her children. She is looking for a place to stay after her release.

The Crown agrees to drop a charge of uttering threats and the judge hands down a short jail sentence along with some advice.

“The best thing you can do is take care of yourself,” Dixon tells her. “Good luck to you.”

“Thank you, your Honour,” says the woman. “Have a great day.”

andrea.huncar@cbc.ca
@andreahuncar

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Students call on University of Ottawa to implement pass/fail grading amid pandemic

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OTTAWA — The University of Ottawa Students’ Union (UOSU) is calling on the university to introduce optional, one-course-only pass/fail grading for the Fall 2020 and Winter 2021 semesters amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The students’ union said nearly 5,000 uOttawa students have signed its petition supporting the grading system.

In a letter to the university, the UOSU said it is asking the school to make changes to the grading structure, including allowing one course per semester to be converted to the “pass” or “satisfactory” designation.

The UOSU also made recommendations regarding a reduction of workload and course delivery.

“The adaptation to online learning during the pandemic for students has created unique challenges and disruptions that could not have been anticipated,” wrote Tim Gulliver, the UOSU’s Advocacy Commissioner. 

“The use of flexible compassionate grading options has been introduced in other universities, such as Carleton University which includes a use of Pass/Fail which we feel could be implemented at the University of Ottawa.”

Carleton University approved the use of flexible and compassionate grading for the Fall 2020 and Winter 2021 terms in early November.

The UOSU also called for all grades that constitute a fail to appear as “Not Satisfactory” on their transcript, which would not be included in grade point average calculations. 

The union represents more than 38,000 undergraduate students at the University of Ottawa.

In a response to CTV News, the University of Ottawa said it is aware of the petition.

“Last spring a decision was made by the (University) Senate to allow the Satisfactory/Non Satisfactory mark to be used, given the unique circumstances of the pandemic, which hit us close to the end of the Winter 2020 semester. The University is aware of the petition and is looking into the matter.”

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OPP warn of phone scams in Ottawa Valley

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Upper Ottawa Valley OPP warn residents of a phone scam that’s been making its way through the region recently. 

Police say a scammer pretends to be from a local business and tells the person their credit card didn’t work on a recent purchase before asking the person on the phone to confirm their credit card number. 

The victim may not have even used the card at the store, but police said the scammer creates a sense of urgency. 

Police remind residents to verify the legitimacy of any caller before providing any personal information over the phone. 

Similar scams have been reported recently in the region, according to police, with scammers posing as police officers, Revenue Canada or other government agencies demanding payment for a variety of reasons. A Social Insurance Number scam has also been reported recently, where a victim is asked for their SIN number under threat of being arrested. 
 
If a scam artist contacts you or if you have been defrauded, you’re asked to contact police or the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre at 1-888-495-8501 or visit their website at www.antifraudcentre.ca.

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The human history of Ottawa Valley is thousands of years old. Archeologists may have found a piece of it on Parliament Hill

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OTTAWA—Archeologists working on Parliament Hill have discovered a relic of Indigenous life that one Algonquin leader sees as a symbol of his people’s long history in what is now the heart of Canadian political power.

The jagged stone point was unearthed last year on the east side of Centre Block, but its discovery was not publicized as officials worked with Algonquin communities to authenticate the object, the Star has learned.

Stephen Jarrett, the lead archeologist for the ongoing renovation of Parliament’s Centre Block, said this week that while such an object is “not an uncommon find,” the stone point joins just a small handful of Indigenous artifacts ever discovered on Parliament Hill.

“It’s about the size of my palm, and it could be used as a knife or a projectile,” Jarrett said this week in response to inquiries from the Star.

He said the point is made of chert, a type of sedimentary stone most often used for implements of this type. And while the point was unearthed in what Jarrett calls “disturbed soil” — earth that has been dug up and moved, most likely during construction of Parliament — the soil it was in “is natural to the site.”

That means “it came from a source nearby, but finding exactly where it came from is impossible,” Jarrett said.

For Douglas Odjick, a band council member responsible for education and culture with the Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg, this artifact of “an original world” is a testament to the longevity of his Algonquin nation in an area they still claim as unceded and unsurrendered territory. Based on the assessment of Ian Badgley, the top archeologist with the National Capital Commission, Odjick said the stone point is likely 4,000 years old and dates to a time when the confluence of the Ottawa, Gatineau and Rideau Rivers — along with all their tributaries that stretch out into the surrounding area — served as a great hub of regional trade activity.

“It symbolizes who we are and how long we’ve been here,” Odjick said, comparing the area to an ancient version of a busy hub like New York’s busy Grand Central Station.

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