Canada

Bending the law for the sake of justice

ROBERT LEWIS May 17 1976
Canada

Bending the law for the sake of justice

ROBERT LEWIS May 17 1976

Bending the law for the sake of justice

When Judge William G. Morrow goes off to work, he frequently takes along a compass, a knife and a handgun. The personal survival kit is a response to the perils of his jurisdiction as the one-man supreme court of the inhospitable and sparsely populated Northwest Territories. Morrow is variously legal scholar, tour guide and promoter. Over the past decade he has logged more than 350,000 trouble-free air miles to hold court across the Arctic in schoolrooms, community halls and outdoors— and once on a plane in flight.

Morrow has followed in the path of his mentor and predecessor, the late Jack Sissons, who became the first judge of the Territorial Court of the NWT in 1955. It was Sissons who set the charge: “Justice must be taken to every man’s door.” Morrow’s motto has been: “Bend the law.” In court, Morrow carried on the Sissons’ tradition of making new law by recognizing old custom. He acts, as he once put it, as “a buffer between people coming out of the Stone Age and a fully industrialized intrusion from the sophisticated south”—in other words, he deals leniently with natives accused of crimes under the white man’s law.

Despite his 59 years, Morrow sets a hot pace on circuit. Typically, he bounds off his plane and, with shoulders thrust back and sealskin parka flapping, struts into town like some giant Arctic bird. On the bench, his manner is low-key and informal, with an emphasis on simplicity that some natives find patronizing, but most recognize as fair. Morrow is a product of the University of Alberta and the Depres-

sion. He practised law for two years before joining the Royal Canadian Navy for World War II convoy duty. Back in Edmonton he resumed his law practice and in 1966 was named to the Territorial Court, a promotion that gave him even less time with his wife and four children. Later, at the urging of then Justice Minister Pierre Trudeau, Morrow undertook a major review of the administration of justice in the North.

As Judge of the Territorial Court since 1966, Morrow’s judgments have served to extend the legitimacy of native customs. For example, he recognized informal Inuit marriage ceremonies in a case involving an estate. He also, in effect, extended Canadian sovereignty over the Arctic in 1969 by throwing out the defense of a native hunter charged with illegally shooting a polar bear on the sea ice ; part of the defense was that the court’s jurisdiction ended on the land. In the celebrated 1967 Drybones case, which began before Morrow when an Indian was charged with drunkenness off a reserve, he ruled that the 1956 Bill of Rights took precedence over the Indian Act. In another major decision, Morrow in 1973 ruled that the NWT Indian Brotherhood was entitled to file a caveat—a legal declaration of interest—over some 400,000 square miles of land, including the Mackenzie River Valley. That decision, contested by the federal government, is now before the Supreme Court of Canada.

The North is Morrow’s special passion and he is understandably reluctant to leave a job that he finds fascinating. As he wryly observes, in his new role as Alberta Supreme Court Justice, he will have to get into the habit of rendering more conventional legal interpretations than he did in the North. Looking ahead, Morrow privately is greatly concerned over the potential for violence if native claims are not settled before the start of the proposed Mackenzie Valley natural gas pipeline. Morrow has told one companion: “They [the natives] want to make the mistakes themselves—This is their last stand. If they consistently lose in the white man’s court, they might go another route.” ROBERT LEWIS