Siasi Quannaaluk still can’t bring herself to talk about what happened that day. When asked about it, she drops her head and her shoulders begin to tremble.
She looks around as if hoping an answer will somehow come to her, but it does not. Through tears, she expresses remorse — that is all she can do, she says.
Quannaaluk is a 61-year-old Inuit woman.
From a young age, as a judge recently put it, her life has been riddled with “tragedy, abuse and helplessness.”
Trafficked, neglected and subject to incest as a child, Quannaaluk somehow survived and persevered. A testament, those who know her say, to an almost incomprehensible resilience.
But on Feb. 16, 2015, the circumstances of her life converged in one moment of extreme violence. She ended up in jail, charged in the death of her abusive partner .
The question then became, what should the justice system make of Quannaaluk’s case?
Indigenous Peoples represent roughly five per cent of Canada’s population, yet account for more than a quarter of federal inmates.
To address this over-representation, when sentencing Indigenous offenders, judges are required to consider their life experiences and any systemic factors that played a role in the crime committed.
Though Quebec has lagged behind other provinces in implementing the legal approach — known as Gladue principles — judges handling Quannaaluk’s case have opted in, choosing restorative measures instead of incarceration.
For Quannaaluk, it’s made all the difference so far.
Documents filed in Quannaaluk’s court records paint the picture of a traumatic life, one described as “far removed from the experience of most Canadians.”
In person, Quannaaluk talks about her experiences with a certain detachment.
She speaks of the “monsters” that haunted her childhood and the isolation she suffered as a result. It is not easy for her to do, she says, but she hopes sharing her story can help others.
Quannaaluk was born in a sealskin tent in the small Nunavik community of Ivujivik, the second-oldest of eight children later squeezed into a one-bedroom apartment.
From as early as she can remember, both her parents were unpredictable and violent, battling addictions and substance abuse.
At the age of 7, her father began molesting her. By the next year, so did her grandfather. Around the same time, Quannaaluk’s mother began selling her to other men in the village. She did so to fuel her gambling habit.
Quannaaluk found refuge in school. But her younger siblings kept being left to fend for themselves at home. At 14, she decided someone needed to look after them. She dropped out.
Quannaaluk became a mother of four. Around 2005, she moved to Montreal, in part to be closer to hospitals. But the trauma followed her. In the city, she once more found herself in the grips of poverty and abusive men.
By 2015, she had been in an on-again, off-again relationship with a man named Paul Brown for five years.
Brown was known to be controlling and abusive. He often sexually assaulted Quannaaluk and offered her to other men. During the last three years of their relationship, she checked in to a women’s shelter 53 times due to spousal abuse, often showing visible injuries.
On the morning of Feb. 16, 2015, Brown appeared at the Montreal courthouse, charged with sexual offences against two children. Later, he and Quannaaluk began drinking heavily at his Verdun apartment.
When Quannaaluk awoke in a haze, Brown was standing above her, hand raised in the air, ready to strike. In that brief moment, she would later tell a probation officer, she thought back to all the times she had been abused.
Quannaaluk says she remembers only flashes of what came next. She reached for the first item she could find, a knife, and broke it against Brown’s shin. She then found a second knife and stabbed him 14 times.
A neighbour would later find Brown bleeding to death in the stairway. Quannaaluk was arrested at a shelter the next day.
In 2018, she pleaded guilty to manslaughter.
(The Montreal Gazette could not reach Brown’s family for comment on this story. In victim impact statements submitted to the court, his daughters conveyed a message of hope for Quannaaluk.)
The prosecution requested Quannaaluk be sentenced to 14 years of imprisonment. The defence, for its part, suggested eight years.
But Quebec Superior Court Justice Marc David ruled the three and a half years Quannaaluk had spent incarcerated since being arrested were enough. She received a suspended sentence.
“The hope is that Ms. Quannaaluk can succeed in addressing her difficult past and carry on in the future with a degree of healing and serenity,” David ruled.
His decision was guided in part by what’s known as a Gladue report, named after a 1999 Supreme Court ruling.
Gladue reports are produced before an Indigenous person is sentenced. They give the court a detailed account of the person’s history and explain the systemic factors that might have led them before a judge.
Though they’ve been an option for 20 years, Quebec only established a structured program for producing the reports in 2015.
The Viens Commission, a three-year inquiry into how Indigenous Peoples are treated by public services in Quebec, found they are still widely underused in the province.
From 2015 to 2018, an average of 123 reports were produced per year in Quebec. In contrast, during the same period, roughly 13,000 charges were laid per year against Indigenous Peoples in the province.
In its final report, issued last year, the Viens Commission made five recommendations related to Gladue reports. They included calling on Quebec to increase the number of Gladue writers, increase the budget allotted to the reports and better fund the Indigenous organizations involved in producing them.
Though the reports have not yet lived up to their potential, on a case-by-case basis, their effects cannot be ignored, said Sharon McBride, the Gladue report co-ordinator with the Native Para-Judicial Services of Quebec.
When people find themselves before the justice system, McBride said, they’ll often be punished for the way they acted, but without ever solving why they acted that way. They eventually return to their communities, and the cycle restarts.
Gladue reports can help balance that out.
“A lot of people have the misconceived notion that a Gladue report is a get-out-of-jail-free card. It is not,” McBride said. “And it is not because sometimes the hardest thing to do is take a hard look at yourself and admit that you need help.”
When Quannaaluk was released from custody in 2018, she had nowhere to go.
At age 60, she spent every night in a homeless shelter. She would wake each morning, pack all her belongings into a bag, then hope she would find a place to sleep the next night.
It took a toll on her, both physically and emotionally, but then things started to turn around.
With the help of a caseworker at Chez Doris, she finally secured an apartment last September after nearly 10 years on a waiting list for low-income housing — the first time she has ever had a lease in her name.
She began working shifts at a small café aimed at providing work opportunities for Indigenous Peoples. At Chez Doris, she helped develop a new approach to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings that take into account Indigenous factors.
She’s become known as a grandmother type at the shelter, often helping younger women who come in.
“She’s someone we can always count on to pull through,” said Quannaaluk’s caseworker at the shelter, Breana Prince-Harris. “She’s overcome more than I would wish on anybody, and yet here she is. Still standing.”
But the path ahead is not without setbacks and challenges, representing the delicate balance many people experience when trying to reintegrate into society following incarceration or homelessness.
In June, the security guard at Quannaaluk’s apartment called police about a woman in distress. When officers arrived, they found Quannaaluk impaired and sporting a black eye. She refused to press charges against the man who beat her.
The incident led police to notice she had broken certain court conditions imposed on her in 2018, mainly drinking and missing meetings with her probation officer.
In July, she found herself before a judge again to know whether she would be detained while waiting to be tried for breaking her conditions.
After listening to the progress she’s made in recent months, Quebec Court Judge Dennis Galiatsatos imposed several strict conditions but ultimately ruled further detention would risk compromising Quannaaluk’s efforts.
It would also undermine what the first judge hoped to achieve by applying Gladue principles in her sentencing.
“The structure she has gained and the progress that she has painstakingly made ought not be disregarded,” Galiatsatos wrote.
Chez Doris is working on finding Quannaaluk a suitable treatment program.
Quannaaluk says she finally accepts she needs help and is determined to make it work. Asked about her future, she speaks of breaking the cycle and starting over “like a child.”
“I’m tired of just living,” she says. “I want my life to matter.”
Quannaaluk has not returned to Ivujivik in more than 15 years. It is still hard for her to reconcile the sense of belonging she feels toward her home with the horrors she lived there.
While talking about her memories, she closes her eyes and takes a deep breath. In her youth, she says, when the stress was too much to bear, she would wander away on her own for hours at a time.
Walking the land, she remembers animals of all sorts coming toward her. To this day, she believes they could sense how alone she felt. With no one else to confide in, it was the closest thing she had to comfort.
Once she’s completed her treatment program and has more tools at her disposal, she says, that’s what she wants to do now.
“I want to help those who also think they’re alone.”
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020