The provincial court is working to deal with "systemic problems" that have plagued its northernmost court, but the system can't change "on a dime," a Manitoba chief judge says.

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The provincial court is working to deal with "systemic problems" that have plagued its northernmost court, but the system can't change "on a dime," a Manitoba chief judge says.

"There is a recognition that there are serious and complicated systemic problems in Thompson, so we want to address the issues, and we're doing the best that we can to do that. I don't want to see a dividing line between north and south — nobody does — and everybody, all the stakeholders in the system, have to work together so that that does not happen," Chief Judge Margaret Wiebe said Friday.

Wiebe couldn't comment on an unprecedented Court of Queen's Bench ruling Thursday that exposed Manitoba's "dysfunctional" northern bail courts. It called for an independent review of the justice system, after finding the rights of a Norway House woman and a Split Lake man were violated because they waited 51 days and 23 days in jail, respectively, for their bail hearings.

A day after Justice Chris Martin's decision was issued, the top judge of Manitoba's provincial court spoke to the Free Press about the problems facing the northern court.

Wiebe couldn't speak about the implications of the decision itself, because the Crown's office still has a 30-day window in which it can decide to launch an appeal. The prosecution service couldn't be reached Friday on whether lawyers for Manitoba will appeal Martin's decision. The provincial justice minister's office said Friday it is still reviewing the decision.

Wiebe acknowledged no extra resources have been devoted to Manitoba's northern courts, despite ongoing efforts to make changes. To add more bail-court dates to Thompson court's schedule starting next year, the court has had to shuffle judicial resources from Winnipeg and other areas of the province, and is looking at reducing circuit court sittings.

"Systemically, there's a shortage in all areas," Wiebe said.

The Thompson court needs more judicial resources than its three judges and two judicial justices of the peace, as well as more lawyers, clerks, sheriffs, space to hold prisoners, better technology and improved infrastructure to cope with high crime rates across a vast geographical area.

"It's tough to change it on a dime, so when I say we've been working on this for months, it's been a complicated issue," Wiebe said of the schedule changes.

"We're mindful that we have to find the balance between providing meaningful access to justice in a timely way," she said.

"We have to be able to do that, but we're mindful... that in Thompson, in particular, as I said, the lists are long and the days are long... We have clerks who have hours of work still to do after court closes, and we have accused who are being driven 400 kilometres to the nearest correctional centre and sheriffs who are driving them."

Manitoba hasn't made any promises to follow through with Martin's suggestion "a fresh commitment is urgently required" when it comes to the northern bail system.

In a statement Friday, Justice Minister Cliff Cullen's office didn't address bail concerns, but pointed to previously-announced government efforts to modernize Thompson's court office: "Prior to Thursday’s decision, we were well-aware of the issues in Thompson, and while we recognize that there is still more work to do, we have been diligently taking steps to improve and modernize the administration of justice for northern Manitobans."

NDP MP Niki Ashton said the "shocking" length of time the two accused in the charter challenge had to wait for a bail hearing means it’s time for Ottawa to form a task force with the province to investigate how "systemic racism" is undermining access to justice in the North.

"We need to put an end to the second-class treatment of Indigenous peoples and northern Manitobans, when it comes to the justice system," said Ashton, who represents the area.

"We are seeing the evidence of systemic racism, the fact that a judge has pointed to how the current state of the system is treating people inhumanely is shocking."

Ashton chalked up the issue to federal tough-on-crime policies of the Harper era, combined with provincial cutbacks to services to prevent people from committing crime and to advocate for those in the system. She said this creates "a rotating door" that has the province’s high incarceration rate.

Ashton said the two governments have to do more than talk, especially because Ottawa has a duty to protect charter rights and advance reconciliation.

"When charter rights are being disrespected, there is an absolute role for the federal government to get to the table and ensure that that is no longer the case," she said, noting that Ottawa appears to have intervened in similar issues in Northern Ontario.

Justice Minister David Lametti was not available for an interview Friday, but his office sent a statement noting the federal Liberals passed legislation which aims to offer bail in more cases for minor breaches, and only restrict bail when relevant to the charges.

Known as Bill C-75, the law should boost "overall court efficiency," wrote Lametti's press secretary, Rachel Rappaport.

"These reforms will help keep Canadians safe, make our criminal justice system more compassionate, and reduce cases that are clogging up our courts and resulting in unnecessarily long delays for victims and offenders."

— with files from Dylan Robertson

Twitter: @thatkatiemay

Katie May

Katie May

Katie May reports on courts, crime and justice for the Free Press.

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