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You be the judge

Jack Danylchuk
Northern News Services

Yellowknife (July 25/05) - Don Cooper's corner office on the top floor of the 30-year-old Yellowknife Courthouse seems far removed from the human drama that plays out daily in the court rooms below, but the deputy justice minister has a story.

NWT justice officials argue that this court house no longer meets the territories' needs and that the logical solution is a $41 million new building.

"I got a call one day: There's a guy at maintenance enforcement; he's really pissed off and angry. He's scared us a bit and he's on his way to see you. Before I could move, he was in the door in my office. If he had a gun I was dead."

That's just one of the many reasons Cooper says the NWT needs a new $41 million courthouse.

"This is inadequate in many, many ways," the deputy justice minister said, referring to the gleaming, aluminum-clad office block in downtown Yellowknife housing NWT courts.

Government-commissioned studies reject renovating the building as too costly. The only logical remedy is a new courthouse, said Cooper.

The territorial government committed $1 million in this year's budget to the project and last week issued a request for proposals on a courthouse design, committing another $3.8 million.

The new 5,300 square metre building would be beside Frame Lake, between the legislative assembly and the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre. It's to have five court rooms, one more than the present building, two conference rooms, offices for judges, interview rooms, public spaces, secure parking and the latest technology.

MLAs skeptical

But before the corner stone is set, the project will run a gauntlet of skeptical MLAs.

"Why do we need a Taj Mahal courthouse?" Sahtu MLA Norman Yakeleya asked.

The estimated cost of the building alone is $30.9 million. Land, site preparation, design, servicing, and furnishing will add another $10 million. "Why do we need to spend $40 million - and that's just a Class C estimate, the final price could be $50 million, or more," Yakeleya said.

The design tender will be awarded this fall and the public will get a peek at drawings sometime next year. The construction tender will be let in December 2007, a month after the next territorial election.

"This will certainly be an election issue," Yakeleya promised. "I have the support from my region; they don't want to see a courthouse in Yellowknife at this time. Look at Nunavut; they spent less than $15 million for a new courthouse in Iqaluit."

Cooper first arrived in Yellowknife 30 years ago when "court was a room on top of the post office. Things have changed a hell of a lot. There are always two territorial court rooms going, sometimes three."

Missing data

While Cooper lacks figures to back up his case, he insists the economic boom set off by the diamond mines, and exploration for oil, gas and minerals has created a crime wave that surges through the court system. "Every time we've seen economic booms, you get a lot more money, you get a lot more crime," said Cooper.

It's not just crime that fills court dockets, said Cooper, "society is more litigious. Last year there were 20 jury trials here; Prince Edward Island had just one. For the number of people we have, the justice system is very active."

Documents released last week offered similar stories but acknowledged a significant gap: there are no historic figures for the case load in the Northwest Territories - key data in calculating future courthouse space needs. Cooper argues that the need for a new courthouse is evident on "docket day in territorial court. People are spilling out the door."

Public space is so cramped that "the accused walks past the complainant who has to sit out waiting to give evidence with the friends of the accused. Dangerous prisoners are open to snipers."

Cooper considers keeping costs under control his job.

"We're not going top drawer, that's for sure," Cooper said. "If people of the territory are being led to believe that this will come in at a lot more than it has been budgeted for, I don't think it has a future as a project."