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Family angry, distraught over grave desecration

Emily Ridlington
Northern News Services
Published Monday, February 28, 2011

BAKER LAKE/IQALUIT - The family of an elderly Baker Lake woman whose body was desecrated after burial in the community cemetery told the court they are "filled with anger and rage" and that they blame themselves for not having protected her remains.

Crown prosecutor John Solski presented the Nunavut Court of Justice in Iqaluit with 13 victim impact statements at the sentencing hearing Feb. 22 for Bobby Suwarak, who pleaded guilty in January to two counts of indecently interfering with human remains.

Defence lawyer Mandy Sammurtok rejected the admission of some of the statements as she said they spoke to sentencing and threatened to harm her client. Three of the victim's family members read statements to the court. They cannot be identified under a publication ban.

Crying, one woman said her relative was "sexually assaulted in a position where she couldn't get away" and that she "couldn't talk or complain to anybody." The woman said she wants Suwarak to get help at a healing centre for what he did, especially for breaking Inuit law.

A second family member said it has been "very hard to get a good night's sleep" since the desecrations occurred.

"We blame ourselves for not having taken care of her body - we did not think anyone would disturb a grave of a mother, grandmother and great-grandmother," he said.

He told the court he and his family and members of the community are in need of local resources to help them heal.

"We are still today filled with anger and rage; some have even turned to alcohol."

Many of the relatives of the victim's family were in attendance at the hearing, having paid their own way, including airfare and accommodations to be present.

"At least we got this far, we have just got to wait now," said Baker Lake Mayor David Aksawnee after the trial concluded Feb. 22.

"The family's feeling down right now ... I don't know if they'll be able to make another trip for the sentencing," said Aksawnee.

Justice Sue Cooper is expected to deliver the sentence on March 21.

Solski related the sequence of events for the court.

On June 6, 2010, RCMP in Baker Lake got a call from a family member of an elderly woman who had died two days previously. She said she and other family members had gone to the cemetery and found the screws sealing the woman's coffin had been removed as had three metal straps around the coffin. The blankets covering the deceased were disturbed and family members indicated her clothing, including her underwear, had been moved from how she was originally dressed for burial. RCMP collected samples from the underwear.

The next day, the family members offered a $5,000 reward for anyone with information to come forward. Posters were plastered around the community and the victim's family members spoke on community radio.

Over the summer, samples from the underwear and DNA samples from the deceased were sent for testing. RCMP began their investigation and did a number of interviews.

On July 11, a man told RCMP he went to Suwarak's house on June 6 to smoke marijuana. Suwarak, 40, is deaf and mute, and the pair communicated through Baker Lake style sign language. The man said Suwarak had told him he had gone to the graveyard a few days before with cutters and had fumbled with the deceased's body. It was not clear at the time if Suwarak was telling the truth.

With this lead, police were interested in interviewing Suwarak but needed someone to interpret.

In September, a report from the lab in Ottawa found a male DNA sample in the underwear of the deceased matched a sample in the National DNA Data Bank belonging to Suwarak.

Officers went to Suwarak's house on Sept. 12 with an arrest script for the two charges. Two interpreters were present and Suwarak's nephew explained what was happening. At the time the Nunavut Court of Justice was on circuit in Baker Lake so when Suwarak arrived at the detachment, a lawyer was present.

An interview was conducted for about 45 minutes where Suwarak communicated he went to the graveyard to see his mother's grave and found a relatively new burial site. He admitted to having intercourse with the woman's body and then he went home.

Solski is seeking a sentence of three years in a federal prison. The maximum time that can be served for such an offence is five years. Since Suwarak pleaded guilty and had been in custody since September, Solski said the Crown would grant him credit for six months in jail.

Solski said trying to find similar cases to refer to was a challenge. He was unable to find one in cases heard in the territories, Ontario, Alberta, British Columbia, the United Kingdom or Australia.

In what he could find, one accused had been drunk and thought his victim was unconscious and not dead. In another instance, a man had murdered his wife and then committed the indignity.

Sammurtok said these cases were not relevant as Suwarak had not mistreated the body.

She presented her client as a man who led a life of being isolated by his community.

She told the court how, Suwarak, born in Brandon, Man., had been raised in Baker Lake with his family. He lost his hearing when he was seven.

"His world changed to one of extreme isolation, life went on without him," Sammurtok said.

He communicated to his family using home sign, a series of gestures.

Suwarak has a Grade 9 education but can barely read or write. He has been employed on and off at the Northern store since 1988 as a stock person and his employer taught him read well enough to stock the shelves.

His parents had been supportive and helped him communicate but they died in the 1980s and 1990s. After their deaths, his siblings started to leave Baker Lake and he was alone.

Sammurtok said she spoke with a cousin of her client who said the crime was out of character for Suwarak.

While at the Baffin Correctional Centre, Sammurtok said Suwarak has been in isolation and "those in the general population will pound on the windows which he can't hear, shake their fists and fingers at him." She said her client feels scared and is only able to sign the word "sorry.'

Suwarak has been communicating with the jail's staff using gestures. Sammurtok said she spoke to the warden and she was informed an interpreter could be present if required.

She told the court Suwarak has been taking basic math training and he was going to participate in the alternative to violence program but couldn't due to his hearing impairment.

She proposed Suwarak's sentence be for time served and that he get a credit for time in custody with eight months to show on his criminal record.

During the trial, Suwarak communicated through an interpreter. It was questioned as to what type of sign language was being used. Sammurtok said he was not using American Sign Language but one more gesture-based incorporating finger spelling.

"It is something that is more rudimentary and is used for people who are untrained," she said.

Suwarak signed through the interpreter: "I want to say I'm sorry."

Solski highlighted Suwarak's previous criminal record for two sexual assaults in Baker, one in April 1999 and in October 2001.

"Mr. Suwarak chose to do what he did ... there was some element of planning ... he had a condom with him," Solski said.

The family of the victim returned to Baker Lake with no sentence and the mayor said once a sentence is given that will help the family and the community heal.

"The whole community whether it's an Inuk or a qallunaat, it's really bothering them right now," said Aksawnee.

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