Will the province learn Judge Nunn’s lessons?
To his credit, Justice Minister Murray Scott got it right. "I can’t go back," he conceded in his first response to the release last week of Merlin Nunn’s report into the death of Theresa McAvoy. "I can only go ahead." But, he added with apparent sincerity, “we want to learn from this.”
His boss, on the other hand, clearly hadn’t read — or at least didn’t bother to think about — the broader implications of the retired Nova Scotia Supreme Court judge’s comprehensive and far-reaching investigation.
"When you take a look at the issues that the Conservative government in Ottawa have been putting forward,” Premier Rodney MacDonald explained to reporters in his usual obscure way, “they’ve been very much in support of being stronger in that regard, so I applaud them." He kept his focus pinpoint-narrow on the Stephen-Harper, get-tough-on-crime, right-wing-agenda aspects of Judge Nunn’s report and blithely ignored a more important reality that was equally well-documented in the judge’s exhaustive 381-page report and its 34 separate recommendations. The best — perhaps only — way to avoid future tragedies like Theresa McEvoy’s death is to deal with the root causes of youth crime before more young people "spiral out of control" like Archie Billard.
I don’t mean to suggest here that those recommendations in the judge’s report that deal directly with protecting the public from dangerous young people are not important, or necessary. As Nunn makes clear, Ottawa needs to change the Youth Criminal Justice Act to broaden the definition of violent offenses and find ways to keep comparatively few, but potentially lethal young offenders off the streets while they await trial. And we need to streamline the legal process to make it much more efficient and effective in order to prevent exactly the kind of calamitous bureaucratic and technological breakdowns that blotted this case.
Nova Scotians, as Premier McDonald rightly pointed out, "want to know that the youth that are causing problems in our society… are being dealt with effectively, and that our judges and others have the powers necessary to deal with these issues."
That’s the easy part.
If, however, that is the only message the government takes from Justice Nunn’s report, all his broader efforts — 23 volumes’ worth — will have been for nothing.
It is clear from Nunn’s report that Archie Billard’s life had spiraled out of control long before October 14, 2004, the day he got stoned, stole a Chrysler LeBaron and smashed it head-on into a car driven by McAvoy. The 52-year-old teacher’s aide and mother of three boys was killed instantly.
The province’s swift, knee-jerk decision to that tragedy — appoint Judge Nunn to conduct an inquiry — seemed, at first blush, little more than the political game of pin-the-blame-on-someone. There was widespread community outrage that Billard — who was already facing numerous charges in connection with earlier joyriding incidents — was not in jail at the time of the crash. So someone must pay.
To his credit, Nunn refused to take that easy route. And, instead of starting his inquiry at the point where Archie Billard first smacked up against the youth criminal justice system, Nunn unraveled that particularly messy ball of string backwards to show how and why Billard had ended up in trouble in the first place. His report clearly demonstrates that what happened in this case was “a system failure” that goes far beyond naming names and will require us, as a society, to accept collective responsibility for changing the conditions that create Archie Billards.
Nunn’s most important larger-picture recommendations, in fact, have to do with creating a comprehensive provincial strategy — managed by senior officials from community services, health, education and justice — to find ways to help youth at risk before the risk becomes criminal reality.
It won’t be easy. And success won’t come cheap. As regional school board spokesperson Doug Hadley pointed out, the judge’s recommendation that schools establish facilities for in-school suspensions, to take just one example, will mean not only finding physical space, hiring more bodies and creating new programs but also finding a way to balance those new demands with “the needs of the entire school population.”
Implementing all of Judge Nunn’s 34 recommendations will be a daunting and expensive but critically important task, and one that won’t be made easier when our premier — the person who should be showing leadership on the issue — doesn’t appear to even understand what the issues are.
Stephen Kimber, the Maclean Hunter Professor of Journalism at the University of King’s College, is the author of five nonfiction books and one novel.