Yellowknife courthouse staff admit to violating occupancy limit in tiny courtroom

Yellowknife Courthouse (CKLB File photo).

A territorial government department, tasked with helping craft and enforce laws and rules, has itself now confessed to violating a government safety regulation.

The Northwest Territories fire marshal says he has spoken to staff at the Yellowknife courthouse who he says now admit they violated the occupancy limit in a courtroom during a sentencing hearing last week.

Chucker Dewar says he looked into the incident after he learned court security allowed spectators to stand in the back of courtroom on Jan. 27 while father and son duo James and Elias Schiller were being sentenced for their role in the death of 73-year-old Somalian-Canadian cab driver Ahmed Mahamud Ali.

Officials scheduled the hearing for the smallest criminal courtroom in Yellowknife despite knowing full well that members of Yellowknife’s Somalian community and Yellowknife’s taxi driving community had been turning out in large numbers for all of the Schillers’ previous court appearances.

Most, if not all of those previous court appearances had taken place in a larger courtroom with plenty of extra seating.

“I did follow up with the (Justice) department and they did acknowledge their occupancy load was slightly over what’s outlined on their occupancy certificate. I don’t think it was done on purpose but when it is done we have a discussion with the organization to ensure they do have occupancy loads posted and that they do monitor and enforce the requirements,” Dewar said.

Dewar adds the same thing occasionally happens in bars in the Northwest Territories and his office takes generally the same approach unless it becomes a repeat violation.

Dewar says he did not give the Justice Department a written warning in this case.

An official representing Municipal and Community Affairs (MACA), which oversees the Fire Marshal’s Office, explained what could happen if the violation is repeated.

“Should education fail and continued non-compliance be evident, the Fire Marshal may issue an Enforcement Order under the authority of Fire Prevention Act to correct the non-compliance.  Should an owner, agent or occupant of a structure fail to comply with an Order the Fire Marshal may consider prosecution where the owner may be found guilty of an offense and liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding $500 for each day’s failure to comply with the Order,”stated MACA spokesperson Jay Boast in an email.

One Somalian-Canadian, who did not want his name used, muttered on the day of the hearing that court officials intentionally put the hearing in the small courtroom to keep them out.

He was upset about the lack of a seat for him inside the courtroom as well as the relatively short sentences he seemed to know that the Schillers were about to receive.

“They’re getting a slap on the wrist,” he told CKLB.

The courtroom’s maximum occupancy is 34 people, including staff, according to the justice department.

CKLB estimates there were upwards of 40 people in the courtroom after spectators were eventually allowed to stand at the back.

Sue Glowach, spokesperson for the Justice Department insists no mistakes were made despite the Somalian spectators being left on the outside of the courtroom – only able to look in.

“The date, time and location of hearings is strictly within the purview of the judiciary. A number of considerations are taken into account when deciding when and where a matter will be heard,” At the time of scheduling, there was a much longer jury trial scheduled in courtroom 201 so the Schiller matter was set to the next largest Supreme Court courtroom,” Glowach stated in an email. “Even though courtroom 201 was in use for the day, the Schiller matter was moved to the larger courtroom in the afternoon to accommodate a larger audience. Courtrooms have a maximum capacity that is set by the Fire Marshall based on the size of the room. We are required to observe that limit in order to ensure the safety of all in attendance.”

CKLB went to the larger courtroom mid-morning on the day of the hearing.

There was no jury trial going on and there was no one inside the courtroom at all.

It’s believed the day’s proceedings had already ended and there did not appear to have been any jury trial going on.

CKLB has asked the justice department if they think the scheduling of the hearing in the smaller courtroom was a mistake and that officials did not take into account the vested interest of the city’s Somalian community in the case.

We are waiting to hear back.

About the Author

John McFadden
John has been in the broadcast journalism industry since the 1980s. He has been a reporter in Yellowknife since 2012 and joined CKLB in January of 2018. John covers the crime and court beat as well as reporting on other areas including politics, business, entertainment and sports. He won seven national community newspaper awards while he was a journalist with Northern News Services Limited (NNSL). John worked in Ontario before coming North including stints as a TV sportscaster in Peterborough and senior news writer for CBC and CTV in downtown Toronto.