Court of Queen’s Bench of Alberta Justice Beverley Browne was born on the Prairies, but she loved working in the North and was vastly enriched by the experience.
Justice Browne, who passed away in Edmonton on March 24, 2021, at the age of 68 and just a short time after retiring from the Bench, was the first Chief Justice of Nunavut.
Her passing led to national news stories by the Globe and Mail, Canadian Press and Nunatsiaq News and current Nunavut Chief Justice Neil Sharkey wrote the following in an official Nunavut Court of Justice statement.
“Justice Browne’s commitment to advancing the law for the benefit of Nunavummiut was on display every time she presided,” said Chief Justice Sharkey. “Justice Browne represents the gold standard of judicial community commitment.”
Justice Browne became the first Chief Justice of Nunavut when the territory was created in 1999 and served in that role for 10 years.
“I loved working in the North,” said Justice Browne a short time before her death. “This experience taught me many valuable lessons about white privilege and the justice system. And by working and living in Indigenous communities, I learned to have great respect for the Indigenous people of the Northwest Territories and Nunavut.”
She said she was also taught about the different perspective that Indigenous people have in regards to non-Indigenous communities and the deeply important role that the land plays in shaping identity. One example she provided was how, during court breaks, elders would sit with the accused or witnesses outside of the courthouse and share stories and laughter.
“This showed me the importance of humour, but also community in trying to find solutions to challenging legal issues in small communities. I knew I couldn’t be a part of these processes but acknowledged the importance of the interactions,” said Justice Browne.
“I tried to make the Court in Iqaluit different than it would be in Edmonton, through recognizing and acknowledging community and cultural experiences.”
Justice Browne was born in Watrous, Saskatchewan in 1952 and was the second oldest of six children. Her father was a United Church Minister and her mother stayed at home to raise the kids.
She did her undergrad in political science at the University of Alberta and graduated in 1975 with a Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Law. She articled in Yellowknife with Searle Sigler and was called to the Bar in Alberta in 1977. She then started her own general practice in Vermilion, working mainly in family and criminal law.
In 1990, she accepted an appointment to be a territorial judge in the NWT Baffin Region and moved with her family to Iqaluit, which was then known as Frobisher Bay. Her two children and six grandchildren continue to live there today.
When Nunavut was established as a territory, Justice Browne, as Senior Judge, was named as the first Chief Justice of the territory and was responsible for building Nunavut’s justice system. She established Canada’s only single-level trial court to make the system more accessible. She was also instrumental in introducing Inuit Elders into the sentencing process by inviting them to sit alongside judges in the courtroom.
Justice Browne was also heavily involved in the construction of a new courthouse in Iqaluit and in establishing Nunavut's first law school, the Akitsiraq Law School. As a founding member of the Akitsiraq Law Society, she was presented with an honorary doctorate degree.
She proudly noted that, resulting from this program, 11 Inuit graduated with law degrees from the affiliated University of Victoria in 2004 and a second cohort of 23 students in Nunavut is set to graduate in June 2021.
“These graduates will contribute to shaping the justice system in the Territory,” she said. “Inuit involvement in these processes is important to establish a justice system that effectively responds to the communities over which it presides.”
Justice Browne immersed herself in all aspects of the community of Iqaluit. Her biggest passion was music and she was a co-founder and president of the Iqaluit Music Society and an organist at St. Jude’s Cathedral. She also led a youth handbell choir and was an organizer of both the annual summer music camp for youth and community musical productions.
In 2009, for health reasons, she transferred to the Court of Queen's Bench in Edmonton. She brought her commitment to Indigenous peoples with her and regularly participated and involved her court colleagues in the graduation ceremonies of the Warrior Program at the Stan Daniels Centre, a healing lodge for male Indigenous offenders, and at the Buffalo Sage Wellness House, a residence for female Indigenous offenders.
She also organized opportunities for Indigenous youth to meet with individual judges and was one of the originators of the idea of an annual Indigenous Legal Career Day.
“The Indigenous Legal Career Day is close to my heart,” said Justice Browne. “Having 200 Indigenous youth come visit the courthouse, meet with articling students and participate in a career fair is a project I firmly believe in. It is important that this space is carved out specifically for Indigenous youth and I firmly believe it will make a difference to the future of Court in Alberta.”
She was also instrumental in creating the Gladue and Restorative Justice Committees.
“These programs are deeply important to me,” she said. “I believe that the Gladue program has brought Indigenous and non-Indigenous people together to improve the quality of Gladue reports. The connections made have enhanced everyone’s work on reconciliation.”
In November 2020, members of the Court participated in a moving ceremony that saw local Cree Elders give her the spirit name “Wîyasôwêw Iskwêw” translated to English as “Woman Standing with the Law.”
After Justice Browne’s passing, QB Chief Justice Mary Moreau paid tribute to her, noting she had worked tirelessly to improve access to justice for Indigenous people and was a wonderful mentor and support to new Justices.
“She touched us all with her compassion and her down-to-earth approach to problem-solving,” said Chief Justice Moreau. “She was an inspiration to us all and her wisdom and grace will be greatly missed.”