… continued from the last issue of What’s Up Yukon
As there was no courthouse in Cambridge Bay, the case against Willie Laserich played out in a hotel lobby. Frank Smith was the judge. You only have to read a few lines of Judge Smith’s decision to discover that he was a shrewd character. This aviation mess wasn’t his first rodeo. I suspect that it took him less than two days to figure out that he would be judging a parallel case as well. The legal system was also on trial.
The majority of the people watching the trial were recipients of Laserich’s mercy flights. The bond with their local pilot was strengthened as the prosecution rolled out the evidence, which did a superb job explaining to the locals how Laserich bent, stretched, and broke regulations while he was transporting them to the hospital. Who knows if the prosecution could see it, but the locals were starting to understand just how committed Laserich was to their medical well-being.
Every citation represented another brick (205 altogether) in the building of a local hero. There must have been many nights after the judge returned to his hotel room that he wanted to smash his head into the wall. The prosecution’s team could boast that some of their members had attended some of the best law schools for nearly a decade.
When it came to common sense, however, they looked like they had just graduated out of daycare. Half a dozen serious citations would be more than enough to put Willie in his place. Amassing 205 was over-the-top. One petty citation charged Laserich with flying when it was colder than -40 degrees C. Just think of all the fun the defense lawyer had with that citation, getting a Transport Canada official to confirm that -41 degrees C was a violation. That statement would have told the local community that the authorities would tolerate zero risk for transporting the sick and dying of the far North. What the community heard was that their health was immaterial. Judge Smith heard the same thing and wasn’t going to go there.
If found guilty, Laserich faced a maximum of one year in jail and a million dollar fine. After such a long trial, the judge’s written statement went on for hours. He knew that trust had been bruised, so he had some massaging to do. He crafted a diplomatic message, which weighed like a sledgehammer, and flung it at the stuffed shirts in Ottawa. Long before truth and reconciliation, his statement confirmed to everyone who was listening that their health concerns were not going to be thought of as inferior.
The judge found Laserich guilty of one count of running an illegal charter service. The courtroom was packed for sentencing with people who were only alive because of Laserich’s mercy flights. The perceptive Judge Smith was determined to show that justice was going to be seen to be done for the citizens of the high arctic. “He’s the stuff of the bush pilots of old,” Smith said. “He is supplying a service that he is uniquely qualified to perform.” Judge Smith assigned a fine of $250 and gave Willie a lifetime to pay.
Sometimes, it’s hard to figure Canada out. We hear the yakking about Canadian identity. We still haven’t got the hang of telling our stories, like our neighbors to the south. I argue that if Laserich had been American, I would not be telling you this story. You would have already seen it on the big screen.
A bankrupt Laserich had one more task to do after the trial. He headed downtown to pay his fine. Although he could make the trip blindfolded, it was one of the few times he arrived at his destination late and found that some good citizen of Cambridge Bay had already paid his fine.