05/01/2015 05:40 EDT | Updated 05/01/2016 05:12 EDT

Baddeck court closure means more jail time for aboriginal people, worker fears

A Mi'kmaq court worker in Cape Breton says a plan to close the satellite courthouse in Baddeck will lead to more jail time for aboriginal people.

Barry Bernard also predicts those increased incarceration costs will erase any savings the provincial government hopes to achieve. 

"It's going to cause hardship. It's closing the Baddeck court door, but it's opening the jailhouse doors for aboriginal people," he says.

The Justice Department has announced plans to close seven satellite courthouses around Nova Scotia in the next six months.

The government says closing the Baddeck courthouse will save $62,232 a year. The court sits three and a half days a month. 

Bernard travels from Sydney to Baddeck to work as a translator and court navigator with the Mi'kmaq Legal Support Network. He says more than half the court's docket is Mi'kmaq people from the nearby communities of Wagmatcook and We'koma'q. He estimates he sees 100 Mi'kmaq clients a year in Baddeck.

No public transit options

It takes 12 minutes to drive to Baddeck from We'koma'q. The drive from Wagmatcook is about 22 minutes. Bernard says many of his clients have no cars. He says they hitchhike to court, or are driven by relatives, social workers and addictions counsellors.  

Bernard says moving court dates to Sydney will put travel time up to an hour with no option for public transit. He says people on income assistance can't afford a $40 taxi ride.

"A lot of our clients that I know would rather spend their money on food for their family because they live on a fixed income," he said.

Bernard predicts many of his clients will miss court dates, and wind up with bench warrants for failure to appear.

"They're going to eliminate the cost of having a Baddeck court. But what's going to happen, it's going to cost more for them to pay the RCMP to pick up people and take them to jail cells in Sydney," he said.

Bernard thinks this goes against the spirit of the Marshall Inquiry and its recommendations to make Nova Scotia's justice system more accessible to aboriginal people. 

Could harm relationship with police

We'koma'q Chief Roderick Googoo is concerned the change could harm his community's relationship with the RCMP. 

"We have a good relationship with the police now. But now, when they're sent out to pick up people on bench warrants because they can't appear in court, that's going to erode some of the relationship that we have developed over the years with them," he says. 

Googoo urges the Justice Department to delay the closure. "Keep that courthouse in Baddeck open until we figure out a solution that would work not only for our people but would also work for the justice system too," he said.

Googoo wants to raise the issue when 13 Mi'kmaq chiefs meet with Premier Stephen McNeil and his cabinet in Halifax on May 22. 

Nova Scotia Justice Minister Lena Diab recognizes the impact of closing satellite courts around the province.

'There is some inconvenience'

"We acknowledge that there is some inconvenience that will be experienced by court users," she said.

Diab says the province has a plan to help mitigate those effects. 

"We do have a transition plan in place that will assist people that need to get to court. We're working with our partners in policing as well," she said.

"One really important thing that we have launched is video conferencing in the courtrooms. So that will allow people to be heard, but not in a courtroom setting."

Justice Department spokeswoman Michelle Lucas said there are no details yet about how the transition plan will address challenges faced by Mi'kmaq accused in Baddeck area. 

"Some of the facts you are looking for are unavailable at this time, as they are part of the conversations we will have to ensure a smooth transition," she said.

Distances to court

- Wagmatcook to Baddeck: 16 kilometres

- Wagmatcook to Sydney: 93 kilometres

- We'kaqma'q to Baddeck: 41 kilometres

- We'kaqma'q to Sydney: 124 kilometres