COLUMN: Bored? Come see the wheels of justice at Chilliwack Courthouse

Chilliwack courthouse. - File
Chilliwack courthouse.
— image credit: File

I walked in and out of Chilliwack Court four times on Tuesday, each time putting my notebooks, iPhone and car keys in a tray and—airport-style—walk through a metal detector manned by our friendly, local sheriffs.

This isn’t normal procedure. It’s only put in place (I suppose) on days when there is a chance that a court proceeding involves an accused who might bring some dodgier folks to the courthouse.

And that’s saying something.

Every day at the Chilliwack Courthouse we see justice—ugly, slow and awkward as it is—play out.

Here’s the thing: You should go. Check it out. Sit in the open gallery and watch the proceedings.

Over the years I have bemoaned the fact that so few people (i.e. usually none) show up to Chilliwack city council meetings. They may be watching at home on Shaw or online, but given how low voter turnout for municipal elections is, I doubt it.

With city hall, at least I can understand why people don’t want to watch. It’s mostly pretty dull and bureaucratic.

At court, on the other hand, here we see the most juicy details of people’s most wretched acts described in open court. Stories of broken childhoods, addiction to narcotics, abuse, neglect, arson, robbery, assault, even murder.

This is human drama—usually tragedy, rarely comedy—unfolding day after day after day.

This is also not to say that one should watch these proceedings as spectacle or entertainment. But while just about everyone, when asked, will offer an opinion on a certain criminal or a sentence handed to said individual, very few people actually see the wheels of justice grinding. And I think that’s a shame.

While crime on TV and in movies is watched widely, there are very few court watchers, at least that I’ve ever noticed.

Bored at home? Come on down to the courthouse to watch a trial.

Nothing good on daytime TV? Come see a bail review or an arraignment or a sentencing hearing.

One warning: there is a lot of hurry-up-and-wait in the justice system. Law and Order this ain’t. And most court appearances are so brief that they exist just to arrange the next one.

“Our wonderful justice system at work,” I heard a Crown Counsel lawyer once mutter as he wandered the hall, looking for defence counsel to come deal with the stack of files awaiting in courtroom 204.

The busiest days at the courthouse are Monday and Tuesday, where the hall is filled with a throng of people standing around, waiting to fight traffic tickets or have first appearances on criminal matters.

The gathering reeks of bad choices, substance abuse and sometimes downright thuggery. There are, among others, the deer-in-the-headlight first offenders clad in ill-fitted suits accompanied by mom; barrel-chested, angry-looking fellows with neck tattoos; and shameless, twitchy drug addicts.

In and among those folks on Mondays and Tuesdays are police officers with the patience of Job, and average joes there to fight speeding tickets looking a little like they got off the bus in the wrong neighbourhood.

Saddest of all at the courthouse, arguably, is the over-representation of First Nations, both young and old.

Just this week I saw as a 68-year-old severe alcoholic was cuffed and brought to serve five days in jail because probation, in his lawyer’s own words, would be useless because he can never remember to visit the probation office.

Then down near the registry, I watched as a sheriff put handcuffs on a very young-looking First Nations man as a very young woman holding a toddler watched and cried.

On one day recently, Judge Steven Point, a prominent Sto:lo citizen and former Lieutenant-Governor, twice had to stand a matter down because he knew the accused personally.

Sad indeed, but this is justice in action.

Come check it out.

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