Burwash trial moved to Whitehorse

Violent conflict between members of two local families in Burwash Landing has led a Yukon Supreme Court justice to move a trial to Whitehorse.

Violent conflict between members of two local families in Burwash Landing has led a Yukon Supreme Court justice to move a trial to Whitehorse.

The conflict centres around two families, both with the last name Johnson, in the community of about 100 people west of Whitehorse.

Derek Johnson and former Kluane First Nation chief Wilfred Sheldon are charged with unlawfully confining Colin Johnson in a house in Burwash Landing on August 8, 2013.

Days later, Derek Johnson was beaten up by Weldon Danroth. Danroth has since been sentenced to 18 months in jail.

“It was accepted by the sentencing judge that the beating was retaliatory,” Justice Ron Veale notes in this latest decision.

Veale points out that Randy Johnson, the elder brother of Colin Johnson, was charged in the beating of Derek Johnson but that case did not proceed. No reason was given as to why.

About five months after the alleged crime, Colin Johnson committed suicide and his family blames the two accused for his death.

“The issue in this case is whether the potential for violence and divisiveness in the community and its effect on the accused in this trial outweighs the important policy objective of bringing the justice system to the community where the incident arose,” Veale said.

Burwash Landing is an isolated community. The closest RCMP detachment is in Haines Junction, approximately 100 kilometres away.

The court heard from Claudia Bob, Sheldon’s common-law wife. She described the “prevalent attitude as one of a ‘free for all’ where partying and violence are common,” Veale said.

She told the court she was afraid to go out at night.

Bob said she doesn’t trust the RCMP. She told the court about one phone call where, she says, an officer “told her that Derek Johnson ‘got what he deserved,’ referring to his beating by Weldon Danroth,” Veale said.

Both the accused in this case have been ordered to stay out of the community.

Yukon courts commonly go to the communities. Sheriff and deputy sheriffs are not armed but have pepper spray and a baton. RCMP officers can also be present.

“While there is no issue that this court can provide the necessary security during a trial at Burwash Landing, I accept that there is a real risk of violence after court closes,” Veale said.

“There is clear evidence of past retaliation in this small community where violence has become common-place and is fuelled by alcohol and a long-standing family feud.”

Veale said it is important to balance the community interest and convenience of having a trial in Burwash Landing and the safety of the accused and their witnesses.

“But I am satisfied that the evidence of actual retaliation in this case and the small size of this violently divided community tip the balance in favour of holding this trial in Whitehorse, where the preliminary hearing was held.”

The case was scheduled for October in Burwash Landing in front of a judge alone.

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