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New Fort St. John judge Linda Thomas approaches court with compassion, patience

The newest judge at the Fort St. John courthouse was formally welcomed during a ceremony on Friday, June 21.
Linda Thomas, left, accepts a blanket and bouquet during her welcome ceremony at the Fort St. John courthouse as Ben Cardinal and Chief Judge Melissa Gillespie watch on, June 21, 2019.

The newest judge at the Fort St. John courthouse was formally welcomed during a ceremony on Friday, June 21.

Judge Linda Thomas was appointed last summer, but family, friends, colleagues, and community members gathered last week to mark her arrival as part of national Indigenous People’s Day celebrations.

Thomas likened her transition over the past year as going from being a passenger in a car, relaxing with their feet up on the dash, to the full throttle of driving a Formula 1 race car in the Indy 500.

“Everyone has asked me if I like my new job and what it’s like. Quite simply, it’s pretty fantastic. It’s also demanding, challenging, and rewarding," Thomas said.

"The first year, my expected learning curve was steep. There are a lot of decisions to be made in a day, there's a lot of pressure in making a good decision, and ensuring the fairness and integrity of the court."

Thomas comes to Fort St. John from Kamloops with a long and lengthy resume in aboriginal law and social work — five pages, one fellow judge noted during her welcome.

A member of the Kamloops Indian Band, or the Tk'emlups te Secwepemc, Thomas received a law degree from the University of British Columbia in 2000. In Kamloops, Thomas was instrumental in setting up the Cknucwentn First Nations Court, a monthly day of criminal sentencings presided over by a judge and community elders. She also founded the Kamloops Aboriginal Justice Council, an advisory committee for the court.

In 2014, Thomas received the Aboriginal Lawyers’ Forum Special Contribution Award from the Canadian Bar Association and she was awarded the 2015 Y Peace Medal.

The 90-minute welcoming ceremony was filled with drumming, anecdotes, and advice gleaned by judges and lawyers and court workers from untold stories from the courts across Northern B.C.

“A welcoming ceremony is a very special event in the life of our court, and it provides the opportunity for our new colleague to be welcomed to the bench, and to introduce her to the community where she is assigned, and to the public she will serve,” Gillespie said.

“We recognize that Judge Thomas further strengthens our court by bringing her unique knowledge and perspective to the court, and to the people who appear here daily.”

Attorney General David Eby made a quick visit to Fort St. John to join the ceremony and to welcome Thomas to her new role. The justice system carries a huge responsibility to society, and Thomas will be key in advancing Canada’s reconciliation with its aboriginal peoples, he said.

“We ask judges to take on challenges posed by the Charter, by technological change, social change, and the diverse and mobile society. We expect wisdom, impartiality, as well as assurances that the law remains current and reflects the values and reality of our society,” Eby said.

“Critically importantly, we expect our judiciary to assist society in moving towards reconciliation with indigenous people. That’s why I’m so excited that Judge Thomas is joining the bench.

"Whether it’s a decision regarding major projects, a duty to consult in connection with legislation, or the consideration of Gladue factors in a criminal matter, all of our courts have a central and continuing role in the entire process of reconciliation, and the shaping of Canada not just as a civil society, but as an example to others that such a society is, in fact, possible," Eby said.

Ben Cardinal and Christina Draegen gifted Thomas with a ceremonial blanket and bouquet of roses on behalf of the Native Court Worker Association.

Cardinal, a retired court worker, shared stores from his experiences throughout Northern B.C., from judges holding court in parking lots and strip clubs, whether it was to escape 100-degree heat, or to accommodate testimony. Though her Chambers are in Fort St. John, Thomas will serve the whole northern region. That means a judge must always be willing to accommodate, especially on circuit, Cardinal said. 

“We’re different in the north. We deliver justice based on what’s needed in the community. We don’t necessarily follow what other courts do in the province,” Cardinal said.

"We have to come down to the community's need and level."

Sigrid Thompson, a member of the Fort St. John bar, said Thomas has made a distinct effort to get to know her new home, from its people to its places to its communities.

“That’s something that we at the local bar appreciate,” Thompson said. “We welcome you, we look forward to working with you, we enjoy the perspective you bring to our local court, our local community.” 

During her welcome remarks, Thomas shared stories about her adjustment to small town life, and slowly letting strangers know who she was and what work brought her to town.

One night, she was in conversation with a cab driver who had picked up her up from the airport. "I said I work in justice, I thought that was a good answer. He was like, 'Oh, like CSI? You're coming to investigate our crimes?" Thomas said with a laugh. "I thought that was pretty glamourous."

To another, Thomas said she worked at the courthouse, in filing. "I file all day. It's intense. I have to stay focused. It's detailed work, it's important work, but it's boring and I'd rather not talk about it," she recalled saying.

To another cab driver, Thomas finally let out the truth, without obfuscation: She was the new judge. "He said, 'Really? I just picked up this woman and I had to take her to the hospital because her husband was stabbed in a home invasion!'" Thomas recalled, again with a laugh. "No! No! I quickly changed the subject: hopefully the planes are running today!"

Since her appointment, Thomas has said she has a chance to sit in a number of courtrooms across the province. 

"The provincial court is a people's court and I'm mindful that each and every person that appears before me is someone who is heard. They deserve my compassion, my patience, my respect, and my wisdom," Thomas said.

Thomas ended with a quote from Maya Angelou: "I have learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but they will never forget how you made them feel," she said. "I'm extremly proud to serve as a provincial court judge."

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