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Justice (25-42)

Coming full circle 

April 17, 2024

Johannes Semigak has spent nearly all of his adult life in jail. After causing the death of his brother, the Inuk man has embarked on a journey of learning about intergenerational trauma, relocation and addiction. 

Johannes Semigak, 35, returned to his hometown of Hopedale in March for a sentencing circle. Semigak was convicted of manslaughter in the death of his brother. Heidi Atter/CBC

CBC News: Johannes Semigak steps off the plane in shackles. The Labrador wind whips up clouds of snow around his feet.

He takes a drag of his cigarette as he steps into a wooden qamutik, bearing a painted RCMP logo, that pulls Semigak toward his moment of reckoning.

Semigak is home. Back to Hopedale, the Inuit community on Labrador’s isolated north coast where the 35-year-old was born and raised. Where he took his brother’s life. Where he hopes to build back his own.

Semigak is heading to a sentencing circle, a community-focused form of justice tailored for Indigenous communities — the first in at least five years in the province.

The Inuk man will be surrounded by lawyers, community members, family, an elder and a judge.

It’s what Semigak requested when he pleaded guilty, and he sees it as part of a larger effort to improve not only his own future but those of the Indigenous men he lives with at the Labrador Correctional Centre.

From a life on the land to unknown territory 

In the visiting room of the Labrador Correctional Centre, the walls are painted with scenes from Inuit and Innu culture.

Semigak turns over the smooth sides of his carvings in his hands as he reflects on his own history — one filled with intergenerational trauma, alcohol addiction, neglect and abuse.

His family is one of more than 50 that were forcibly relocated from Hebron, an Inuit community 300 kilometres north of Hopedale, in 1959. 

A crumbling home stands amid a shoreline.
Hebron is located on Labrador’s northern tip. More than 50 families were forcibly relocated from the community in 1959. Some buildings remain. (Paul Pickett/CBC)

“Living in Hebron, the way my dad talked about it, it was peaceful up [there]. Everybody helped out everybody. And there was no drinking, there were no drugs, and everybody lived off the land,” Semigak said during a recent interview from the Labrador Correctional Centre.

“They [were] happy up there.”

In 1959, the Moravian church and provincial government closed the town without consultations with local Inuit. Families were separated and placed in communities along the coast.

They were promised new homes but were forced instead to live in tents.

Semigak’s mother’s family were placed in Nain, his father in Hopedale, where the couple later met.

Semigak said his father’s family coped by turning to alcohol, which flowed freely from the nearby American military base.

His parents developed a severe addiction to alcohol, which Semigak said led to him and his seven siblings often going hungry. That hunger turned into trouble with the justice system at age 11, when he and his late brother broke into the local school to steal cheese and crackers.

The theft resulted in Semigak being removed from Hopedale and taken to a group home in Nain, another Inuit community.

While in the care of provincial government’s child services, two of his siblings died by suicide. 

A Crumbling building is on a shoreline with rocks nearby.
Today, few of Hebron’s original buildings still stand. (Paul Pickett/CBC)

Despite his upbringing, Semigak does not put any blame at the feet of his parents.

“I don’t blame my dad for being an alcoholic,” Semigak said.

“I can see why. My dad and my grandparents were alcoholics because they didn’t want to move from their homeland.… He went through horrible stuff.”

A husky sits on a rock, tied to it with a chain.
A husky howls just outside Hopedale. Struggles with trauma are common throughout the north coast. (Heidi Atter/CBC)

Shortly after he turned 18, Semigak left the group home with a crippling addiction to alcohol, beginning a 17-year journey through the revolving door at the Labrador Correctional Centre in Happy Valley-Goose Bay.

Over that time, he compiled a lengthy criminal record, with convictions for offences as serious as assault and forcible confinement.

Drinking is what his family did, his grandparents and parents, said Semigak — and that was passed down to him. 

The death of a brother 

Everything came to a head on Nov. 19, 2020, when Semigak and his older brother Thomas Tuglavina, 37, were drinking with friends.

“Still to this day, I don’t know what happened. I don’t know how it happened,” Semigak said in his jailhouse interview with CBC News.

Semigak said his brother was like a best friend and the two spent a lot of time together.

Both struggled with addiction and intergenerational trauma.

“We was always drinking together. We was always smoking weed together,” Semigak said. “He always looked out for me.”

Three people stand in a kitchen wearing all black.
Semigak, right, said he was very close to his brother Thomas Tuglavina, left. (Submitted by Ida Semigak)

An agreed statement of facts submitted to the court fills in the gaps.

According to a witness, the two brothers got into a fight inside the family’s home on Berry Road that ended when a neighbour intervened, pulling Semigak off Tuglavina.

Semigak walked away. Tuglavina went to a neighbour’s house to call the police but declined medical attention.

Later that day, Tuglavina’s condition deteriorated and he was taken to the local clinic with stomach pains.

He died around 4:20 p.m., while waiting for a medevac out of the community.

Court documents say he died of internal bleeding, likely from a blow to the abdomen.

“It is accepted that the accused did not intend to kill the victim, nor did he subjectively appreciate that his actions could cause the victim bodily harm to a degree that was likely to cause death,” read the agreement statement of facts.

Semigak pleaded guilty to manslaughter.

Eye-opening treatment program offered

But it didn’t take his brother’s death alone to send Semigak on the path he’s on now.

He credits a 21-day Indigenous-specific trauma and addictions treatment program offered by the Natuashish Healing Lodge. He completed the program at the correctional centre as he waited to be sentenced.

Semigak said it was the first such program he saw offered in his time in jail.

And, he said, it changed everything.

“It made me realize I should be living life out there instead of in the correctional system, and it just made me realize who I was supposed to be, I guess, instead of being in the cracks in the justice system for this long,” Semigak said. 

One man’s journey to break the cycle of addictions and trauma in the N.L. justice system

WATCH | Learn why Johannes Semigak feels the correctional system needs to make sweeping changes: 

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Semigak said he just wishes it had been offered sooner.

“The justice system is playing with people’s lives. They don’t know what they’re doing to Indigenous people,” Semigak said. “They’re just making them worse for when they get out.”

Semigak said the correctional system needs sweeping changes, tailored to Indigenous people.

“It’s almost like residential school, I guess, [people] being forced from their homeland and being in the justice system,” Semigak said.

Advocating for change

Now with a sober mind, Semigak has put pen to paper to advocate for himself and others. In October,  he collected the signatures of his fellow inmates for a letter asking that the jail’s carving program be reinstated. It has been sidelined during renovations at the jail, but the provincial government says the expansion of the jail will help improve programming.

The next month, he sent letters to the province’s health and justice ministers and the superintendent of prisons.

“There are things that I have experienced that have been really difficult and I don’t want to see these kind of things keep happening to anyone else who is incarcerated,” Semigak wrote to the minister of justice and minister of health and community services on Nov. 6.

“I feel that other people in government positions do not have the level of insight and knowledge that I do as someone who has directly been involved in the correctional system for a long time.”

On Jan. 9, Semigak received a reply from the minister of health and community services, who said Semigak’s perspective is important and suggested he meet with the minister of justice and public safety and minister of Indigenous affairs.

A brown building is surrounded by large high-wire fence.
The Labrador Correctional Centre in Happy Valley-Goose Bay is currently expanding. (Heidi Atter/CBC)

Semigak wants to see monthly addictions treatment programs focused on Indigenous culture, Inuttitut and Innu-aimun language classes and visits with elders from peoples’ cultures.

Neither minister would agree to an interview with CBC News regarding the concerns raised in Semigak’s letters. However, in a statement, Department of Justice spokesperson Eric Humber said the expansion of the Labrador Correctional Centre will create a stand-alone building for Indigenous programming, including carving.

“This additional space will play a key role in improving the interactions and experiences of Indigenous people within the justice system, by fostering and supporting Indigenous cultures and traditions,” Humber wrote in an email.

Humber said construction is anticipated to be completed by the fall.

An older woman holds a small child on her lap while sitting on stairs.
Lena Semigak holds one of her grandchildren. Lena died in 2023, after a battle with cancer. (Submitted by Ida Semigak)

His advocacy was fuelled by encouragement from his mother, who visited him frequently until she was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer.

On her final trip home, Semigak wasn’t permitted to see her at the airport during her layover. She died in March 2023. Semigak asked to attend her funeral but was told staff needed to be on standby and he could not go.

“She was my best friend,” Semigak said. “The justice system took something from me that I’m never going to get back. I never got to say goodbye to my mom.”

Semigak hopes to honour her in the future by making life better for inmates and elders alike. 

A man sits in a chair, looking at Inuit carvings on display.
Semigak was able to carve while in prison, and he sells his artwork to help support his family. The carving connected him to his culture but the shop has been closed for months. Semigak wants to see that connection to culture restored. (Heidi Atter/CBC)

Semigak’s story of trauma, addiction, suicide and complications with the justice system isn’t rare on Labrador’s north coast, according to Erin Broomfield, who works with Inuit offenders.

“There’s not one person incarcerated who’s not impacted by intergenerational trauma,” said Broomfield, the Nunatsiavut government’s regional justice services co-ordinator.

Being jailed at a young age and removed from family, cultural foods and language can compound the trauma that people have, she said.

Semigak is part of a growing national movement  for more Indigenous-focused support for people in prison, Broomfield said.

“It’s really a powerful thing. I like to see Inuit and Indigenous people taking more of a voice for themselves and speaking up and challenging any type of service or system that they don’t feel is working for them,” Broomfield said.

The impacts of colonialism have led to Indigenous people not knowing the power of their own voice, Broomfield said, despite the value of their experiences. 

A woman wearing a sweater stands in her office.
Erin Broomfield, the Nunatsiavut government’s regional justice services manager, helps people advocate for themselves and access resources. (Heidi Atter/CBC)

Indigenous people make up only five per cent of the population in Canada but 32 per cent of federal inmates, according to Statistics Canada.

According to the provincial Justice Department, there were about 350 offenders incarcerated as of April 8 — 16 per cent of whom self-identified as Indigenous.

Indigenous people make up 9.3 per cent of the population in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Two men stand in a large room with high arch windows.
Lawyer Mark Gruchy and Semigak talk in the Nunatsiavut Assembly Building in Hopedale ahead of Semigak’s sentencing circle. (Heidi Atter/CBC)

Throughout his decades as a defence lawyer, Mark Gruchy says, he’s seen only a small minority of people try to change the justice system for the better.

“I think it’s good that people who are experiencing it would try to analyze it and suggest ways to improve it and reflect on it,” Gruchy said in an interview at his St. John’s office.

“And I think there probably is no one better situated than an Indigenous person who’s experiencing it.”

For Semigak, that included pleading guilty and requesting a sentencing circle, to create distance from the practice of the colonial court institution.

The sentencing guidelines are no different from any other case, but the circle — a First Nations practice — provides the community space to take part.

‘You have to decide from your heart’

On March 20, Semigak arrived at the Nunatsiavut government building to a round circle of folding chairs.

Justice Stacy Ryan, the first Inuk justice on Newfoundland and Labrador’s Supreme Court, presided over the sentencing circle, sitting alongside lawyers, members of the community, and Semigak.

“I really am really sorry for what I done,” Semigak said to the group.

“If it wasn’t for alcohol, [it] wouldn’t have happened. I’m sorry.… I take responsibility for everything, for what I done.”

During the circle, Elder Sarah Ponniuk addressed Semigak directly.

“It’s time you have to learn to forgive yourself. You cannot live in the past anymore. You have to move forward,” Ponniuk said.

“And one of the things you have to decide [is] to quit alcohol altogether. But that’s your choice. You have to decide from your heart.”

A woman wearing a blue Inuit coat sits in a chair.
Elder Sarah Ponniuk oversaw the sentencing circle. (Curtis Hicks/CBC)

Others in the circle pointed to the systemic issues Semigak faced, from growing up in care to a lack of mental health support and a revolving door of counsellors on the north coast.

“This situation is a symptom of something, and we keep thinking the symptom is the problem and it’s not,” said Darlene Winters, a Hopedale community member who came to support Semigak at the circle.

Winters said she and her husband have been coming to terms with their own intergenerational traumas, accepting the past and trying to create a better future.

Two people stand in front of high arch windows.
McKinley and Darlene Winters came to the sentencing circle to support Semigak and be there for him and others. (Heidi Atter/CBC)

“It’s the beginning of healing and great change,” said her husband, McKinley. “This is a great start to healing for our community and other communities as well.”

“Just takes one to make a difference,” Darlene adds.

Semigak dreams of opening a carving shop that would provide drop-in sessions for youth and people facing addictions.

“Tell their story for how they were grown up. Let them take it on the rock. Let them tell their story in the rock,” Semigak said. 

A man wearing a black baseball cap and red jacket starts in a room with high arch windows.
Semigak says he’s hopeful for a better future now that the sentencing circle is over and he can serve out his remaining time in prison. He hopes to make it his last. (Heidi Atter/CBC)

Two weeks after the sentencing circle, Justice Ryan came down with her decision.

She sentenced Semigak to three and a half years in jail for his brother’s death, plus two years’ probation. He has about six months left on his sentence.

As part of his conditions, Semigak has been ordered to perform 100 hours of community service helping elders in Hopedale and create a custom carving for the court.

The carving must depict what Semigak is like when drinking and what he is like when sober. It will then need to be presented to the court before being returned for him to display, a daily reminder of the past but also of the future.

“I want to break the cycle, what my father went through,” Semigak said.

“I know I can break the cycle.”

Producer: Ariana Kelland | Video: Curtis Hicks | Copy editor: Daniel MacEachern 

About the Author

Heidi Atter

Heidi Atter is a journalist working in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, Labrador. She has worked as a reporter, videojournalist, mobile journalist, web writer, associate producer, show director, current affairs host and radio technician. Heidi has worked in Regina, Edmonton, Wainwright, and in Adazi, Latvia. Story ideas? Email