Northern injustice

Flawed trial of Inuit trio charged with murder symbolic of widespread mistreatment


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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 20/01/2018 (1839 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Supplied photo The three accused men (from left) Aatitaaq, Nuqallaq and Ululijarnaaq.

Until a blink of history ago, the Arctic was occupied alone by a race of stoic people in a land of no pity.

Then a few outsiders came, and finally one day other white men, with their funny bushy eyebrows, arrived to forever change the rules of living and dying.

Thou Shalt Do No Murder by Kenn Harper explains a blatantly shameful episode of injustice in the vulgar subjugation of a people — a show trial for murder in the 1920 shooting of a white man by the Inuit near the top of isolated Baffin Island, way up north.

These Inuit — who had been autonomous for eons as the lone residents of the Arctic, and therefore free to do what they wanted — were already being told they were now under the control of something called Canada, like it or not. They had been arbitrarily given an offensive name nothing like the one they used, and had been fed by officialdom — in a highly overblown, self-serving message — that being part of the second-biggest nation in the world meant a better way of life.

In summary, Harper’s Thou Shalt Do No Murder examines the government’s neutering of these original people in the name of sovereignty and what goes awry when two cultures so different meet up, where the bigger one — a benevolent steamroller of white supremacy — treats the smaller one as a Stone Age race deserving the same level of respect they give to garbage pickup.

Supplied photo Author Kenn Harper.

Harper brings outstanding credentials; now in Ottawa, he lived in the Far North and Greenland for 50 years as a teacher, historian, linguist and businessman. Since historical records are oral in Inuit culture, Harper, who speaks Inuktitut, is particularly suited to embrace first-hand their descriptions of events. And, because of this, he is trusted by Inuit to do so.

To illustrate the dichotomy, Harper focuses on the killing some distance from Pond Inlet of white trader Robert Janes by three Inuit.

The white man’s laws say these Inuit were criminals, but the Inuit say no — that by shooting the deranged white trader who terrorized their people, they were doing what their leaders (usually their best hunters) had been doing forever: maintaining social order themselves and protecting their own. To the Inuit, their conduct had never been regulated by a rule book but, in their fragile hold on life, by the one imperative in their struggle: survival. Besides, even if they had wanted, there was nobody else around to police the place.

Anyway, the foreign code of conduct called the Criminal Code of Canada was parachuted into Pond Inlet from afar, and the trio was charged with murder. Many photos in the book help tell the story.

Nuqallaq, who pulled the trigger, was sentenced to 10 years’ hard labour in Manitoba’s Stony Mountain penitentiary, but for manslaughter, not murder, because in those days murder meant execution. And, of the two who helped him, Ululijarnaaq was given two years for manslaughter to be served locally, while Aatitaaq was let go. Nuqallaq was released in two years after developing tuberculosis in prison, and was sent home to die. He did within months. They found his body in a damp, cold igloo.

Harper says the English trial (a language completely foreign to the three accused) was like the investigation — full of sloppy procedures, bias and legal neglect. The jury was not composed of the accused’s peers, but rather of six white men from the outside world, sailors from a visiting ship. Five spoke only French, and the official interpreter for the trial spoke only English and Inuktitut. So the judge, in one of the most madcap decisions ever made from the bench, ordered the prosecutor to translate the trial into French for the jury, including his own remarks and those of the lawyer for the defence.

The jury was not sequestered. Everybody in the courtroom knew the three Inuit had killed the white man, because a coroner’s jury held before the trial had told them so. The performance of the defence lawyer was weak. The Inuit would always remember that Nuqallaq was put on trial not for killing a man, but killing a white man. At one point the judge became so angry, the Inuit spectators said they thought the police would kill them all. The work of the Inuktitut translator was questioned because he would start translating before the witness had finished talking. Before passing sentence, the judge complimented the chief RCMP investigator for his fine work “being alone as a white man among uncivilized people…”

On page 298, there is a description of an alleged incident during the trial that is so funny you’ll pray it’s true.

In the end, Harper says, reports sent back to Ottawa said proper trial procedures were strictly followed. Officials were pleased.

Thou Shalt Do No Murder is a tale of endemic racism, and of justice as it was practised in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland — the verdict before the evidence. Harper’s telling of the unbelievable is believable, and easy to understand and appreciate.


Barry Craig, a retired journalist, once lived up there.

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