by Kenn Harper
Iqaluit, NU: Nunavut Arctic College Media, 2017. ISBN 978-1-879568-49-1
Reviewed by Jonathan Dore
For more than thirty years Kenn Harper has been writing historical books and journalism that skilfully combine the archival sources available in southern Canada with the rich oral histories of the Inuit, among whom he has lived for half a century. In doing so he’s shown the journalist’s unerring instinct for finding compelling human stories that are emblematic of the cultural exchange, and often cultural collision, between the two. But he’s also shown the historian’s ability to step back from his immediate subject, seeking its roots in the longer term and the broader view, with an impressively unpartisan sympathy for all the characters, Inuit and European, who fall within his view. In 1986 he first told the story of Minik, the Inuit boy swept along in the wake of Robert Peary’s polar monomania (Give Me My Father’s Body, republished in a new and much expanded edition as Minik, the New York Eskimo in 2017). And two years ago he published two collections, titled In Those Days, of his regular historical column in the Nunatsiaq News. The second of these volumes focused on Arctic Crime and Punishment, and it is one of these stories that Harper has chosen to expand into a full-length study, Thou Shalt Do No Murder.
On 15 March 1920 the independent fur trader Robert Janes was ambushed and shot dead at a hunting camp on the ice near Cape Crauford at the mouth of Admiralty Inlet, the north-westernmost corner of Baffin Island. The man who shot him, Nuqallaq, was one of about twenty Inuit in the camp, most of whom agreed with his action. None of them attempted to hide what they had done, but respectfully buried Janes’s body and, on returning to their home settlement of Pond’s Inlet, brought back and stored his furs and trade goods in his house before reporting their actions to the fur traders there. These events, so baffling on the surface, were the climax to a long series of confrontations, stretching over years, that the increasingly unstable Janes had had with Nuqallaq and most of the other hunters in the camp.
Robert Janes was a Newfoundlander, originally a sailor and eventually ship’s master, who first came north in 1910 on one of Joseph Bernier’s many voyages for the Canadian government. Bernier’s practice was to build cairns, fly flags, and make declarations of claim on behalf of Canada at strategic points on as many different Arctic islands as he could, but in between he traded furs on his own account, often using government-supplied goods as trade items but selling the furs for his own profit. Janes, his second-in-command, was drawn into his web of embezzlement, trading on his behalf during the winter at Pond’s Inlet. After an abortive diversion into gold-prospecting, he eventually got backing from a Newfoundland businessman, Kenneth Prowse, to set up a well-stocked trading station on his own account in 1916.
Almost immediately, however, he began sowing the seeds of his own downfall by his approach to trade. Attempting to ingratiate himself with the local hunters in the hope they would supply him rather than Bernier or another wily businessman, Henry Toke Munn, he gave the Inuit valuable items—guns, ammunition, knives—that he regarded as advances on future payment in furs. But it seems that the Inuit regarded the items as gifts, sweeteners to set the ball rolling in a new trading relationship. As his stock of better trade goods ran out and, increasingly desperate, he was left with only minor items such as cutlery and plugs of tobacco, this mutual misunderstanding was compounded by Janes’s increasingly brusque and overbearing manner, peremptorily demanding furs with menaces before he had even asked for them. Hunters became increasingly disinclined to deal with him as he abused them, eventually attacking one, Umik, with a knife and threatening to shoot him. He also developed a deep personal animus against Umik’s son, Nuqallaq, who was having an affair with Kalluk, the woman providing Janes with wifely services (by arrangement with her husband) during his stay. Through intermediaries, he warned Nuqallaq that he would shoot him on sight if he came near his post, and said the same in a letter of pure venom sent to Bernier’s post manager. Munn’s post manager Jamie Florence, meanwhile, not only had few furs but not enough food to feed himself. He appealed to Janes to buy some of his supplies and Janes, now desperate for furs, gave his terms: Florence must hand over half the furs he had collected for Munn. It was a demand too far, and Florence stuck out the winter of 1917–18 on starvation rations.
But the watershed moment came in September 1919, when for the third summer in a row a relief vessel expected from Janes’s business partner in St John’s failed to arrive. Unbeknown to him, Prowse had received a visit from the wily Munn, who told him not to bother sending a ship to pick up Janes since he himself was going north that year and would bring Janes back. When he arrived he learned of Janes’s demand for furs from Florence, and when Janes arrived at Pond’s Inlet and asked to be shipped out, the same terms were vengefully laid before him: Munn would take him home, but only in exchange for half of his own furs. A demand that would have inconvenienced Munn would have ruined Janes, who, beaten up by Munn’s men, refused. It was a turning point that the Inuit said unhinged the lone trader. His only option for ever getting back would be to return south by dogsled.
After enduring another miserable winter at his post, he and his Inuit post assistant Uuttukuttuk set out by sledge in February 1920. When they reached Admiralty Inlet they found the sea-ice hunting camp where Janes knew he would find several men who he thought owed him furs. They spent several days at the camp as Janes demanded and strong-armed fox pelts from the sleds of the hunters. Used to his tactics by now, the Inuit stoically went about their lives until a newly arrived hunter Miqutui, who had come from the direction Janes was travelling in, told the trader that the ice on that route was so bad he wouldn’t be able to get through that year. With all his options for escape blocked, the news cracked what little mental equilibrium Janes had left. He began threatening to shoot the dogs, and then the people, cooling down only because he temporarily couldn’t find his gun. Two women were so terrified they quietly left the camp, meeting hunters returning to it. Nuqallaq was among them, and as the natural leader of the group he knew that something had to be done.
Although Harper doesn’t draw the comparison, perhaps the closest situation to Nuqallaq’s dilemma in earlier Arctic history was John Richardson’s in October 1821, when he had to decide to shoot the voyageur Michel Terohaute once he became certain that Terohaute, who had already murdered one of their companions and cannibalized others, would otherwise kill him and Hepburn. Likewise, Nuqallaq and his fellow hunters were far from any settlements where they could enlist aid and, before a time when the police had any permanent presence in the north, they were entirely on their own with a dangerously volatile man whom they expected to open fire on them the next time he emerged from his igloo. So Ululijarnaaq called for Janes to come out of his igloo to see some furs, and when he did, Nuqallaq shot him dead.
The Canadian government did not marshal a response until 1921, when it sent a single policeman, Alfred Joy, to act first as coroner, then as justice of the peace, and finally as constable to effect an “open arrest”—there were no facilities for incarceration—of three men, Nuqallaq, Aatitaaq, and Ululijarnaaq. His report went south the following summer, and only in the one after that, 1923, did a government party arrive at Pond Inlet to conduct the trial. Although the testimony of all the Inuit called as witnesses was clear that Janes had been behaving in a manner so aggressive they feared for their lives, Nuqallaq, as the man who had taken the responsibility of pulling the trigger, was found guilty, though of manslaughter rather than murder. Ululijarnaaq was found guilty of abetting him, though with a recommendation for clemency, and Aatitaaq was acquitted. Ululijarnaaq served his two-year sentence as an open prisoner at Pond’s Inlet, while Nuqallaq was sent south to prison in Manitoba on a sentence of ten years. His health broken by TB, the radical change of climate, and hard labour, he was allowed to return north two years later on licence, the government fearing that if he died and was never seen again the salutary tale he would tell of prison experience would be lost on his community at Pond’s Inlet. Although he tried to pick up the threads of his former life again, he was dead from TB within a year of returning.
On one level, this is a tragedy of personalities. Janes seems to have been short-tempered and, as his fortunes got worse, increasingly overbearing and then aggressive, frequently losing control in violent outbursts. This naturally brought him into conflict with anyone with the confidence and self-possession to stand up to him, which Nuqallaq certainly had. But Nuqallaq was also a piece of work: his first wife had committed suicide rather than put up with his continued beatings, and his young second wife was subject to the same treatment.
But Harper expertly puts this personal tragedy into its larger context—of the fur trade and its effect on Inuit communities, and of a Canadian state at first hesitant but eventually determined to impose visible marks of its sovereignty over lands, and the allegiance of its people, which it claimed in theory but had barely begun to get to grips with in practice. Harper’s mastery of all these levels to his story is what makes his book’s cumulative effect so impressive.
The intense competition that evolved between rival fur traders, competing for the limited trade of Pond’s Inlet, meant that, in a land where profits were modest at best, one bad year could make the difference between success and failure and traders’ could never afford to relax, or fail to take a chance to best the competition. Bernier had the backing of the Canadian government, Munn that of a financial consortium in Britain, but Janes was bankrolled by just one man in St John’s, so was in the most precarious position. Harper’s work in Canadian and British archives bears fruit in the behind-the-scenes correspondence he reveals going on between and about these and other traders as they jockeyed for advantage in the North.
And the fur traders’ presence in the High Arctic was itself a manifestation of long-term forces playing out in the South. Canada’s sovereignty over the Arctic, not even acknowledged by the Canadian government until the 1890s, was still at the stage of assertion and proclamation. Only occasional exploratory expeditions by the United States and European powers would goad Ottawa into actual action, but even that would be done as far as possible through diplomatic channels. Actually establishing a physical presence of the state was an expensive last resort. What they typically relied on instead was for fur traders to act as proxy representatives of Canadian power and values, so someone like Bernier was for them an ideal representative: he planted flags and made speeches to the Inuit telling them they were now Canadian citizens, but also managed to tie them into the Canadian economy through his fur-trading, deflecting men away from hunting food for their families towards hunting non-food game for their skins, thus increasing their dependency on trade goods still further. It’s hard to imagine that no civil servant in Ottawa noticed that Bernier was siphoning off government provisions to line his own pocket: it’s likely they just considered it a reasonable price to pay for maintaining a Canadian presence in the North.
Another mechanism of proxy representation was religion, and Harper details the strange syncretic forms of belief that grew up around this time as Bibles translated into Inuktitut syllabics were disseminated long before missionaries were there to make sense of them. This left the field open for those who wanted to set themselves up as religious leaders, and one of the first to do so was none other than Umik. He established a Christian commune at Igloolik in which he placed himself at the head. He directed where the others should hunt, but did no hunting himself. He declared that men should no longer swap their wives for a season, as the custom had been, yet he continued to do so himself. And Nuqallaq, as his son, shared in these privileges, which can only have added to his cynicism.
But the killing of Robert Janes required the Canadian state to make its presence known in a way that it could not delegate to a proxy: the operation of law. First in the person of Joy, and finally in the person of a judge, Louis Rivet, travelling with the staff and trappings of a court, this was the point at which the state had to turn up in person. Here again Harper is meticulous in establishing the background to the scene that unfolded, giving us summaries of three similar cases in the western Arctic that occurred in the years around the Janes killing, and the gradually escalating judicial response. A 1912 killing of an American sports hunter and a Canadian surveyor had been deemed acts of self-defence when the American seemed about to kill one of his Inuit guides, and the case did not come to court. The following year a very similar case occurred, this time involving two priests: again the elder one lost his temper, threatened to shoot his two Inuit guides, and was stabbed by them before he could do so, and again the companion, fleeing away, was also killed in the melee. This time it came to trial in two separate cases: in the first, one defendant was found not guilty of murdering the younger priest; in the second, both were found guilty of killing the elder priest—the one who had actually threatened violence, and thus ironically the one in which the Inuit had the stronger case for self-defence. But the automatic death sentence was then commuted, and the men were discharged from open confinement after little more than a year. Finally, in April 1920, just a month after Janes was killed, a young man in Tree River killed a police constable and a fur trader after the policeman had arrested him and his uncle for five other murders on the Kent Peninsula. With clear and cool premeditation, these killings seemed to represent the clearest case of murder, and when the case came to trial in July 1923, a few weeks before the trial at Pond’s Inlet, it again led to guilty verdicts, but not this time to commutation, and both defendants were hanged.
In all three cases the actual judicial result was undermined by rhetoric, both spoken and unspoken, that made it clear the process and the verdicts reached were important less for their truth than for the salutary moral effect it was hoped they would have in convincing the Inuit population, first, of the mercy of the law, then of its impartiality, and eventually of its unrelenting determination to punish if that initial lenience were abused. Harper describes them as “show trials”, which is perhaps too strong a term since, although they were procedurally flawed in the many specifics he documents, they were a response to actual violent deaths, rather than the purely fictitious crimes the term suggests.
This is the immediate context in which the three men were tried at Pond’s Inlet, but it’s interesting that the verdict, flawed as it might have been, does not represent the continued ratcheting up of severity that might have been expected from the pattern of those three previous trials. The mitigating circumstances of Janes’s behaviour, and the reality of the fear of imminent violence he inspired, seems to have been at least partially recognized, while the differing sentences might have been intended to show that each man’s culpability was being judged individually, rather than making an undifferentiated example of them all.
But translation problems with the trial—testimony had to be filtered through two translators (one of them the prosecution counsel!) between the Inuktitut witnesses and the Francophone jurors—meant that the defendants, and their broader community, seem to have had little understanding of what was going on. Later, stories emerged in Pond’s Inlet that Nuqallaq had been taken away not for the killing but for beating his wives, or that a demonstration of kayaking prowess by Ululijarnaaq had so impressed the jurors that it turned them aside from their intention of killing the defendants. The exceptional range of Harper’s sources, gleaned from dozens of conversations over the years with descendants of Inuit eyewitnesses, gives this, as every other part of his account, a richness that could never be recreated from published sources alone. The author’s act of bringing together archival and oral sources reveals the broader tragedy of which the Janes case was a part, that of two cultures with different conceptions of law and punishment, each misinterpreting the other’s actions through their own prisms of understanding.
Anyone with an interest in Canadian history and the North should welcome Harper’s latest as a masterly account of the case and its background, as a first-class evocation of a time and place, and not least as a healing and perhaps redemptive braiding together of perspectives to enhance the understanding of all.