Nunatsiaq News
TAISSUMANI: Around the Arctic January 13, 2011 - 4:37 pm

Taissumani, Jan. 14

Sinnisiak and Uluksuk – Part 2

NUNATSIAQ NEWS

KENN HARPER

(Continued from last week)

In last week’s instalment, Inspector Denny LaNauze of the Royal Northwest Mounted Police arrested two Inuit, Sinnisiak and Uluksuk, near Coppermine (now Kugluktuk) for the murder of two Roman Catholic priests. The two Inuit were sent to Edmonton for trial.

On August 14, 1917, the trial began in Edmonton. But the crown had a surprise in store for the defence. They tried only Sinnisiak, and only for the murder of Father Rouvière.

It was a trial by a jury of six. Judge Horace Harvey presided. James E. Wallbridge acted as defence counsel. The loquacious Charles Cursolles McCaul, crown counsel, in his opening address, made it clear that this was no ordinary murder trial, but one intended to extend the reach of Canadian law to the remotest part of the country.

“These remote savages,” he said, “really cannibals, the Eskimo of the Arctic have got to be taught to recognize the authority of the British Crown, and that the authority of the Crown and of the Dominion of Canada, of which these countries are a part, extends to the furthermost limits of the frozen North. It is necessary that they should understand that they are under the Law, just in the same way as it was necessary to teach the Indians of the Indian Territories and of the North West Territories that they were under the Law; that they must regulate their lives and dealings with their fellow men, of whatever race, white men or Indians, according to, at least, the main outstanding principles of that law, which is part of the law of civilization, and that this law must be respected on the barren lands of North America, and on the shores of the Arctic Ocean, and on the ice of the Polar Seas, even as far as the Pole itself.

“They have got to be taught to respect the principles of Justice — and not merely to submit to it, but to learn that they are entitled themselves to resort to it, to resort to the law, to resort to British justice, and to take advantage of it the same way as anybody else does. The code of the savage, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a life for a life must be replaced among them by the code of civilization.

“They must learn to know, whether they are Eskimo or not, that death is not the only penalty for a push or a shove, or a swear word, or for mere false dealing; that for these offences our civilization and justice do not allow a man to be shot or to be stabbed, to be killed or murdered. They have got to learn that even if slight violence is used it will not justify murder…

“If that is their idea, their notion of justice, I hope when the result of this trial is brought back to the Arctic regions that all such savage notions will be effectually dispelled.

“…the great importance of this trial lies in this: that for the first time in history these people… will be brought in contact with and will be taught what is white-man’s justice.”

But then McCaul, perhaps impressed by his own eloquence, spoiled his otherwise brilliant address. When he continued, it became clear that his real purpose was to make the Arctic safe for white men, who would come to explore and exploit the region’s resources: 

“You, gentlemen, can understand how important this is: white men travel through the barren lands; white men live on the shores of Bear Lake; white men go to the shores of the Arctic Ocean; and if we are to believe the reports of the copper deposits near the mouth of the Coppermine River, many white men more may go to investigate and to work the mines. The Eskimo must be made to understand that the lives of others are sacred, and that they are not justified in killing on account of any mere trifle that may ruffle or annoy them.”

Sinnisiak, uncomprehending and dressed in skin clothing, as befitted a show trial, fell asleep during McCaul’s lengthy address. Bizarrely, a tub of ice water had been placed near him, so that he could dip his feet in it whenever he needed to cool off.

The witnesses and the accused were sworn in with an unusual oath. The interpreter, Ilavinik, was at a loss to even understand, let alone translate the normal oath regarding the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. A more down-to-earth substitute was allowed: “Whatever you speak now, you speak straight; do not speak with two tongues.”

The defence argued for acquittal, on the grounds that the Inuk knew nothing of the white man’s law and should not be judged by it, and that he had acted in self-defence, thinking he was about to be killed by the priest. 

What Sinnisiak had committed, Wallbridge argued, was not murder but justifiable homicide. Chief Justice Harvey in his charge to the jury argued against Wallbridge’s case for acquittal.

But the unexpected happened. The jury deliberated for little more than an hour, and came back with a verdict of not guilty. The trial had lasted four days.

The crown counsel and the judge were outraged. They felt the jury had been influenced by a sympathetic local press and by public sentiment. McCaul even suggested that some jurors held an anti-Catholic bias and were reluctant to find guilty the killer of a priest.

But the Inuit were not off the hook yet. The decision to try only Sinnisiak and only for the murder of one priest had contemplated the possibility of an acquittal. The crown was now ready for Plan B.

Taissumani recounts a specific event of historic interest. Kenn Harper is a historian, writer and linguist who lives in Iqaluit. Feedback? Send your comments and questions to kennharper@hotmail.com.

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