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TAISSUMANI: Around the Arctic January 28, 2011 - 6:04 pm

Taissumani, Jan. 28

Sinnisiak and Uluksuk – Part 4

Uluksuk (left) with Sinnisiak. To this day, the reading public has never tired of their story.
Uluksuk (left) with Sinnisiak. To this day, the reading public has never tired of their story.

(Continued from last week)

In last week’s instalment, a Calgary jury deliberated for only 45 minutes before returning a guilty verdict for two Inuit, Sinnisiak and Uluksuk, who were on trial in 1917 for the murder of a priest, Father LeRoux.

Sinnisiak alone had earlier been acquitted of murder in Edmonton in the death of another priest, Father Rouviere. What remained was sentencing. 

Judge Harvey gave his decision several days later in Edmonton. The law allowed no sentence for murder other than the death penalty. But the jury had strongly urged clemency.

Accordingly, the judge sentenced both Inuit to death by hanging. He then explained, through the 17-year-old half-Inuit interpreter, Patsy Klengenberg, that the minister “authorizes me to state the sentence will be commuted.”

But this would be the last time that Eskimos would be given special treatment in the case of murder, for the judge continued, rather simplistically, “Patsy, you might tell them when they get back home, if they do, they must let their people know that if any of them kill any person they will have to suffer death. They know now what our law is.”

The death sentences of Sinnisiak and Uluksuk were commuted to life imprisonment at the police detachment in Fort Resolution. They were not confined, but did odd jobs around the post.

The police report for 1919 described them as model prisoners who worked willingly and were apparently quite content. In May of that year they were released from custody, and then worked as dog drivers helping the police to open a new post in the Central Arctic at Tree River.

Eventually they returned to their homes, well-off in material goods, but arrogant. One police officer said of their return, “They came back with rifles, ammunition, trunks full of white man’s clothing, and enough pale-faced cussedness to high-hat the rest of the tribe. Now they’re big men among the natives, and some of the others think all they’ve got to do to have a good time is to stick a knife into someone.”

Uluksuk became troublesome, bullied other natives and was said to be a thief. He bragged that he did not fear the police and “that he would not mind killing a white man, as they [the accused] are only taken outside and given a good time, and then sent back to their own country again.”

Some reports say that he was killed in 1924 by another native, Ikayena, whom he had been bullying. It turns out that this report was based on confusion with another Inuk of a similar name.

In fact, Uluksuk lived at Bernard Harbour in the late 1920s. The missionary, Archibald Lang Fleming, met him there is 1928, impoverished, his body racked by tuberculosis.

Fleming sent him to the church hospital in Aklavik, but they were unable to provide chronic care. In the summer of 1929 he was sent to Coppermine, where he died in September. Sinnisiak died the following year.

The killing of the Catholic priests and the subsequent trial of the two Inuit has provided rich fodder for writers over the years, and continues to do so.

R. G. Moyles published “British Law and Arctic Men” in 1979. McKay Jenkins wrote “Bloody Falls of the Coppermine” in 2005; it’s a richer treatment than the earlier book, putting some meat on Moyles’s skeletal narrative, which dealt mainly with the trial.

In 2010 Keith Ross Leckie, for reasons that escape me, fictionalized the whole story in his “Coppermine.” Why a story so rich in proven historical detail should become a novel is a mystery.

The most comprehensive academic treatment of the trials is to be found in Edwin Keedy’s “A Remarkable Murder Trial,” published in the University of Pennsylvania Law Review in 1951. Keedy, a lawyer, had attended the Edmonton trial.

Sidney L. Harring, a law professor in New York, wrote a detailed analysis of the changes to Copper Inuit culture occasioned by the sudden imposition of Canadian law in “The Rich Men of the Country,” published in 1989 in the Ottawa Law Review.

Playwrights too have found this story compelling. Last year, Thomas Riccio, wrote “Ilira,” performed in Dallas, Texas. One of Canada’s best-known playwrights, Sharon Pollock, wrote “Kabloona Talk” in 2008; it was performed at Yellowknife’s Stuck in a Snowbank Theatre.

Why has the reading public never tired of this story? Perhaps because it has that most North American of themes — a clash of cultures bringing a tragic end.

The facts of the case were simple enough but the interpretation of those facts was more difficult. Of all Inuit in Canada, the initial encounters of the Copper Inuit with white men, and the changes wrought on their society by those encounters, were the most sudden.

Northerners, especially Inuit, should know this story.

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

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