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Lonely gravesite stands as a reminder of an old Arctic tragedy

Cpl. W. A. Doak and trader Otto Binder murdered in 1922; two Inuit executed by hanging


Members of the Kugluktuk RCMP detachment at the grave of Cpl. William Andrew Doak and trader Otto Binder, both of whom were murdered in 1922 at Tree River. (PHOTO COURTESY OF THE RCMP)

Members of the Kugluktuk RCMP detachment at the grave of Cpl. William Andrew Doak and trader Otto Binder, both of whom were murdered in 1922 at Tree River. (PHOTO COURTESY OF THE RCMP)

A Government of Nunavut conservation officer and members of the RCMP made a pilgrimage Aug. 3 to a remote, 94-year-old gravesite of a police officer which stands as a reminder of a historic Arctic tragedy, a release from the RCMP said Aug. 10.

“Kugluktuk RCMP in partnership with the Nunavut Department of Environment attended the RCMP grave site at Tree River to pay their respects and maintain the site of Mr. Otto Binder and Corporal William Andrew Doak, who were killed in 1922 while in the execution of their duty,” said the release.

Allen Niptanatiak, a GN conservation officer, shared his cultural knowledge of the area during the trip, “which is an important part of the RCMP’s mandate of learning about Inuit culture and traditions,” the release said.

“The RCMP members and conservation officer also took the opportunity to visit Plummers Lodge at Tree River where they enjoyed some Arctic Char fishing and spent the night before their return to Kugluktuk.”

But the release made no mention of the controversial hanging of two Inuit men — both buried at Herschel Island, west of Kugluktuk — who died in connection with the deaths of Cpl. Doak and Otto Binder, a local trader.

Nor did the release mention the father of one of those Inuit men, buried on Kent Peninsula, who killed himself after learning about his son’s impending hanging.

Historian Kenn Harper wrote in 2006 about the circumstances surrounding the deaths of Binder and Doak in his Nunatsiaq News column, Taissumani — an event that led to the only occasion in Canadian history when Inuit suffered the death penalty.

In 1920, the RCMP opened a new detachment near Tree River, located between Kugluktuk and Kent Peninsula in what is now western Nunavut, Harper wrote in 2006.

Doak travelled to the peninsula that same year after hearing reports of multiple murders committed by two Inuit men, Tatamigana and his young nephew Alikomiak.

According to Harper, Doak returned to Tree River after arresting both men and made Alikomiak “a kind of servant.”

But after Doak chastised Alikomiak and gave the Inuk womanly chores and threw him out of the house, Alikomiak shot Doak in the leg.

“[Alikomiak] then sat down and calmly watched as the officer bled to death,” Harper wrote.

That same morning, Binder, Doak’s friend and a local trader, came by for a daily visit.

Before he reached Doak’s house, however, Alikomiak shot Binder “through the trader’s heart,” Harper wrote.

The RCMP transferred the two Inuit men to Herschel Island, where they were to stand trial on multiple murder charges.

“But the trial, regardless of the guilt of Alikomiak, was a sham,” Harper wrote.

That’s because the Canadian government had already decided the two Inuit men would hang for crimes that had not yet been proven in court.

The lumber for the gallows travelled north with the judge’s party, Harper wrote, as did a hangman.

And a deputy minister of justice told the judge in a telegram before the trial that “you should consult police authorities as to the date and place of execution.”

The execution of Alikomiak and Tatamigana, both found guilty of multiple murders, took place Feb. 1, 1924 on Herschel Island, Harper wrote.

In a follow-up column on the only hanging of Inuit in Canada, Harper said that the famed explorer and ethnographer Knud Rasmussen learned of the hangings during his Fifth Thule Expedition in 1924.

Rasmussen learned that the father of one of the hanged Inuit men killed himself after learning that his son was to “undertake the long journey to the eternal hunting grounds,” Harper quotes from Rasmussen’s journals.

The father realized that someone must be in those hunting grounds to greet his son.

But it took a gunshot to the chest, a stab wound to the heart and finally a knife to the throat before the father was able to carry out his plan.

Standing beside the father’s grave on Kent Peninsula, Rasmussen wrote in his journal, “I could not help feeling a stream of warmth through my body, and I had to bow in reverence to the destiny that rested in that lonely grave.”

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