Taissumani, March 28

Isaac Shooyook On Trial


The Inuit at Fort Ross did not try to hide what they had done from the authorities.

On the contrary, they reported the act themselves. Soosee’s killing had been a necessity, a decision taken as a last resort to preserve their own lives.

The subsequent trial, of Shooyook and Aiyoot for murder, was the first trial by jury held in Spence Bay.

David Searle, a prominent Yellowknife lawyer, was the prosecutor. Aiyoot’s lawyer was Howard Irving. William Morrow acted for Shooyook.

The presiding judge was a remarkable man, John Howard Sissons. This would be his last case before retirement.

Sissons had practiced law in Alberta before he was appointed as the first judge of the Territorial Court of the Northwest Territories in 1955. He took the court on the road, believing that an accused should be tried as close as possible to where the crime was committed.

As a result, it was estimated that Sissons travelled 275,000 miles by plane and dogsled to preside over trials in the north.

Sissons had already made ground-breaking decisions regarding Inuit custom marriage and adoption, hunting and liquor infractions, and murder. Many of those decisions had enraged the government of the time — their agenda was clearly one of rapid acculturation of native people.

But Sissons had a different agenda. In the words of a writer commenting after his retirement, he “merged a profound reverence for ancient legal tradition with a unique ability to adapt those traditions to the challenges of new situations. In his eyes, the law did not exist above society, but within society: it must be tested and retested against the demands that society made upon it.”

John Sissons was 73 years old when he presided over the trial of Shooyook and Aiyoot. Later, Maclean’s magazine chose him as one of the outstanding Canadians of 1966, describing him as “the angry old man in a hurry.”

In his opening remarks to the jury, David Searle acknowledged the difficulty of this case. Describing the crime scene, he said, “There is no RCMP detachment there, no Northern Affairs Officer, no nursing station, and no Hudson’s Bay Company post… Our sympathy must be with these people who found themselves in this impossible situation.”

Kadlu was called as first witness. When asked if they could not have taken Soosee to Spence Bay and turned her over to the authorities there, he pointed out that they could have done that if it had been winter, but in early July, no, there was too much ice for boat travel, but not enough for sled travel, and the rivers were already running.

“We knew the police would not like this,” he said, “but she would have killed a lot of people. That’s the reason why we killed her.”

William Morrow, in defence of Shooyook, pointed out that Soosee could have killed someone at any moment, “You could have had the same situation anywhere else in North America, but you had it here in Fort Ross. You had it under the circumstances where you had no remedy, no way to clear it up, and what happened was the justifiable result…” Morrow urged the jury to bring in a verdict of not guilty.

The jury of six members — all that were required at the time — included a woman, the first female juror in the north, and two Inuit. They did not find their task easy.

Delores Koening, the woman juror, spoke later about some of the deliberations the jurors had behind closed doors:

“They [the Inuit] felt very differently from the way the legal people felt. They said, ‘They killed a woman and therefore they are guilty.’

But then when we said according to Canadian law if you are guilty of first degree murder you should be hung… they said, ‘Well, no, they shouldn’t be hung. They killed her, but they shouldn’t be hung.’ So that was what the debate was about.”

The debate, in fact, centred around the legal meanings of the far-from-simple terms “guilty” and “not guilty.” The Inuit of the time, in a court-room setting that, despite the best interests and intentions of Judge Sissons, was a foreign and intimidating place, understood these terms, simplistically, as meaning “Did they do it?” or “Did they not do it?”

A better understanding, which however took many years to evolve in the northern court system, would have been something like, “Do they (or do they not) deserve to bear blame for what they did?”

In the end, the jury acquitted Aiyoot, and convicted Shooyook of the lesser charge of manslaughter, with a strong recommendation for clemency. Sissons gave him a two-year suspended sentence.

William Morrow, who succeeded Sissons as judge of the territorial court, called this “a great social verdict” and “a complete vindication of the jury system.”

He commented, “A judge trying the case alone would have had to find both men guilty in law, and what a travesty that would have been. But the jury saved the day. In its absolute power, it could ignore the law, as it did, and bring in a socially acceptable verdict…”

Isaac Shooyook returned from his trial in Spence Bay to his camp near Fort Ross. But camp life was dying. Not long thereafter Kadlu and his family, which included sons Shooyook and Naketakvek, moved to Arctic Bay. Shooyook was one of many who combined hunting and wage labour to build a stable life for his family.

He is a community elder, a devout church-goer, a quiet and stable resource for his community. He made legal history in 1966.

He made history again in 2013 when, at the age of 74, he became the oldest person to be elected to the Nunavut legislature.
But, as I said at the beginning, Isaac Shooyook is not old. Rather he is timeless.

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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