Taissumani: August 25, 1923 — The Trial of Nuqallaq Begins
Nuqallaq was an Inuit leader who had acted to save his people from the erratic actions of a man too long away from home. In 1920, he killed Robert Janes near Cape Crauford in northern Baffin Island. Janes, a trader from Newfoundland, had threatened and alienated the Inuit. Abandoned by his backers, he had no way out of his self-made Arctic prison. With his killing, the wheels of Canadian justice were set inexorably in motion.
A policeman was sent north to investigate, the same year that the Hudson’s Bay Company opened its Pond Inlet post. The investigation resulted in a recommendation that three Inuit — Nuqallaq, Aatitaaq and Ululijarnaaq — be tried for murder in Pond Inlet. This would be the first murder trial in what would become Nunavut.
Finally, the paraphernalia of a foreign justice system had been put in place, the ship bringing strange men with new ideas from the south had arrived, and the trial was ready to begin on Saturday, Aug. 25, 1923 at 10:15 a.m. in the police detachment. It was attended by almost all of the ship’s personnel, and by “as many Eskimos as could be crowded into the building.” This court was conducted with all the pomp and ceremony that a murder case would have had in southern Canada, “in civilization” as the police described it.
The judge made a few introductory remarks to the Inuit, translated by the interpreter, the well-known William Duval. He explained the purpose of the trial, and assured them of “justice and fair play;” he told them that “the proceedings were exactly in accordance with the customs of civilization, and stated that had a white man killed an Eskimo the proceedings would have been exactly the same.”
The indictment was read to the three accused, all charged with murder. They entered their pleas: not guilty. The jury members were called and sworn in — all white men from the ship’s crew.
The prosecution began its case against the three accused, who had no way of comprehending the gravity of the charges against them. A cultural gap of more than just language separated them from these newcomers.
That first day, court sat late into the night, but it did not sit the following day. According to law, it could not sit on a Sunday. The white men spent the day sleeping and resting, the Inuit in “merrymaking and dancing.” It was unusual for this many Inuit to be gathered together in one place, and they made the most of it, visiting, gossiping, and catching up on news of far-off friends and relatives.
The prosecution continued its case on Monday with more testimony from Inuit who recounted the details of the tragic events that had led to the killing of Janes. The lengthy trial record does not contain verbatim transcripts, but rather a summary of the proceedings and evidence. It is apparent that the Inuit respondents were all answering a standard series of questions.
On Tuesday afternoon, the defence began calling its witnesses. The court record states, strangely, that Tellier, attorney for the accused, declared that “the same evidence should apply to the three accused, inasmuch as it can apply.” This is a strange tactic for a defence attorney to use, and does not augur well for the accused.
But things quickly got stranger. Incredibly, the first witness Tellier called for the defence was the court interpreter, William Duval. That afternoon the defence called other witnesses. The trial continued for a number of days. Eventually, two of the accused, Nuqallaq and Aatitaaq, testified in their own defence.
On the morning of August 30, both sides wrapped up their cases. Crown Prosecutor Falardeau pressed for a conviction of all three men. He pointed out that, “in civilization, he would ask for a verdict of murder, but taking into consideration the ignorance of the prisoners, he only asked for a verdict of manslaughter.” He told the jury that they could recommend the accused to the clemency of the court.
The judge then addressed the jury. His biases were obvious. He was lavish in his praise for the RCMP. The jury was out for only thirty minutes, returning at 11:50 a.m. with its verdicts. Nuqallaq and Ululijarnaaq were both found guilty of manslaughter, but with a recommendation for clemency for Ululijarnaaq. Aatitaaq was found not guilty.
The judge passed sentence immediately. Nuqallaq was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment with hard labour in Stony Mountain Penitentiary in Manitoba. Ululijarnaaq was given two years imprisonment with hard labour at the police guardroom in Pond Inlet. Aatitaaq was discharged.
The judge explained to the prisoners “the enormity of their crime and impressed upon them and upon the other natives present the fact that he considered the sentences very lenient and that any future occurrences of a similar kind would be dealt with much more severely.”
Nuqallaq was led away immediately “through a gazing crowd of his own people, without being given a chance to communicate with any of them.” He was taken aboard the Arctic. The ship left that night. Before its departure, nineteen-year-old Ataguttiaq went aboard to bid her husband farewell. She was a young woman and scarcely understood what was happening. She wept. Nuqallaq remained unperturbed. Perhaps he was simply trying to put a brave face on his desperate situation.
The ship departed for a land Nuqallaq had never seen. His sentence had begun.
Taissumani: A Day in Arctic History recounts a specific event of historic interest, whose anniversary is in the coming week. Kenn Harper is a historian, writer and linguist who lives in Iqaluit. Feedback? Send your comments and questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.