One culture’s justice is another’s crime

Shelagh Grant’s Arctic Justice uses oral history to explain why Robert Janes was executed by Inuit


At first it looked like a forgettable piece of random shore-line flotsam washed out of nowhere, good for a fire to boil tea with when dry and not much else.

But what Shelagh Grant held in her hand that summer morning in 1991 was no ordinary piece of driftwood. It was a direct link to an act of customary Inuit justice that the Canadian state treated as a crime.

“It was what I thought was driftwood, but of course, it was no driftwood. It said, ‘Here Lies R.S. Janes’ carved on one side, and I realized that I had a grave marker in my hand,” Grant said.

“We carefully replaced the grave marker, took pictures of it, and it was the next day that I returned to the community of Pond Inlet.”

After finding an article about Janes written by Alex Stevenson in Pond Inlet’s library, Grant realized she had already stumbled over another link to Janes.

“I spoke out loud ‘I interviewed the widow of one of the policemen who was here,’” Grant recalls.

That policeman was Cpl. Finley McInnes, part of the first group of RCMP officers to serve in North Baffin and the High Arctic. McInnes’ papers included old photographs, drawings made by Inuit, diaries, notebooks, audio-tapes and newspaper clippings.

“That’s where I got started. There was the unofficial story that I was reading, and there was also the very official story in Ottawa in reports, and less official in archival documents and testimonies.”

And so began Grant’s search for the story of how and why Robert Janes, a failed fur-trader from Newfoundland, came to be executed in 1920 by a group of Tununirmiut Inuit who feared for their lives, and how in 1923 the Canadian state put three of them — Nuqallaq, Ululijarnaat and Aatitaaq — through the first criminal trial ever held in the eastern Arctic.

This fall, McGill-Queen’s University Press has just published the result of Grant’s quest: Arctic Justice, a painstaking work that attempts to incorporate the Inuit point of view into her explanation of what happened and why it happened.

Grant, a professor of history and Canadian studies at Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario, is a skilled historian, trained to investigate the past through the drawing of inferences from written documents.

But to tell the story of why three Inuit were put on trial for executing Robert Janes, she needed more than letters, reports, diaries and memoranda produced by non-Inuit officials.

“The fact is that there was a voice missing, and that was the Inuit voice,” Grant said.

To find the Inuit voice, Grant studied the translated written transcripts of oral recollections made by many North Baffin elders, such as Martha Akumalik, Samuel Arnallak, Joanasie Arreak, Timothy Kadloo, Ningiuk Killiktee, Letia Kyak, Cornelius Nutarak, Noah Piugaattuk, and Anna Ataguttiaq.

Some were first made in an oral history project sponsored by Parks Canada in the mid-1990s, while others were made earlier.

Grant compares, contrasts and evaluates the Inuit stories with the same respect that she gives to written documents produced by non-Inuit officials, and uses them to explain why the Inuit truly believed that Robert Janes, a big, aggressive and emotionally unstable white man, was a threat to their lives.

Along the way, Grant found more stories. One is the story of Nuqallaq, the Inuk appointed by consensus to fire the fatal bullets, and the stories of Ululijarnaat and Aatitaaq, the two men who were put on trial for helping him kill Janes.

Another is the story of Staff-Sergeant Alfred Herbert Joy, the tireless RCMP officer who at various times acted as coroner, justice of the peace, and investigating officer for the case. In his 1922 expedition to the eastern Arctic in 1921-22, Joy not only laid the basis for Baffin’s first criminal trial, he also played a role in founding the modern community of Pond Inlet.

That was where he built Pond Inlet’s first RCMP detachment, and where the the Hudson’s Bay Company established a trading post soon after.

“With Pond Inlet, I don’t know if there would have been a settlement there anyway, but it was certainly founded upon a criminal investigation,” Grant says.

It’s also the story of two peoples who each believed themselves to be superior to the other. Grant makes it clear that at the time, Inuit considered Qallunaat to be child-like and inferior to Inuit, and that most Qallunaat thought the same thing about Inuit.

Because of that, and for other complex reasons including the desire to assert sovereignty, Canadian government officials could not recognize that within the Inuit culture of the time, the killing of Robert Janes was not a crime but an act of justice sanctioned by the community through consensual agreement.

For Nuqallaq, who was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 10 years in prison, it was a tragedy. After 18 months of harsh time at Stoney Mountain Penitentiary in Manitoba, he was dying of tuberculosis. Although officials connected with the case interceded to have him released and sent back to Pond Inlet, he died only a few months after being reunited with his wife, Ataguttiaq.

Copies of Arctic Justice are available at D.J. Sensations in Iqaluit or on the Internet at

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