Taissumani: August 22, 1917 – The Trial of Sinnisiak and Uluksuk (Part Two)


On Aug. 14, 1917, after deliberating for little more than an hour, a jury in Edmonton had acquitted an Inuk from the Arctic coast, Sinnisiak, of the murder of a Catholic priest, Father Rouvière. The Crown counsel and the judge were outraged. They felt the jury had been unduly influenced by public sentiment. The prosecutor even suggested that some jurors held an anti-Catholic bias and were reluctant to find guilty the killer of a priest.

But the Crown had only charged Sinnisiak with one murder. They had saved another charge in the event of just such an acquittal. The Crown now filed charges of murder against Sinnisiak and Uluksuk, another Inuk from the Coppermine River area, jointly, for the murder of Father LeRoux. The crown also applied for a change of venue, claiming there was prejudice in Edmonton against the prosecution. The judge agreed. The second trial commenced on Aug. 22 in Calgary.

The argument this time boiled down to a question of whether the justice system should be used as a tool of government policy. The Crown insisted that the Inuit should be convicted, but that the mandatory death sentence be commuted and that they be sent back to live among their own people as examples of the mercy of the British justice system, and to spread some of the new ideas they had learned while in “civilization.”

The defence counsel found the idea of a guaranteed committal offensive. He thought it was an incentive for the jury to find the men guilty, knowing that they would not be put to death. He reasoned, “If these men are guilty of murder, they should be found guilty of murder and should pay the extreme penalty. If these men are not guilty of murder, then they should be sent to their homes, free. Either they are guilty or they are not guilty. There is no half way measure.”

On the matter of possible commutation, he said, “But I say to you that this is a matter which you should not take into consideration at all, that because a man may not be severely punished is no reason why he should be found guilty if he is not guilty… I say that if your verdict puts any punishment upon men for reasons of supposed policy or any other reasons other than the fact that the men are, in your judgment, guilty, then I say that that is persecution and not justice.”

But the Crown persevered in the argument that the defence found so reprehensible. The prosecutor responded, “While I submit with some confidence that the evidence not only justifies but requires a verdict of murder, and on this verdict sentence of death must be passed, it seems to me the ideal thing that this sentence should be commuted to imprisonment for a short term of years. The Government is anxious, as we all can understand, to establish friendly relations with the Eskimo… The Eskimo should be made to realize the white man’s justice; he should also be taught that stern justice may, in a proper case, be tempered with mercy. If these men are sent back and imprisoned in the Far North they will be a living object lesson, and they will be able to spread among the tribes of the Arctic the knowledge they have acquired in civilization including some idea, at least, of British law and justice.”

This time the prosecution got what it wanted. The jury was out for only forty-six minutes and returned with a verdict finding both men guilty of murder, but with a strong recommendation for clemency.

Judge Harvey passed sentence several days later in Edmonton. The law allowed no sentence other than the death penalty. Accordingly, the judge sentenced both men to death by hanging on Oct. 15. He explained, through the 17-year-old half-Inuit interpreter, Patsy Klengenberg, that the Minister “authorizes me to state the sentence will be commuted.”

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.

In May of that year, they were released from custody. Eventually they returned to their homes, well-off in material goods but, according to the police, arrogant. Uluksuk, in fact, became troublesome again, bullied other natives, and was said to be a thief. In 1924 he was killed by another Inuk, Ikayena. Sinnisiak died in 1930.

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 kennharper@hotmail.com.

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