In the first half of the 20th century, the Canadian government established police detachments in various places in the Arctic, including on Herschel Island in 1903-4, at Tree River in 1919 and on Ellesmere Island’s Bache Peninsula in 1926. Herschel Island became the eventual place where Alikomiak and Tatimagana would be tried and hanged for murder in 1924. These detachments — known as Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) detachments after 1920 — demonstrated Canadian sovereignty in the Arctic (see Arctic Sovereignty). The intention was to send a clear message to other Arctic countries that this territory had already been claimed for Canada.
RCMP detachments were also supposed to impress upon the Inuit that they were subject to Canadian law and were under the political authority of the federal government. Police officials were to provide a clear and permanent presence of lawfulness and order in an area where the rates of murder and violence had increased since 1910, and where Inuit lawbreakers had been treated leniently in the past. Two murder cases that preceded those of Alikomiak and Tatimagana illustrate this point. In June 1912, Inuit guides killed American explorer H.V. Radford and a Canadian man named George Street after Radford had struck one of the guides. The killers were never tried for the murders. Later the following year, two Oblates of Mary Immaculate (Catholic priests) named Guillaume Le Roux and Jean-Baptiste Rouvière were also murdered by Inuit guides after Le Roux had threatened and struck one of them. The murderers, Sinnisiak and Uluksuk, were arrested. On the charge of murdering Rouvière, Sinnisiak was acquitted, but on the charge of murdering Le Roux, both were sentenced to life imprisonment. However, Sinnisiak and Uluksuk only served two years before their release. This, law officials believed, sent the wrong message to the Inuit that the government was not serious about enforcing Canadian law in the Arctic.
In 1921, Constable D.H. Woolams and Corporal W.A. Doak staffed the police detachment at Tree River in the Coppermine-Coronation Gulf area of present-day Nunavut. In December of that year, Doak travelled to Kent Peninsula, approximately 250 km northeast of the detachment, to investigate murders among the Inuit there. He arrested two suspects, Alikomiak and Tatimagana, both of whom were accused of killing a man named Pugnana. Doak brought the men back with him to Tree River.
Alikomiak and Tatimagana were not confined at the police detachment because there was no jail there. While they were made to do some chores, they enjoyed relative freedom. This may seem like a poor decision on the officers’ part, but the prevailing view of the time was that the Inuit were naive and childlike and would not be violent in the custody of government officials.
However, Doak tested Alikomiak’s limits by making him perform what Alikomiak later referred to as “little hard jobs,” ranging from fixing his sealskin boots to carrying heavy loads of meat on foot. Alikomiak hated performing these tasks, some of which he referred to as “women’s work.” In his testimony in 1923, Alikomiak also expressed fear of Doak during his approximately four-month-long confinement,
I was scared of Doak…Doak spoke to me but I could not understand him and do not know whether he was angry with me. I was afraid he might use the dog whip on me though he never threatened or hit me with it.
Ethnographer Knud Rasmussen, who had lived and worked among Alikomiak’s people, provided supporting testimony for Alikomiak’s statements, arguing in 1932 that Doak “was in the habit [of] playing on the feelings of the accused Alekámiaq by assuming a brutal and terrifying manner.” With fear and resentment in his heart, Alikomiak decided to put an end to his work at the detachment — and to Doak.
On the night of 1 April 1922, Alikomiak shot Doak in the upper leg while he was sleeping, and watched him die slowly of blood loss. Early the next morning, while Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) employee Otto Binder was making his usual visit to the detachment, Alikomiak shot him through the heart, killing him instantly.
Though the motivation for Doak’s murder was clear, Alikomiak’s motive for killing Binder became blurred by rumor. Some theories suggested that Alikomiak may have killed Binder to exact revenge for taking the wife of an Inuk. However, Alikomiak himself stated that he had killed Binder because he thought “Binder would see Doak and want to kill me.”
Doak’s colleague, Constable Woolams, was not present at the time of the murders. When he returned to the detachment, Woolams arrested Alikomiak and Tatimagana, neither of whom resisted. That summer, Alikomiak and Tatimagana were taken aboard an HBC ship to Herschel Island, about 1,200 km away from their home on Kent Peninsula, to stand trial for murder.
Trial and Sentence
Alikomiak’s and Tatimagana’s court cases began in July 1923. In one day, the two men were tried separately and convicted of murdering Pugnana; both were sentenced to hang. The trial for the murders of Doak and Binder took place the following day. In all cases, the accused willingly confessed to the murders, the defence called no witnesses, and the jury was made up of White, male settlers from the Mackenzie River area.
Historians have noted that a guilty verdict in the trial for the murders of Doak and Binder was a forgone conclusion; Ken Coates and W.R. Morrison argue that the judge’s party even travelled with portable gallows to Herschel Island before the trial took place. In 1922, lawyer T.L. Cory wrote to the federal government branch responsible for the Northwest Territories arguing that it should make an example of these two. He wrote, “Those Eskimos found guilty of murder should be hanged in a place where the natives will see and recognize the outcome of taking another’s life.” In spite of his one-sided views on the matter, the government appointed Cory as Alikomiak’s legal representative during the trial.
Assigned to carry out the trial, judge Lucien Dubuc of Edmonton similarly wanted to impress upon the Inuit that the government would not tolerate murder and that it would uphold law and order in the North. As he told the jury:
It is your duty as Jurymen who have taken the oath as such to decide according to evidence, and make these tribes understand that the stern but at the same time just hand of British justice extends also to these northern shores. We want it plainly understood in the minds of these people that one of our most important laws is for the protection of human life which flows from the Divine command “Thou shalt not kill.”… Remember that this is not a court of mercy but is a Court of Justice.
Dubuc was particularly concerned about the welfare of White settlers and officials living among the Inuit. As he wrote in a report on the trials in 1923, he had “in view the protection of the white men visiting the North country.” Although Tatimagana never actually killed a White person, his fate — and the fate of Alikomiak — would have to demonstrate to other Inuit what would happen if they harmed officials or White settlers.
It took the jurors only one day to return with a guilty verdict. On 11 August 1923, Dubuc sentenced Alikomiak and Tatimagana to be hanged.
The case attracted the attention of newspapers, politicians, bishops and the general public. Although most newspapers supported the sentence, many politicians and religious leaders asked for clemency, arguing that the Inuit were not familiar with Canadian law and therefore should not be punished so harshly for breaking it. Others believed that Alikomiak and Tatimagana should receive alternative punishments, such as flogging or life imprisonment, fearing that their hangings might incite revenge upon White people in the North.
Historians Ken Coates and W.R. Morrison have argued that capital punishment was not a new concept to the Inuit. In their culture, murderers were often sought out and killed as a means of exacting revenge and keeping their community safe. Coates and Morrison have argued that the other forms of punishment suggested by people of the day would have seemed unusual to the Inuit, and may have caused them to fear and be suspicious of government officials.
The government was not swayed by public cries for leniency; on 1 February 1924 Alikomiak and Tatimagana were hanged in Herschel Island’s Bone House — a location once used by whalers in the late 1700s to the early 1900s to dry out whale bones. The two were buried on the island.
According to Knud Rasmussen, the two met their fate stoically, Alikomiak apparently with a smile on his face. Before they headed to the gallows, the two gave the police sergeant’s wife a small carving made of walrus ivory to show that they had no ill will towards the officials.
When the RCMP detachment on the island was closed in 1964, the beam from which Alikomiak and Tatimagana were hanged was removed and burned. While the Bone House still stands, the island is generally uninhabited, save a few tourists and seasonal hunters and fishers.
Historians Ken Coates and W.R. Morrison have referred to the court cases of Alikomiak and Tatimagana as “show trials” because they were about more than seeking justice for murder; they were about enforcing Canadian law and sovereignty in the Arctic. The government’s intention was to make examples of Alikomiak and Tatimagana, as a means of demonstrating Canada’s political and legal authority in the North.