Book Review: Arctic Justice

ACADEMIC SCHOLARS are often loathe to admit to the large role chance plays in history, let alone in their own work. But Shelagh Grant makes no bones about literally stumbling over a remarkable episode in Canada's Arctic past.

This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on January 20, 2003

Book Review: Arctic Justice

ACADEMIC SCHOLARS are often loathe to admit to the large role chance plays in history, let alone in their own work. But Shelagh Grant makes no bones about literally stumbling over a remarkable episode in Canada's Arctic past. On the day after a severe 1991 storm, Grant, a history professor and northern specialist at Trent University in Peterborough, Ont., was out for a walk along the shoreline near Pond Inlet on Baffin Island. Spotting a wooden plank among the storm's debris, she was surprised to find "In Memory of R. S. Janes" carved on it. Looking about, Grant decided the plank must have come from a nearby pile of stones that she hadn't realized marked a grave. The discovery piqued the historian's curiosity - why was Janes buried there and not in an adjacent cemetery? - and formed the genesis of Arctic Justice (McGill-Queen's UP), Grant's engrossing tale of the Eastern Arctic's first criminal trial.

Robert Janes, she learned, was a failed fur trader from Newfoundland, a physically imposing mad trapper who was shot dead in a winter hunting camp by an Inuk on March 15, 1920. The Inuit in the camp were immensely relieved by Janes's death. Several hunters gave fox skins to Nuqallaq, the man who pulled the trigger, in gratitude for saving them from what they all believed to be mortal danger. On the day before his death, the violence-prone Janes, who was as unpopular with whites as he was with natives, was desperate to raise enough funds to buy his passage home. He capped months of abusive behaviour by demanding fox skins he wrongly claimed were owed him. Visibly shaking with rage - a sign of insanity in Inuit culture - Janes threatened to kill the alarmed hunters if they refused. While the trader brooded in his igloo, the Inuit held a series of animated discussions. Finally, a respected elder suggested Janes should die before he killed one of them, and the rest agreed. Nuqallaq was chosen to do the job because of his previous run-ins with the trader.

The Inuit treated his body with respect, interring Janes in a large wooden crate which they placed on a cliffside ledge, safe from animals. Nuqallaq and some other hunters even returned Janes's effects to a trading post, and freely spoke of what had happened. They had, after all, acted in accordance with Inuit tradition in dealing with a dangerously unstable person, and that same customary law held individuals blameless in acts sanctioned by communal consensus.

Unfortunately for Nuqallaq and, eventually, all of his people, the white authorities didn't see matters that way. The Inuk had not only shot Janes from ambush, he had finished him off with a close-range bullet to the head. What was a judicial execution to the Inuit was cold-blooded murder to the Department of Justice - and of a white victim to boot. But, as Grant persuasively argues, the odds were good that nothing would have been done about it even a decade earlier - if only because of the federal government's reluctance to spend any money on northern services, including criminal justice. By 1920, however, Ottawa's chronic, low-grade worry over international acceptance of its sovereignty claims to the ARCTIC ARCHIPELAGO had entered an acute phase.

The islands had been trouble since Britain dumped them on the young Dominion in 1874. The British did not pass on their motive for the sudden gift: their own legal experts' opinion that imperial title to the islands was weak in international law, because the British had never followed up explorers' discoveries with consistent occupation. Ottawa was certainly unhappy when it realized that the burden of proving ownership now fell on it, but for some decades the issue never came to a boil.

In 1920, however, a Canadian complaint to the Danish government about Greenland Inuit poaching musk oxen on Ellesmere Island brought the reply that the Danes considered Ellesmere to be "No Man's Land." Persistent reports of Norwegian and American explorers seeking undiscovered islands, and a new American atlas that coloured Ellesmere with the same shade it gave Alaska, added to Ottawa's new-found sense of urgency. Since international law gave considerable weight to a claimant's efforts to enforce its laws in a disputed territory, the government looked favourably on a suggestion from RCMP commissioner A. Bowen Perry. Two Mounties, he advised, could "economically" cover all the bases - conduct the Janes murder investigation, keep an eye on suspicious foreigners, and generally "confirm authority and possession." Nuqallaq's fate was sealed.

Ottawa, typically, cut its flag-showing sovereignty force to a single officer, the better to reduce costs. But Staff Sgt. Alfred Joy, later famous for a heroic 2,800-km dogsled patrol in 1929, performed yeoman service for his political masters. Joy arrived at Pond Inlet in 1921, and essentially established the modern community by building its police station and courthouse. He located and exhumed Janes's body, conducted an autopsy, held an inquest, arrested the accused and set the stage for the September 1923 trial.

Here Grant's meticulous interweaving of government records and Inuit oral history reveals a gulf in understanding that dwarfs the familiar two solitudes of French-English relations. Unknown to judge and prosecutor, most of the Inuit observers at the trial were convinced the authorities would exact a collective revenge for Janes's death. A female elder who witnessed the event as a child told Grant in 1994 that what the official record reported as "three generous cheers for the judge" when the case concluded was actually an expression of Inuit relief that they weren't all going to be killed. One white juror recorded the most comic misunderstanding. When one Inuk spotted a pod of narwhals from a courtroom window, every hunter present raced for his rifle - as the judicial officials took cover under the tables. White suspicion of the Inuit clearly matched the Inuit's fear of them.

In the end, of course, Nuqallaq was convicted, although the whites twisted their own law enough to find him guilty of manslaughter rather than murder. He was given what press accounts called a "light" sentence: 10 years in Stony Mountain Penitentiary near Winnipeg. That would have been a harsh enough introduction to Canadian justice for Nuqallaq and his people, but there was much worse to come. Like so many Inuit who went south before the Second World War, Nuqallaq contracted tuberculosis within 18 months. The federal government, again believing it was acting with compassion, sent him home. In four months he was dead, and a TB epidemic was raging through the hunting camps of north Baffin Island, killing dozens.

The government did open its purse strings and dispatch doctors to the island, although aware of what had touched off the outbreak, it also did its best to suppress the news. (As late as 1931, the interior department censored an article one doctor submitted to Maclean's, removing all references to TB.) Meanwhile, in the wake of the Janes case, the RCMP established more permanent bases and stepped up its long-range patrols. And when Ottawa paid off the last Norwegian claim with $67,000 in 1930, international acceptance of its island ownership was complete. Canadian sovereignty had finally come to the Eastern Arctic - at no small cost to its inhabitants.


Maclean's January 20, 2003