Books

Canada's History - - CONTENTS - Re­viewed by Danielle Met­calfe-Chenail, au­thor of sev­eral books in­clud­ing Po­lar Winds: A Cen­tury of Fly­ing the North (Dun­durn, 2014) and edi­tor of In This To­gether: Fif­teen Sto­ries of Truth and Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion (Brindle & Glass, 2016).

Snow blind­ness. Walk­ing au­to­bi­og­ra­phy. Road­side at­trac­tions. More books: Ap­ples spread, bat­tle­field art, colos­sal canal, is­land city, salmon strikes, Red River women, favourite snacks.

In 1923, three Inuit men were put on trial at Pond In­let, on Baf­fin is­land, for the killing of qal­lu­naat (white) trader Robert Janes. This story is not widely known out­side the North, but it has fas­ci­nated me ever since I dis­cov­ered She­lagh D. Grant’s book Arc­tic Jus­tice over a decade ago.

Kenn Harper has been gripped by this his­tory for much longer and has

pro­duced a hefty tome en­ti­tled Thou Shalt Do No Mur­der: Inuit, In­jus­tice, and the Cana­dian Arc­tic.

Harper has lived in the Arc­tic for fifty years, work­ing as a teacher, his­to­rian, lin­guist, and busi­ness­man. He speaks Inuk­ti­tut and is the au­thor of the best­selling Give Me My Fa­ther’s Body

(re­cently re­pub­lished as Minik: The New

York Eskimo and op­tioned for film). He first heard of the Pond In­let trial in the 1970s, shortly after he moved north. It is clear both from the text and from his bib­li­og­ra­phy that Harper has im­mersed him­self in this his­tory via many hours spent with Inuit el­ders and much time in ar­chives.

One of those el­ders, Jimmy Etuk, was alive when the killing and the trial took place. It is Etuk who be­gins the book in grip­ping style. His “speech was vol­canic,” Harper tells us, as Etuk launches into the tale of Robert Janes’ de­scent into ap­par­ent mad­ness and the cir­cum­stances that ap­par­ently forced Nuqal­laq and two other Inuit men to end his life.

After this dy­namic be­gin­ning, Harper switches to a more tra­di­tional so­cial and eco­nomic his­tory of early whal­ing, Euro­pean- Cana­dian ex­plo­ration, and the im­po­si­tion of Cana- dian sovereignty in the Arc­tic. For one hun­dred pages, Etuk and other Inuit fade into the back­ground, as the fo­cus be­comes al­most en­tirely the qal­lu­naat male rep­re­sen­ta­tives of these his­to­ries: Joseph-Elzéar Bernier, Wil­liam Du­val, Cap­tain Henry Toke Munn, and, of course, Robert Janes.

This sec­tion sets up the dy­namic of “gen­tle­man ri­vals” and their dis­trust of one an­other, and it in­tro­duces the threats, sex­ual jeal­ousy, greed, cul­tural clashes, cli­matic con­di­tions, and men­tal ill­ness that are the in­gre­di­ents in this stew­ing pot.

The prom­ise of the book — the trial — and the au­thor’s unique Inuit ac­cess and cul­tural and lin­guis­tic in­sights, how­ever, al­most dis­ap­pear from view. There are even times when the qal­lu­naat records seem to be taken at face value, de­spite the fact that with Harper’s back­ground he had an op­por­tu­nity to read against the grain and to con­tex­tu­al­ize them more.

There are cer­tainly bright spots in this sec­tion. Harper’s ex­am­i­na­tion of lan­guage — Inuk­ti­tut, English, and French — and its im­por­tance in these en­coun­ters is fas­ci­nat­ing. He is also able to pro­vide use­ful back­ground about Inuit prac­tices re­gard­ing sex and kin­ship ties at the time.

Harper does an ex­cel­lent job paint­ing a bal­anced pic­ture of Nuqal­laq and Janes from both qal­lu­naat records and Inuit oral his­to­ries. It is easy in a nar­ra­tive rife with hypocrisy and sham tri­als for a per­son like Nuqal­laq to be shown sim­plis­ti­cally as a vic­tim, but Harper re­sists this urge. Nei­ther Janes nor Nuqal­laq in­vite much sym­pa­thy: Both were ob­streper­ous and phys­i­cally abused their wives. (This was one ma­jor stick­ing point for me in the book. Harper writes, “One won­ders how Inuu­tiq, the ac­qui­es­cent hus­band, felt” about his wife be­ing beaten by Janes. My im­me­di­ate thought was: How did she feel about it?)

Through the depth and breadth of his sources, Harper shows that both men were vic­tims not only of their own short­com­ings but also of the larger forces of his­tory. Thou Shalt Do No Mur­der leaves the im­pres­sion that Cana­dian sovereignty and the “eco­nomic en­slave­ment” of the Inuit — as Munn wrote re­gard­ing the ap­proach of Hud­son’s Bay Com­pany trader Ralph Par­sons — were more im­por­tant than ac­tual jus­tice in Pond In­let.

Robert Janes’ ap­par­ent de­scent into mad­ness led Nuqal­laq and two other Inuit men to end his life.

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