New­found­land trader’s 1920 mur­der a turn­ing point in Arc­tic, au­thor says

Event opened up the Inuit to ex­ter­nal author­ity, loss of tra­di­tional way of life

The Beacon (Gander) - - Editorial - BY GLEN WHIFFEN THE TELE­GRAM glen.whiffen@thetele­gram.com

In the 1970s, Kenn Harper vis­ited Glover­town to re­search a story he had heard from Inuit peo­ple in the Cana­dian Far North about the mur­der of a New­found­land fur trader named Robert Janes in 1920.

Janes, orig­i­nally from the Glover­town area, had been shot by an Inuit leader on Baf­fin Is­land after Janes had re­port­edly threat­ened the Inuit and their valu­able sled dogs.

While in Glover­town, Harper learned of a fam­ily with the last name of Janes and went to their house to see if they could tell him any­thing about Robert Janes.

“A young fel­low an­swered the door, maybe he was 20 or early 20s, and he asked me what I wanted,” Harper said. “After I told him, he just kind of blew me off and said, ‘No, we don’t know any­thing about that.’ And then this voice came from inside the house and it was this el­derly woman. She called out, ‘Who is it?’

“The young fel­low said, ‘It’s just some main­lan­der Granny, ask­ing ques­tions about some­body with the same last name as us who was killed by Eski­mos a long time ago. We don’t know any­thing about that, do we?’”

There was a pause and then the woman, Mrs. Am­brose Janes, said, “Bring the man in. He’s ask­ing about your grea­tun­cle Bob.”

The woman, who was in her 90s at the time, was the sis­terin-law of Robert Janes. She told Harper all she could about Robert Janes and that the fam­ily be­lieved he was set up for mur­der by the cap­tain of a ship backed by a ri­val trad­ing com­pany.

“It was very in­ter­est­ing talk­ing to her,” Harper said. “And her grand­son sat there and was in awe of this story be­cause he had never heard it be­fore.”

Harper’s book “Thou Shalt Do No Mur­der — Inuit, In­jus­tice and the Cana­dian Arc­tic” was re­cently re­leased by Nu­navut Arc­tic Col­lege Me­dia.

For Harper, it’s been a book 40 years’ in the mak­ing.

Harper is orig­i­nally from New Market, Ont., but he moved to the Arc­tic as a teacher in the 1960s and lived there, and in Green­land, for the next 50 years. In ad­di­tion to teach­ing, he has worked as a his­to­rian, lin­guist and busi­ness­man.

Harper learned to speak Inuk­ti­tut early on by liv­ing in small, iso­lated Inuit com­mu­ni­ties. The in­ter­views he con­ducted with Inuit elders were done in Inuk­ti­tut.

“It’s made life much richer for me to be able to speak Inuk­ti­tut,” Harper said. “My in­ter­views were not for­mal in­ter­views, they were vis­its. I’d go to some­body’s house — and Inuit love to drink tea — and we’d have tea and talk. The Inuit knew I was in­ter­ested in sto­ries, and par­tic­u­larly in this story, and they were happy to share their knowl­edge.”

The book de­tails the events sur­round­ing the 1920 mur­der and the sub­se­quent “show trial” in 1923 of Inuit leader Nuqal­laq, the shooter, and two oth­ers who were with him at the time.

The story also delves deep into the fur trade in the High Arc­tic, the ri­val­ries among fur traders and their in­ter­ac­tions with the Inuit. It also touches on Cana­dian sovereignty and the even­tual loss of the Inuit tra­di­tional way of life.

“The show trial that took place in Pond In­let in 1923 marked a col­li­sion of two cul­tures with vastly dif­fer­ent con­cep­tions of jus­tice and con­flict res­o­lu­tion,” Harper states in the book. “It has­tened the end of the Inuit tra­di­tional way of life and ush­ered in an era in which Inuit au­ton­omy was sup­planted by de­pen­dence on traders and po­lice, and later mis­sion­ar­ies.”

Harper, whose wife Kath­leen Lippa is from St. John’s, also did ex­ten­sive archival re­search for the book — in­clud­ing ob­tain­ing ac­cess to the old RCMP files.

“What drew me to this story was it is a fas­ci­nat­ing story, and I hadn’t heard it be­fore and so I as­sumed most other peo­ple hadn’t heard it be­fore,” Harper said.

“I was very for­tu­nate to meet very early in my time in Arc­tic Bay a won­der­ful, old man named Jimmy Etuk. He had a mar­velous un­der­stand­ing of his­tory, and not just the Inuit’s own his­tory, but cross-cul­tural his­tory. He un­der­stood in the early years, at the time Janes was there, what white peo­ple were do­ing in the area. And he un­der­stood their mo­tives and their needs and de­sires, and so it was rather un­usual for a man of his age in that he was telling a cross-cul­tural story, rather than just an Inuit story.”

In the book’s in­tro­duc­tion, Harper comes to a con­clu­sion that Janes’ death should not be clas­si­fied as a mur­der, but as a killing.

“They are not the same,” he said. “There is some­thing about that word mur­der that kind of im­plies, au­to­mat­i­cally, the ac­cused is a bad per­son. These pre-con­ceived no­tions of cul­pa­bil­ity and blame, and au­to­mat­i­cally our mind goes to the pos­si­bil­ity of pun­ish­ment. I don’t think those things are rel­e­vant in con­sid­er­ing what Nuqal­laq did with Janes.

“I have a lot of sym­pa­thy for Janes. He was a man aban­doned by his backer and he was prob­a­bly quite de­ranged by the time he was try­ing to make his es­cape by dogsled and by the time the Inuit killed him. So, cir­cum­stances drove him mad, more or less, and he did some very bad things in that state of mind.

“But Nuqal­laq had no choice in killing him. He was the camp leader. There were no au­thor­i­ties to turn him over to or to com­plain to, and there were no po­lice to dis­ci­pline or charge him, so the jus­tice that was meted out by Nuqal­laq and the other two Inuit was tra­di­tional, typ­i­cal Inuit jus­tice where you warn the per­son a num­ber of times, give them as many chances as the sur­vival of your camp can af­ford, but ul­ti­mately if the per­son keeps threat­en­ing you, your camp mates, the dogs, you are going to have to do some­thing with him. So Nuqal­laq did this, re­luc­tantly.”

Fol­low­ing the mur­der, the Gov­ern­ment of Canada sent an RCMP of­fi­cer to in­ves­ti­gate. A trial fol­lowed that, Harper claims, was used by Ottawa to fight off a per­ceived threat to Cana­dian sovereignty of the North by other coun­tries.

“The Cana­dian gov­ern­ment con­vinced them­selves there was a threat to Cana­dian sovereignty,” Harper said. “A trial would show that the peo­ple who lived there, the Inuit, were sub­ject to Cana­dian law. The trial changed the course of Inuit so­ci­ety and put them un­der ex­ter­nal author­ity.”

Harper said he be­lieves the book would be of in­ter­est to read­ers in New­found­land be­cause of the story’s strong con­nec­tions to the prov­ince. He said it’s a story he al­ways knew he had to write about.

“If you con­sider your­self a re­searcher and a sto­ry­teller, and you come across raw ma­te­rial that good, you have to do it jus­tice,” he said. “You just can’t ig­nore a story that some­one tells that is that good.”

“Thou Shalt Do No Mur­der — Inuit, In­jus­tice and the Cana­dian Arc­tic” by Kenn Harper.

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