August 25, 2006

Taissumani: A Day in Arctic History
August 25, 1923 — The Trial of Nuqallaq Begins


Nuqallaq was an Inuit leader who had acted to save his people from the erratic actions of a man too long away from home. In 1920, he killed Robert Janes near Cape Crauford in northern Baffin Island. Janes, a trader from Newfoundland, had threatened and alienated the Inuit. Abandoned by his backers, he had no way out of his self-made Arctic prison. With his killing, the wheels of Canadian justice were set inexorably in motion.

A policeman was sent north to investigate, the same year that the Hudson’s Bay Company opened its Pond Inlet post. The investigation resulted in a recommendation that three Inuit — Nuqallaq, Aatitaaq and Ululijarnaaq — be tried for murder in Pond Inlet. This would be the first murder trial in what would become Nunavut.

Finally, the paraphernalia of a foreign justice system had been put in place, the ship bringing strange men with new ideas from the south had arrived, and the trial was ready to begin on Saturday, Aug. 25, 1923 at 10:15 a.m. in the police detachment. It was attended by almost all of the ship’s personnel, and by “as many Eskimos as could be crowded into the building.” This court was conducted with all the pomp and ceremony that a murder case would have had in southern Canada, “in civilization” as the police described it.

The judge made a few introductory remarks to the Inuit, translated by the interpreter, the well-known William Duval. He explained the purpose of the trial, and assured them of “justice and fair play;” he told them that “the proceedings were exactly in accordance with the customs of civilization, and stated that had a white man killed an Eskimo the proceedings would have been exactly the same.”

The indictment was read to the three accused, all charged with murder. They entered their pleas: not guilty. The jury members were called and sworn in — all white men from the ship’s crew.

The prosecution began its case against the three accused, who had no way of comprehending the gravity of the charges against them. A cultural gap of more than just language separated them from these newcomers.

That first day, court sat late into the night, but it did not sit the following day. According to law, it could not sit on a Sunday. The white men spent the day sleeping and resting, the Inuit in “merrymaking and dancing.” It was unusual for this many Inuit to be gathered together in one place, and they made the most of it, visiting, gossiping, and catching up on news of far-off friends and relatives.

The prosecution continued its case on Monday with more testimony from Inuit who recounted the details of the tragic events that had led to the killing of Janes. The lengthy trial record does not contain verbatim transcripts, but rather a summary of the proceedings and evidence. It is apparent that the Inuit respondents were all answering a standard series of questions.

On Tuesday afternoon, the defence began calling its witnesses. The court record states, strangely, that Tellier, attorney for the accused, declared that “the same evidence should apply to the three accused, inasmuch as it can apply.” This is a strange tactic for a defence attorney to use, and does not augur well for the accused.

But things quickly got stranger. Incredibly, the first witness Tellier called for the defence was the court interpreter, William Duval. That afternoon the defence called other witnesses. The trial continued for a number of days. Eventually, two of the accused, Nuqallaq and Aatitaaq, testified in their own defence.

On the morning of August 30, both sides wrapped up their cases. Crown Prosecutor Falardeau pressed for a conviction of all three men. He pointed out that, “in civilization, he would ask for a verdict of murder, but taking into consideration the ignorance of the prisoners, he only asked for a verdict of manslaughter.” He told the jury that they could recommend the accused to the clemency of the court.

The judge then addressed the jury. His biases were obvious. He was lavish in his praise for the RCMP. The jury was out for only thirty minutes, returning at 11:50 a.m. with its verdicts. Nuqallaq and Ululijarnaaq were both found guilty of manslaughter, but with a recommendation for clemency for Ululijarnaaq. Aatitaaq was found not guilty.

The judge passed sentence immediately. Nuqallaq was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment with hard labour in Stony Mountain Penitentiary in Manitoba. Ululijarnaaq was given two years imprisonment with hard labour at the police guardroom in Pond Inlet. Aatitaaq was discharged.

The judge explained to the prisoners “the enormity of their crime and impressed upon them and upon the other natives present the fact that he considered the sentences very lenient and that any future occurrences of a similar kind would be dealt with much more severely.”

Nuqallaq was led away immediately “through a gazing crowd of his own people, without being given a chance to communicate with any of them.” He was taken aboard the Arctic. The ship left that night. Before its departure, nineteen-year-old Ataguttiaq went aboard to bid her husband farewell. She was a young woman and scarcely understood what was happening. She wept. Nuqallaq remained unperturbed. Perhaps he was simply trying to put a brave face on his desperate situation.

The ship departed for a land Nuqallaq had never seen. His sentence had begun.

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

August 18, 2006

Taissumani: A Day in Arctic History
August 18, 1956 — Greenland Leaders Visit Baffin Island


The H.J. Rink, a small vessel used in a historic visit to Baffin Island by a delegation of Greenlanders in 1956, lying in Nuuk harbour. (PHOTO COURTESY OF HUGH LLOYD)

West Greenlanders have always had a curiosity about their fellow Inuit on the other side of Davis Strait. But contact between Greenland and Canada was minimal. The last of many migrations of Greenlanders from Canada to Greenland, that led by the great Qillarsuaq, happened in historic times and was therefore minimally documented, beginning in the 1860s, but that migration ended in the Thule district of northwestern Greenland.

A few Inughuit from that district were employed by the RCMP in the High Arctic, beginning in the 1920s, but the little contact they had with Canadian Inuit was only with a few families from Pond Inlet, also employed farther north by the RCMP. In the 1920s, Knud Rasmussen led the Fifth Thule Expedition to Arctic America, but it bypassed southern Baffin and started on the west coast of Hudson Bay.

Ironically, then, West Greenland, where the bulk of the Greenland population lived, had no contact with southern Baffin Island. Each side knew of the other’s existence. Canadian Inuit called the Greenlanders “akukitturmiut” — the people with short tails on their parkas. Greenlanders referred to Canadian Inuit as “akilinermiut” — people on the other side of the water.

In the 1950s, a cultural awakening began. In 1952, N. O. Christensen, a senior official in the Greenland administration, visited northern Canada. Two years later, Jorgen Melgaard, a Danish archaeologist, and Robert Petersen, a Greenlandic scholar, visited Igloolik. Then the Greenland Council developed a plan for an official visit of Greenland’s cultural leaders to Baffin Island.

The trip finally took place in 1956, when the governor made available the small ship, H. J. Rink. It departed Nuuk on Aug. 15, accompanied by a larger cutter, Skarven, bound for Baffin.

On board, in addition to the two-man crew, were Peter Neilsen, a member of the Greenland Council; Frederik Nielsen, a writer and teacher; Uvdlorianguaq Kristiansen, a journalist; Knud Hertling, a lawyer; and Robert Petersen, a teacher.

On Aug. 18, their dream was realized when they reached Pangnirtung. Frederik Nielsen wrote about the visit:

“The people of Pangnirtung greeted us with both friendliness and interest. We visited them often in their tents and were always welcome. The first day that we were with them, a gathering was held on a grassy area in front of the store and all the residents, both Eskimo and Canadian [white] came. The meeting began with a blast from an old whaling cannon. Peter Nielsen spoke, and brought greetings to the people from their fellow Inuit in Greenland. The community’s Eskimo leader, Kilabuk, answered with a speech and presented gifts — a skin rug and two dolls clad in Inuit winter clothing. After that, a letter from the community council in Godthab [Nuuk] was read, in which they requested that Pangnirtung become twinned with Godthab. A tremendously good idea, which came to pass when Pangnirtung agreed. We then sang one of our Greenlandic songs in harmony, and the Pangnirtuumiut responded with a hymn...”

In this way Pangnirtung and Nuuk became twin towns.

The expedition continued on to Frobisher Bay, as Iqaluit was then known. Nielsen reported that there were about 300 Inuit in Frobisher Bay, living in tents like those in Pangnirtung. But life in Frobisher Bay was strongly influenced by the presence of white Canadians and Americans. In place of soapstone lamps, the people used primus stoves and gas ovens, and many of the tents had proper beds, tables and even linoleum.

The five Greenlanders returned home excited about having made contact with their fellow Inuit. Nielsen wrote that they hoped that the Pangnirtuumiut would make a visit to Nuuk in the future. Fifty years later, the esteemed Robert Petersen is the only one of the group still living. A retired professor, he visited Canadian Inuit often during the remainder of his academic career. He lives in Denmark today, retired, but has an ongoing interest in circumpolar affairs.

Fifty years later, Greenlanders and Canadian Inuit remain almost as isolated from one another as they were when five young, educated and idealistic Greenlanders made their treacherous crossing of Davis Strait. Twenty years of regularly scheduled flights between Iqaluit and Greenland ended in 2001 when First Air/Greenlandair cancelled their joint route. What remains are chartered flights, priced out of the reach of most people. In the interim, trade agreements and memoranda of understanding have been signed between the governments of Nunavut and Greenland. What remains is for the re-establishment of an air link to reunite people of a common culture and language.

(I want to acknowledge the assistance of Hugh Lloyd in the preparation of this article.)

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


August 11, 2006

Taissumani: A Day in Arctic History
August 11, 1896 — Tragedy at Blacklead Island


Blacklead Island at the time of Reverend Peck.

In 1892 Reverend Edmund James Peck returned to England from his pioneering mission in northern Quebec. But almost immediately he raised with the Church Missionary Society the prospect of opening a new mission — this time in the more isolated Baffin Island. The region was virtually inaccessible, the only means of transport being on Scottish whaling ships. Peck met Crawford Noble, owner of the whaling station at Blacklead Island, and Noble generously offered passage on one of his ships. The mission would be established at Noble’s whaling station.

CMS approved the plan, but with one condition. Peck could not go out alone — he must find a partner to share the work with him. Joseph Caldecott Parker, a 22-year-old layman, volunteered for the task.

Parker had enrolled at CMS’s Preparatory Institute in February of 1891, but had withdrawn a year later because his father was seriously ill. In 1893 he expressed his interest in accompanying Peck to Cumberland Sound, and spent a few months preparing for the task at Church Missionary College. There he received some medical training, a distinct advantage in the isolated region for which he was bound.

In 1894 Peck and Parker signed on as members of the eight-man crew of the Alert, a vessel of 129 tons, 90 feet in length. Peck joined as chaplain, Parker as doctor. Defying the superstitions of whaling tradition, the vessel left Peterhead on Friday, the thirteenth of July.

The two missionaries shared a building promised to them by Crawford Noble. This, their mission station, was in reality a two-room shack, each room only 10 feet square. In these cramped quarters they not only had to live but store their two-year supply of food and other necessities.

Joseph Parker made rapid progress in learning the Inuktitut language. He attended to the sick and the Inuit rewarded him with the name Luuktakuluk — the little doctor. In 1896 he began work, as so many missionaries do, on an Inuktitut language dictionary. Unfortunately, a tragic accident prevented him from ever finishing it.

In August, shortly before the expected arrival of the annual supply vessel from England, Joseph Parker joined a small group of men leaving Blacklead in a small boat to go fishing at a river about twenty miles away. The other men were a whaler known as Captain Clisby; Noble’s agent, Alexander Hall; and four Inuit. That evening Peck sat alone in his mission house and read a section from Chapter 20 of the Acts of the Apostles, a passage telling of St. Paul’s farewell address to the elders of the Ephesian church. Suddenly he felt “almost overcome with most solemn feelings accompanied with a tender constraining sense of love to the Lord Jesus, and affection to Mr. Parker.” Perhaps this was a harbinger of an unfolding tragedy — the passage ends with Paul’s final words as the faithful saw him off on a ship, “You will never see me again.”

Three days later, on August 14, Peck was digging for clams on a tidal flat off Naujartalik Island, three miles from the station, when an Inuk arrived by kayak. He claimed to have found a boat adrift, with the body of Captain Clisby inside. Peck and his Inuit companions rowed northward and found the boat. Clisby indeed lay dead inside. The boat was towed to Blacklead Island and a search party left to look for any trace of the other members of the fishing party. Nothing was found and everyone, including Parker, was assumed to have drowned.

Peck had planned to return to England on furlough in 1896. Parker’s death almost caused him to change his mind. But when the Alert arrived only a week after the tragedy, it brought another missionary, Charles Sampson. Peck learned that the new man also had some medical experience and quickly showed an ability to learn Inuktitut. In mid-September a small steamer, the Hope, unexpectedly arrived at Blacklead. She had been chartered by the American explorer, Robert Peary, for a summer voyage to Greenland and was on her return leg. Peck took passage on her to Sydney, Nova Scotia, where he caught another ship to England.

While in Sydney, Peck wrote a letter to CMS, informing them of the tragedy:

“And now with feelings of deep sorrow I must tell you the sad news of our dear brother Parker’s death. He was drowned near Blacklead Island on the 11th of August. Mr. Hall (Mr. Noble’s agent) had arranged to go to a river some twenty miles from the station to catch salmon, and as our brother had been working most assiduously at the study of language, etc., and as he needed a change and rest he thought it well… to join the party.

“I cannot say exactly how the sad accident happened, but we suppose that a squall struck the boat after she passed out of sight on the northern side of the island. We think the boat must have then heeled over, and the boom of sail was thus caught in the sea to leeward, and while the boat was thus held down a sea rushed in and swamped her.

“I feel that I have lost a real friend and brother in Mr. Parker. He was, in every sense of the word, a true helper, and one who, I may truly say, poured out his whole energies on the work which God had given him to do.”

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


August 4, 2006

Taissumani: A Day in Arctic History
August 10, 1938 — Mercy Flight to Arctic Bay


Patients make their way onto the Flying Cross.

A medical evacuation flight — or medivac in northern jargon — is nothing out of the ordinary in the modern Arctic. They happen routinely, a number of them every week, adding to the skyrocketing costs of medical services in the North.

But in 1938, medivacs were unheard of. Inuit lived and died in remote camps, largely unknown to officialdom, untended by doctors or nurses. The resident doctors at Pangnirtung and Chesterfield Inlet in the 1930s were anomalies, and their reach did not extend much beyond their immediate areas.

Traders, police and missionaries in the isolated posts that dotted the map of the Arctic took their chances when they accepted their assignments. Some had a minimum of medical training and were able to attend to minor ailments of both their white colleagues and Inuit living close to their posts. But if local resources failed, death awaited.

In 1938 a Roman Catholic priest, Father Julien Cochard, lay seriously ill in his mission tent at Arctic Bay, the most northerly Catholic mission in the world. The Hudson’s Bay Company post stood a short distance away, and its manager, Allen Scott, discovered the perilous condition of the priest. He sent a radio message to Bishop Clabaut, who was aboard the Nascopie at Churchill. It read: “Father Julien Cochard very ill for nine days. Temperature 105 degrees. Severe pains in left side. Takes no nourishment. Please help.”

There was no possibility of rescue by ship. But another opportunity was immediately at hand. Father Paul Schulte, the “Flying Priest,” was based at Churchill with a small amphibious plane. Schulte had honed his skills as a pilot with the German Air Force during the first World War. Following the war he became an Oblate Priest. After his best friend — they had both been ordained on the same day — died in Africa without medical attention, Schulte founded and incorporated the Missionary International Vehicular Association (MIVA,) dedicated to providing automobiles, boats and airplanes for the service of missions throughout the world.

At Churchill, Schulte had a small plane, a Stinson Reliant, on floats. Named the St. Luke, it was nicknamed The Flying Cross. When Schulte received the message, on August 9, he immediately offered to fly to Arctic Bay to rescue the ailing priest. But his bishop reminded him that there was no gasoline to refuel his plane at Arctic Bay. Fortunately, the previous year, Schulte had sent six barrels of gas and one barrel of oil by ship to Igloolik. He would refuel there.

His mechanic, Brother Beaudoin, worked that night to get the plane ready for what would be a 2,200 mile return journey. The pilot and mechanic took off early in the morning and landed in heavy rain at 8:30 in Chesterfield Inlet, the first stop on their journey. By two in the afternoon they were in Repulse Bay, where they again refueled. They reached Igloolik at 6:30 in the evening.

With his tanks full, Schulte left Igloolik at 9 p.m. He needed optimum flying weather to get to Arctic Bay and back without refueling. But the weather didn’t co-operate. His flying time was cut in half by a fierce head wind under a heavily overcast sky. Reluctantly he turned back to Igloolik. After some sleep, he took off again the following morning, this time leaving the mechanic at Igloolik, and replacing his weight with four small barrels of gasoline.

The weather was better on this day, at least for the first part of the flight. He knew that following Admiralty Inlet northbound would take him almost to his destination. But about fifty miles out from Arctic Bay the wind became so strong at higher altitudes that Schulte had to descend to only six feet above the water. Just before noon, he flew down Adams Sound, banked his plane at Uluksan Point to the astonishment of Inuit camped there, who had never seen an airplane before, and landed in front of the trading post at Arctic Bay. The trip had taken four and a half hours.

Close to the post was a small white tent with a cross on top. But Allen Scott had moved the priest into the comfort of his own home, and looked after him as best he could. “He is alive but he is in great pain,” were Scott’s words to the Flying Priest. Cochard wept at the sight of this earthly saviour.

Aboard the plane, Schulte made the patient, dressed in caribou furs and lying on skins, as comfortable as possible. At four o’clock the plane rose through the rain and fog of Arctic Bay. Aided by a tail wind and flying at 5,000 feet, the Flying Cross reached Igloolik in two and a half hours. After quickly refueling and picking up his mechanic, Schulte was off again, for the most harrowing leg of the journey, through fog at low altitude to Repulse Bay. He landed there in the midnight semi-dark of a waning summer, with little fuel left. Cochard was taken ashore to rest at Our Lady of the Snows Mission. He spent a sleepless night, racked by fever and pain.

Early in the afternoon of the next day, Schulte landed the Flying Cross at Chesterfield Inlet, where there was a resident doctor, Thomas Melling. The Hudson’s Bay Company supply ship, Nascopie, was also there and its physician, Dr. Roger, assisted Melling in his diagnosis. They found a severe kidney infection. The Grey Nuns at the local hospital took charge of Father Cochard and nursed him back to health.

This was the first air rescue to the High Arctic. It was a daring undertaking, in an era of primitive aircraft and before airstrips and navigational aids. Father Paul Schulte received a special paternal blessing from Pope Pius XI for his service.

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