Taissumani, Nov. 1
Thou Shalt Do No Murder
I’ve written before about the killing of Newfoundland trader Robert Janes by three Inuit in northern Baffin Island in 1920, which resulted three years later in the first trial of Inuit for murder in what is now Nunavut.
As a result of that trial, and other murders in the north that had been brought to the attention of the police and the administration, the Government of Canada decided to overtly inform Inuit of the legal prohibition on murder.
The Department of the Interior had posters prepared in Inuktitut syllabics and English, in parallel texts. The posters measured 18 inches square and were printed on sailcloth. They were sent north in 1925 and were to be displayed prominently at trading and police posts that Inuit might visit.
The poster was signed by Duncan C. Scott, deputy superintendent of the department from 1923 to 1932, a man whose legacy is controversial as he believed ardently in assimilation of Canada’s native people.
Scott was an enigma — one of Canada’s best-known poets who wrote sensitively about the Canadian landscape and even composed touching poetry about Canada’s Indian people, yet as a bureaucrat and an administrator of the country’s residential school program he wrote callously that the government’s goal was to “kill the Indian in the child.”
When informed of the high rates of disease in residential schools, he refused to take any action, saying that this was part of the “final solution of our Indian problem.”
Scott’s message to Inuit read:
The King of the Land commands you, saying:
‘THOU SHALT DO NO MURDER’
Why does he speak thus?
Long ago our God made the world, and He owns the world.
The people also he made, and He owns them.
The King of the land is commanded by God to protect the people well.
The white people and Indians and Eskimos have him for their ruler. He is their ruler, therefore he commands, saying:
“THOU SHALT DO NO MURDER”
But if a man kills a man, the King sends his servants, the police, to take and kill the murderers.
But ye do not kill the murderer, nor cause him to be killed. This only the King’s servants, the police, ought to do.
But when a man commits murder, at once tell the King’s servants, the police, and he will take and bind the murderer and the ruler will judge him.
Thus our God commands us so that you are to follow the King’s command.”
This text was translated into Inuktitut and printed in syllabics; a separate version was published in English and the alphabetic orthography used in western dialects of Inuktitut.
One can only wonder what impression this text made on the Inuit reading it. Aside from its white ethnocentrism, it stated boldly and incorrectly that it was the role of the police to seize and kill any Inuit murderers.
One officer, the inspector of the Arctic Sub-District in Aklavik, objected to that very sentiment, complaining to Ottawa that a suspected murderer might resist arrest, feeling that his own life was in jeopardy, and thereby endanger the lives of arresting police.
He suggested a change in wording that removed this thought, but not the racism underlying the message as a whole:
“If a man kills a man, the King sends his servants, the Police, to take away the murderer, and bring him before one of the white chiefs, who will hear how the murder was done, and will punish the murderer, if he thinks he is a bad native.”
Unfortunately, any reaction Inuit may have had on reading these bizarre posters was never recorded.