ALIKOMIAK, convicted murderer; b. probably in the Bathurst Inlet–Coronation Gulf region, N.W.T.; d. by hanging 1 Feb. 1924 at Herschel Island, Y.T.
The trials and executions of Alikomiak and Tatamigana were the last of three cases in which whites had been killed by Inuit in the western Arctic. In June 1912 two explorers, Harry V. Radford, an American, and Thomas George Street, a young man from Ottawa, were slain near the southern end of Bathurst Inlet because Radford had threatened and struck one of their Inuit guides. The Royal North-West Mounted Police investigated and, on the advice of the government, simply warned the killers that Canadian law must be obeyed in the future. Late in 1913 two Oblate priests, Jean-Baptiste Rouvière and Guillaume Le Roux, known as Ilogoak, were killed under similar circumstances near Bloody Falls on the Coppermine River. Again the police patrolled, and this time they arrested the perpetrators. Sinnisiak and Uloqsaq were tried in Calgary in 1917 and convicted of murder, but the mandatory death penalty was immediately commuted to life imprisonment and they were in fact released after two years.
By then officials responsible for law in the north had come to believe that leniency had had the opposite effect to the one intended and that the Inuit thought murder was taken lightly by the government. Partly as a display of authority, therefore, and partly as a demonstration of Canadian sovereignty, a number of additional mounted police detachments were established on the Arctic coast and islands after World War I. The post at Tree River, in the Coppermine–Coronation Gulf region, was manned by Corporal William A. Doak and Constable D. H. Woolams. In December 1921 Doak patrolled to Kent Peninsula to investigate some killings of Inuit by other Inuit. He arrested Alikomiak, a man in his late teens, and Tatamigana, whose age is not known, and took them to Tree River. Because Inuit had always been cooperative in such cases, the two men were not confined. In the early morning of 1 April 1922, while Woolams was some miles distant, Alikomiak shot the sleeping Doak in the upper leg and sat watching him slowly bleed to death. Later the same morning he shot Otto Binder, the man in charge of the Hudson’s Bay Company post nearby, who had come to visit the policeman. When Woolams learned what had happened, he seized and tied up the unresisting Alikomiak, and in the summer Alikomiak and Tatamigana, along with some other Inuit charged with serious crimes, were taken to the police post on Herschel Island for trial.
Alikomiak’s statement, made freely to the police in the summer of 1923, showed that the motive for the killing was an echo of the fate of the two explorers and priests. He said that he was “scared of Doak. . . . I could not understand him and do not know whether he was angry with me. I was afraid he might use the dog whip on me though he never threatened or hit me with it. Doak gave me boots and lots of things to fix and I did not like it [such repairs were women’s work]. One time he gave me seal skin long boots to fix the bottoms and I had done one when he told me that I had not done it right and for me not to fix the other boot. I was mad and did not feel good inside. The next day I think I like to kill that man.” If this account is true, and there is no reason to think it is not, Doak showed poor judgement in his treatment of Alikomiak, particularly given the precedents of the two earlier cases.
Because the mounted police were the only representatives of the federal government on the Arctic coast, an attack on one of them could be viewed as an attack on Canadian sovereignty in the region – sovereignty which because it was based on some questionable foundations had to be carefully defended. It was for this reason, as well as to reverse the earlier policy of leniency, that the trial of Alikomiak was vigorously pursued; the trial of Tatamigana was to make it clear that the government was prepared to punish Inuit who killed their own people. In the summer of 1923 a judicial party was sent down the Mackenzie River to Herschel Island. It consisted of Lucien Dubuc of Edmonton, stipendiary magistrate for the Northwest Territories, Irving Brass Howatt, acting for the crown, and Thomas Lewis Cory, solicitor for the Northwest Territories and Yukon branch of the Department of the Interior, who acted for the defence. A jury, selected from the white residents of the Mackenzie valley, accompanied the court party, as did the hangman, Special Constable Gill, who brought with him a portable gallows.
On 17 July 1923 Alikomiak and Tatamigana were tried separately for the murder of the Inuk Pugnana; the two trials were finished in less than a day and resulted in guilty verdicts. The next day Alikomiak was tried for the murder of Doak and Binder in proceedings that also took less than a day. In his charge to the jury Dubuc urged them not to be swayed by pity or mercy and to remember their duty towards Canadian law and Corporal Doak, “lonely and fearless sentinels of Law and Order.” The jury deliberated for 18 minutes and delivered a verdict of guilty. On 11 August Dubuc sentenced the two men to death.
These cases aroused great public interest, partly because of the exotic circumstances under which the events took place and partly because of a general fascination with the Inuit, many of whom had only recently been contacted by outsiders. There was considerable feeling that the sentences should be commuted, on the grounds that the Inuit were “simple,” “primitive,” and ignorant of the law. Wilfred Thomason Grenfell*, the medical missionary to Labrador, commented that the Inuit as a people had the ethical sense of a child of seven and that it was therefore wrong to execute them. It was also widely believed that the Inuit would not understand death as a punishment. Yet this was precisely the punishment they meted out to their own people who killed others; thus hanging was neither unusual nor culturally inappropriate. It was further claimed, though the police denied it, that Alikomiak was only 16 at the time of the murders. The government, however, was determined to make an example, and the two men went stoically to the gallows on 1 Feb. 1924.
NA, RG 13, 1526, files 712A/CC207, 713A/CC207.
S. L. Harring, “The rich men of the country: Canadian law in the land of the Copper Inuit, 1914–1930,” Ottawa Law Rev., 21 (1989): 1—64