THE EXECUTIONERS

FARLEY MOWAT July 2 1966

THE EXECUTIONERS

FARLEY MOWAT July 2 1966

THE EXECUTIONERS

FARLEY MOWAT

Last April we tried these two men as murderers.

Their crime: they killed a mad woman who threatened the survival of their arctic band. For them, it was an act of self-defense, an execution carried out with the full sanction of Eskimo custom. But it was also a crime against our laws—and the trial was the final act of a larger tragedy: the slow humiliation of a proud and self-reliant people. Farley Mowat, the distinguished chronicler of the north, covered that trial for Maclean's. He returned with a disturbing question: were these two men the real

executioners — or were we all on trial?

T

■ HE CLASSROOM of the government school at Spence Bay could be the room where your children go to school. It is just as modern, just as bright and just as sterile.

Yet this classroom is an excrescence upon an alien face. Clinging to the frozen rocks of a bitter land it stands, awkward and obtrusive, some fourteen hundred miles north of Winnipeg and two hundred miles beyond the Arctic Circle in a community belonging to another world and to another time. This is the country of the Innuit — The People — and their lives are not our lives.

On Friday night, April 15, 1966, the fluorescent

Soosee was dead, and two

ligHs of the schoolroom glared down pitilessly upon The People — and on us. Behind the teacher’s desk, clad in the dark majesty of a judge’s govn, a gentle-faced and weary man sat in the dignity of age beneath a portable enameled plaque be«fing the colorful insignia oi law and governmeat — our law. our government. Facing him. with a grim earnestness that was a parody of the earnestness of the children whose places had been usirped, some eighty men and women overflowed folding chairs, lined the walls, leaned on windowsill* or squatted on the floor. Prominent among them were crimson - jacketed policemen, black-

gowned lawyers, immaculately dressed psychiatrists, grave physicians, blase reporters and a score of employees of that burgeoning New Empire Of The North, the federal Department of Northern Affairs. One way or another all these were intruders in the land, some of them having just arrived by chartered aircraft from as far afield as Toronto and Edmonton. They were there to see that justice might he served in this almost unknown corner of the nation.

But to the rear of the room, massed solidly, unsmiling, unspeaking, were The People. They were there to sec, if not to comprehend, what fate

designed to do with two young men of their race whose final actions in a drama of despair had brought them to this hour and to this place.

Here, in a tiny simulacrum of the artificial world we have created in the southern lands, the Court Of The Northwest Territories began its work.

hachee Shooyook, E 5-883 and Aivaoot, E 5-22, both of Lévesque Harbor . . . jointly stand charged in that, on or about the 15th day of July, A. D. 1965, at or near Lévesque Harbor, they did unlawfully commit the capital murder of Soosee, E 5-20 ... / continued overleaf

bewildered Eskimos faced a judge and the outsiders1 law

Anguish and attempted suicide were the price as earnest

THE

EXECUTIONERS

continued

Soosee, E 5-20 — a name, a number, nothing more — was dead. But Shooyook, her nephew, and Aiyaoot, the son of the woman none of us would ever know, were there before us, immobile and shrunken. They seemed like children, but they were men.

We of the south are nothing if not efficient. The intricate machinery of our law which had assembled so many talents in this remote corner of the earth was not affronted by lethargy on the part of the court. It was almost as if we, the intruders, suffered from the secret knowledge that what we were about to do was meaningful only in an abstract and mechanistic way and we were obsessed by a need to be done with a distasteful act and to depart into our own world again as soon as possible.

The prosecution began its case at 9 a.m. on Saturday and by 11 p.m. of that same day sentence had been passed. During those few hours, we, the intruders, listened to some fragments of what was only the final chapter in the long and agonizing death of a people. We heard only the simple outline of how death had come to one woman. We never heard the story of the greater dying.

Yet to have listened only to the final act left us without hope of understanding the real tragedy that had terminated in this trial. It left us to play the roles of mindless puppets who. deprived of all

true comprehension, were to decide whether two strangers in our midst would live or die.

THE STORY OF SOOSEE, of her people and of the two young men accused of murdering her begins not with the fatal days of July 1965, but at a time a quarter century earlier and at a place far distant from Spence Bay.

Soosee was born in 1926 at Cape Dorset on the southwest corner of Baffin Island. Here, at the site of one of the earliest arctic posts established by the Hudson's Bay Company, the Cape Dorset people were long ago insensibly transformed from hunters of meat for their own use to trappers of white fox for the use of others. They became skillful trappers and, as the company extended its network of posts north and west into regions occupied by Eskimos who still hunted meat to survive, the company concluded that the tedious process of converting meat hunters to trappers could be accelerated by establishing Cape Dorset families in these new regions.

^amo IT CAME ABOUT that in 1934. when Soosee was a child of eight, hers became one of several families “prevailed upon” to leave their age-old home. Boarding the company ship, they were transported what was to them an unimaginable distance northward, eight hundred miles to Dundas Harbor on the south coast of Devon Island.

To us, who have become a migrant people, a move of such magnitude might have no particular significance; but The People have a singular

attachment to the places where they are born. They do not lightly forsake the known for the unknown. Soosee’s people would not have left Cape Dorset at all had they not been solemnly promised that, if they did not like the new country. they would be brought home again.

They did not like the new land. The Eskimos of North Baffin Island were not their people, even though they spoke the same tongue. The land itself was overwhelmingly alien. Winter and the long arctic night came much earlier, and lasted much longer. All things were unfamiliar and, for a people whose world is populated not only by the seen but also by the unseen, unfamiliarity breeds fear. Soon the Cape Dorset people asked to be taken back to the world they knew. But insurmountable difficulties were placed between them and their desire.

They remained at Dundas Harbor, where Soosee became a woman. As was the custom, her parents chose a husband for her, a widower who was a proven hunter. The two had little time in which to know each other before disaster struck into Soosee’s life and into the lives of the uprooted Cape Dorset people.

Cape Dorset is a country of low hills and open tundra plains. South Devon is a land of immense cliffs, glaciers and high mountains. One winter three families including Soosee’s husband (who had not yet taken her to live with him) sited their snowhouses under the lee of a mighty cliff. The place seemed safe to them, being well sheltered, but they were strangers in the land and did not know its nature.

A westerly blizzard sprang up. The gale roared

nen sought justice

over the high cliff and eddied back, laden with driving snow. The little group of snowhouses at the cliff’s foot was soon buried up to the domes. As the sound of the wind became muffled by the drift, men and women stared at one another uneasily. Time passed, unmeasured, and fear grew as the drifts grew, for the people were being entombed and they knew it. Even so, they decided to wait it out, reasoning that trying to survive outside without dogs or sleds (both having already been deeply buried beneath the drifts) would be more dangerous than remaining. Only one man, Soosee’s husband, was against waiting. When no others would join him he took his fate into his own hands and dug his way out.

Two weeks later he arrived at Dundas Harbor, nearly dead from starvation and exposure. When he was fit to travel he led a policeman to the site of the cliff camp. They found an immense drift where the snowhouses had once stood. The snow was so heavily compacted that they needed many hours to sink a twenty-seven-foot shaft straight down through snow, chopping it out with heavy snow knives. Breaking through the dome of a snowhouse, they found it empty. In one wall was the snow-clogged opening of a tunnel. The entombed people had burrowed for hundreds of yards in utter darkness, short of air, unable to keep direction, blundering in circles until the last of them lay down in death.

There was more to come. Soosee's husband was told that, when the ship arrived in August, he would have to appear before a justice of the peace to face a charge of criminal negligence in that he ad abandoned the other people in the snowhouses.

He understood little if anything of what this charge implied, except that it posed a new threat to his existence. Oppressed by the memory of the winter tragedy, he had now to live with his fear of the incalculable, inscrutable actions of the intruders. It was more than could be borne. A week before the steamer arrived he left Soosee and walked alone out into the alien land. Days later they found his body lying upon the summer tundra, contorted by the poison he had taken.

His agony was Soosee’s agony, but it was also the agony of the remaining Dorset people. They were now utterly convinced that they had been brought to an evil place and they were desperate in their anxiety to escape from it — to return to the familiar world they had once known.

IN 1937 THE COMPANY opened a new post called Fort Ross, on Bellot Strait at the north end of Boothia Peninsula among a people called the Netchilingmiut — The Seal People. These were wonderful seal hunters but, as the company soon discovered, they were not much good at trapping for a living.

The fur returns from Fort Ross proved unsatisfactory and the company decided the Netchilingmiut should be confronted by a group of Eskimos who were superb trappers. It was hoped that the implicit loss of face that such a confrontation would produce would persuade the Netchilingmiut to turn from the seal to the fox.

No one now can say how' much the surviving Dorset families at Dundas Harbor knew of the nature of the fate in store for them when they were again ordered to embark on a company ship. Their foremost spokesman, Kavavou. knew what was said, but he is dead. Nevertheless, it is certain that many of them thought they were going home at last.

Instead, they were carried to Fort Ross, seven hundred miles northwest of home. Here they were planted among a totally unfamiliar tribe whose language, customs and beliefs differed materially from their own. In the beginning of this new exile the superiority of the Dorset people, both real and imagined, had the effect of stiffening their pride and thus helped sustain them against their crushing disappointment. They lived and trapped in the Netchilingmiut land, though they were not of it. Forming a company of exiles, they turned in upon themselves to an ever-increasing extent, subject to a steadily intensifying feeling of being adrift in time as well as space. Their contacts with the Netchilingmiut remained peripheral. No real Dorset man would have thought of marrying a Netchilingmiut woman. They remained aloof, apart . . . waiting for the day when they would be permitted to return to Cape Dorset.

That day did not come. Instead, Kavavou, the sustaining central figure in their little world, died. He was replaced by his son Takolik. Another of his sons, Napachee-Kadlak. had meanwhile married Soosee and this was a good and happy mating.

The years ran by. The Netchilingmiut became increasingly good trappers. They were quick, and they too now learned to measure a man’s worth not so much by what he was as by the amount of “debt” the trader would advance in anticipation of a season's catch of fur. The Dorsets were no longer secure even within their special pride. They were no longer even of any particular importance to the company. Doubts about themselves began to assail them in their loneliness.

So the years ran by, each bringing its new assault upon them. In 1945 and again in 1946 the company supply ship failed to reach Fort

Ross because of ice conditions, and this brought real hardship to a people who had been conditioned to be dependent on the trading post. Worse followed. In 1947 the company decided to close the post and open a new one at Spence Bay, some two hundred miles (six long days’ travel by dogteam) to the south. When the news was announced to the Dorset people, they believed that at long last they were to be repatriated. I hey were not. The post moved; no white man remained at Fort Ross. Those who had brought the Innuit to this place abandoned them.

Fate now began to close in fiercely on the shrunken band ol exiles. In the early 1950s those Eskimos who had tuberculosis (and there were very many such) were shipped south for treatment. Some did not return for years; many never did return. Not really understanding why their people did not come back, Eskimo communities throughout the arctic were badly shaken by these losses ol men, women and children. But among the uprooted Dorsets the blow struck the hardest.

Then, a lewyears after Fort Ross closed, a shaman of the Netchilingmiut died. Before his death he announced to his people that the land had become a land of death and would be death to any who remained in it. The Seal People listened and took heed. They moved en masse to the vicinity of Spence Bay. a relatively easy move for them since they remained within the confines of their own ancestral territory.

The Dorsets did not follow the Seal People south. A move to Spence Bay would have meant one more dislocation in their lives, and they could not face it. They remained at Fort Ross, increasingly isolated from all meaningful contact with the outer world except for a semiannual trip by some of the men to Spence Bay to exchange furs for neccessities. These journeys did not strengthen them. 1 he Dorset men had to travel by way of Netchilingmiut camps where they saw evidence of increasing prosperity, for the Seal People had by now become better trappers than the Dorsets. At the post the Dorset men saw their “debt” advances dwindle while those of the despised Seal People rose.

In 1953 the Dorset community consisted of about eighteen families, hardly enough to give even the illusion of security in numbers. It was at this juncture that Takolik, their quondam leader, took the main chance and led his family south. Soosee’s husband, Napachee-Kadlak. replaced him. Napachee was a jovial and gentle man and without the strength to hold his disintegrating world together.

E3

fcSiv 1955 THE REMAINING people at Fort Ross were in a perilous state. Their hope was gone, their strength was waning fast, their will to endure was dying. Twice within four days they failed to kill sufficient seals and would have starved had not help reached them by chance — once when a scientific party happened their way and reported on their condition to the authorities. Infinitely bewildered, unmanned by massive and mounting apprehensions, the people from faraway Cape Dorset were coming to the end of their long and tortured way.

We knew about it.

Beginning in 1960 an aircraft began flying to Fort Ross twice a year to take the children of school age out and bring them back again. To us this seems like a worthy act. To the people of Fort Ross the loss of their children for many months of every year was an almost intolerable blow.

It is at this point in

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THE EXECUTIONERS

continued from pope 11

“If she runs, she will not be hurt. If she comes, shoot”

time that we pass through the door at the end of the long, dark corridor of years that is the fateful past, and the true tale of Soosee and her people, and step abruptly into the harsh glare ol the classroom at Spence Bay. It was here, at the beginning of the end that we, the intruders, first looked upon what we had wrought.

By 1959 the cumulative blows of twenty-five years' exile had irreparably shattered the shell of human endurance at Fort Ross. The strength of the community could no longer support its individual members. The ultimate collapse began. Soosee. who had been in many ways the strongest member of the little band, was pregnant with her fourth child when she began to be overwhelmed by a panic aversion to her dying world. Since no way of escape in the flesh was open to her. she could seek escape only within the labyrinthine caverns of the mind.

Soosee was evacuated to hospital in Alberta. Listen as the psychiatrist who examined her describes her symptoms to the court: . . anxiety neurosis . . .

symptoms of mental breakdown . . . reluctance to return to Fort Ross . . .”

We who were gathered in the courtroom heard how Soosee again retreated from her broken world in 1964 — in a straitjacket. In this, her second stay in a mental hospital she was “cured,'' and in the autumn she came home. Home — to a community that

had shrunk to three women, five men and eleven children. What had been done to Soosee, and to The People, could not be cured so readily. On July 6, 1965, at Lévesque Harbor (near Fort Ross) the w'oman, Soosee, vanished out of time. In her place appeared a visitation of madness hearing the voice of God, seeing and hearing the Devil.

Sanity was tottering

The thing that had been Soosee now became the nemesis of her people. Tearing her hair, raging against Napachee-Kadlak until the man began to bend before the winds of madness, too. she brought a new quality of terror into the final hours of a people who could not resist much longer. She tried to kill her youngest child. She pursued other children, throwing rocks at them with a mad-woman’s fearsome strength. She struck against the very stuff of life, destroying the hunting gear without which the community could not have survived for more than a week or two. Sanity was tottering at Lévesque Harbor. Reality was drifting away.

There was one brief and pitiful respite. Soosee and Napachee-Kadlak had a cheap transistor tape recorder of a type that had been belatedly supplied to maintain some link between Eskimos in southern hospitals and their families in the north. In an

attempt to turn back the tides of madness, Napachee-Kadlak played Soosee a record made in Cape Dorset by some of her relatives there.

“I put this on. and it brought back memories of the time we were in Cape Dorset, and we were real happy, and she w'as real good, not mad in her head or anything. She was real happy then . . .”

A final, dying gleam . . .

A few hours later the thing that was no longer Soosee ran through the camp, threatening death to all. God had told her she must kill so that all might be free (was she, then, so mad?). But two women, five men, eleven children fought with instinctive desperation to retain their failing hold on lite. They could not run away, for that would have meant abandoning their gear and, in any event, the sea ice was breaking and travel over it. or over the land, w'as then impossible. They could not remain at the camp because the visitation was physical as well as psychic, and Soosee was taller and stronger than any one among them. They could not send for help: there was no way to do so.

They did what they could. They tied her up; but each time she escaped. On July 12. taking only two travel tents and a little of their gear, they tied across the breaking ice to an island half a mile off shore. There they waited, hoping for a miraculous deliverance, praying to our God for

help. Hour by hour in the almost perpetual daylight they watched her movements through an old brass telescope, praying that she would go away. Instead, they saw her destroying tents, boats, harpoons, clothing. The men did not dare leave their wives and children alone on the island in order to go hunting. After three days starvation was imminent.

They could wait no longer. On the morning of July 15 the two youngest and strongest men. Soosee's son Aiyaoot and her nephew Shooyook, went back to the mainland. Napachee-Kadlak had told them what they must do.

“If she runs, she will not be hurt.

I love my wife. If she cries and is all right (in the mind) she will not be hurt. If she comes, shoot . . .''

So the two young men approached the mad woman — and she came running toward them, cursing. They fired to one side of her. hoping to frighten her into running away, hoping even then to stave off the inevitable. But she came on. and there were three more shots.

In due course the police investigated. They had to, for when the plane came to take away the children in September, Napachee-Kadlak handed the police a series of letters laboriously written in syllabic script. These gave an infinitely detailed account of every action that took place at Lévesque Harbor between July 5 and 15. Nothing was hidden, nothing left out.

Rifles, and fragments of bullets taken from Soosee's corpse were sent to the crime-detection laboratory in

THE EXECUTIONERS continued

The room was tense, the intruders were wracked with agony

Regina. The investigation was completed; reports were filed, and in due course those whom we have chosen to administer our law made their decision.

They had several choices open to them. We had several choices. We could have attempted (perhaps even then it was not too late) to undo some of that which had been done. We could have charged the two young men with manslaughter resulting from an act of self-defense. At the same time we could have made it clear to them and to their remnant people that we did not propose to add new agonies to those they had already suffered.

Instead, we deliberately chose to charge the young men with capital murder, which is a hanging offense. We deliberately sentenced the survivors of a broken people (for all of them were intimately involved) to endure the swirling fears of a new doom, through the seven long months before the trial was held.

Having failed to provide the protection of the law to the people of Fort Ross, and having even failed (if any attempt was ever made) to acquaint them with the nature of our law. we chose to subject them to the full terror of that law by holding a noose above their heads.

I do not know who made this decision — the law is by its nature cloaked in anonymity. But presumably it was taken by the Department

of Justice in Ottawa, probably in consultation with the Department of Northern Affairs, which is the agency responsible for Eskimo matters. I believe the decision was part of a greater one: that authority had concluded the time has come when Eskimos (and Indians) should no longer receive special consideration or understanding, but should be forced to conform in all respects to our concepts, our morality, and our general way of life; that the time had come when people such as those who were on trial at Spence Bay would be made to pay for the crime of being different in thought and understanding. It is beyond question that the decision to try Shooyook and Aiyaoot for capital murder relegated them to the role of hapless victims in a greater drama that was solely of our making.

It was a decision that made victims of Eskimos and whites alike in the classroom at Spence Bay.

There was not a man or woman among the intruders who was not wracked with agony on behalf of the two accused and their shattered community. The crown prosecutor who, in a voice taut with suppressed emotion, twice apologized to the jurors (“Ladies and gentlemen, I do not envy you your task”) was doubtless as torn within himself as was the newspaper reporter who stood in the early arctic dawn of Sunday morning, weeping unashamedly at what he had seen and heard.

An RCMP constable who testified for the Crown, and who was marooned for eight bitter days in February at Fort Ross and was sheltered and fed by the very people he was to bring to the bar of our justice, was as much a victim as was the court interpreter who, knowing and loving The People, found himself become the instrument through which they, in their innocence, convicted themselves of having broken the law of the intruders.

All these were victims but perhaps the intruder upon whom the weight of the machine rested most heavily was Mr. Justice John Sissons.

For fifteen years Judge Sissons has fought a stubborn battle to temper our justice to the hard reality and ancient usages of Eskimo and Indian cultures. Among The People he earned the enviable name of Ekotojee — He Who Listens — meaning, he who tries to understand. In fifteen years he has established an entire body of legal precedents which alleviate at least some of the impact of our southern law upon men and women of a different world.

But at Spence Bay all that Judge Sissons has tried to do was as much on trial as were the two accused. It was common knowledge that had Ekotojee intervened again as an adjudicator between the world of The People and the world of the intruders; had he transgressed in any way against the merest letter of our law, there

were those who would have felt it their duty to demand a new trial. At Spence Bay, Judge Sissons, now seventy-four years old, and due to retire in July, sat pinioned within an iron framework, for he knew, as did we all, what a prolongation of the ordeal of The People, through a new trial, would mean to them.

The jury, five men and one woman, were also victims of the unkillable worm of guilt that lay in the heart of all of us. They brought in their verdict after a struggle whose intensity was not to be measured in hours.

THE EXECUTIONERS

continued

Aiyaoot was acquitted. Shooyook was found guilty of manslaughter, with a strong plea for mercy. At last the judge was free. He sentenced Shooyook to two years’ suspended sentence.

It is not inconceivable that the sentence will be appealed, and that a harsher punishment will be demanded.

It will be wasted effort. It is not in our power to inflict any greater

agony upon the people of Fort Ross than they have already endured. Two weeks before the trial began Kadluk, the chief witness for the crown, and the father of Shooyook, tried to kill himself. Napachee-Kadlak, husband of Soosee and father of Aiyaoot, and also a witness for the Crown, has become a shambling, incoherent shadow of a man whose mind dwells in the distant past. One has only to look into the face of Shooyook, the young man who acted to save his people, to

know that he is beyond the reach of any further torments we might be able to devise. It was the opinion of experts among the intruders that three, and perhaps more, of the broken people of Fort Ross will need psychiatric treatment in the days ahead. These are apparent results of the trial. There are doubtless others which, pray God, are kept hidden from us.

Ayorama — it does not matter. We have succeeded in what we set out to do. ★