Robert Janes, a Newfoundland sailor, arrived in the small northern community of Pond Inlet in 1912. His job was to help establish Canada’s sovereignty in the north. It was reported that he was fairly reclusive. During his two-year stay he reported that he had found gold in the Pond Bay. While not setting off a gold rush, there was enough interest that three ships sailed to the area.
- The Algerine, sank from the pressing ice.
- The Neptune, returned home after no Gold was found.
- The last ship, the Minnie Maud, was captained by Joseph Bernier. Bernier was the original boss who sent Robert Janes to the area. No sign of gold was found and Janes returned to Newfoundland.
Janes returned to Pond Inlet in 1916 to become a trapper. He was moderately successful. However, over time Janes started to become erratic and a bit psychotic. In 1919, a ship that was supposed to pick up his furs failed to show on time, Janes snapped and proclaimed that he would gather up as many furs as he could carry and walk to market. His Inuit neighbours became a bit nervous. The problem was the Inuit were scheduled to leave on their spring hunt and they were concerned with leaving a psychotic Janes alone with their women and children.
After a series of nasty incidents involving Janes, a decision was made to kill Robert Janes before he killed them. He died on March 15, 1920. He was buried in a shallow grave on the shore of Eclipse Sound, near Salmon Creek. Word of the murder spread south via a passing ship. The RCMP sent Staff Sergeant A.H. Joy to investigate the matter in 1921. A court trial was held with the Inuit and the several visiting southern officials present. A local man, Nuqatlak, was found guilty and sentenced to 10 years in Stony Mountain Penitentiary near Winnipeg. After only a few months in jail, Nuqatlak contracted tuberculosis and was returned to Pond Inlet to spend his last days.
So where is the controversy, you may ask? Nuqatlak was found guilty and convicted of the murder, right? There was other evidence that was not considered by the court. Specifically, that the customs and laws of the Inuit did not considered that this was a murder. Nuqatlak was genuinely concerned for the safety of his family and relatives and the killing was therefore justified, according to Inuit customs.
So why was that evidence rejected? The clue was in the original reason that Janes was in the north. Canada was asserting its sovereignty in the north. At the time, sovereignty meant that Canadian law was made paramount over local customs so the defense had no case.
With all the discussions about mandatory minimum jail sentence, law in its black and white, no shades of grey form. I thought it would be good to take a look at a justice-in-question case. Visitors to this site may remember a story I wrote about Kikkik. An Inuit woman, who in 1958, was charged with the murder of one of her children. At the time, Judge Jack Sissons, was granted the right of discretionary practice. In his wisdom, he charged the jury with the warning that Kikkik was a “woman of a Stone Age society” and that she should be judged, not based on the black and white letter of the law, but rather in light of her circumstances and her culture.
Maybe that same logic should have been applied in the case of the murder of Robert Janes, in 1920, in the small community of Pond Inlet.