Sunday, March 30, 2014

When 'God' and 'Satan' battled in a barren land; the Belcher Islands Murders

It is the one of the most compelling crime stories in Canadian history. 
In 1941, nine members of a wandering band of Inuit on the remote Belcher 
Islands were murdered by two Inuit hunters in a frenzy of cult-like 
killing. The two hunters -- who believed they were God and Jesus Christ 
-- plus a female accomplice, were convicted and sentenced to a life of 
house arrest on the shores of Hudson Bay following an epic RCMP 
investigation and trial. The massive file on the case, obtained through 
access-to-information requests, has been made public for the first time. 
It provides a revealing account of this bizarre episode in northern history.

IN the winter of 1941, when the world's attention was fixed on the war 
in Europe, a haunting telegram arrived at RCMP headquarters in Ottawa. 
It was a desperate message from Ernest Riddell, manager of a tiny 
Hudson's Bay Co. outpost on the Belcher Islands, a remote, almost 
unknown archipelago in the ice-covered Hudson Bay. Few of the Mounties 
manning their desks in Ottawa could pinpoint the islands on a map. For 
them, the message might just as well have come from outer space.

"Three murders committed during an outbreak of religious fanaticism," 
Riddell announced from the North. "Advise immediate investigation to 
prevent further outbreaks."

At the time, Riddell did not know that nine murders had actually 
occurred. Four adults, a teenager and four children -- all members of a 
tightly knit band of wandering Inuit who eked out a living in their 
isolated corner of the planet -- had died that winter in a series of 
cult-like killings at the hands of friends and relatives.

Riddell's message opened a legal saga that would trouble the government 
and captivate Canadians for more than a year. The murders themselves 
turned the Belcher Islands into a religiously cautious place, wary of 
spiritual hype and hysteria.

Among the roughly 700 souls who live there today, many remain quietly 
ashamed of the islands' cold-blooded past as the site of one of the most 
sensational criminal episodes in Canadian history.

While the killers and those who prosecuted them have all since died, a 
detailed, first-hand account of their story can be found in hundreds of 
pages of police documents, obtained from the RCMP archives in Ottawa.

The police file -- which includes original coroner's reports, 
transcripts of interrogations, and countless government memos -- tells a 
vivid tale not only of the tragic crimes, but also of an epic federal 
effort to bring southern justice to the North, mounting a "white-man's" 
trial on a windswept patch of sub-Arctic isles most Canadians had never 
even heard of.

The Belcher Islands, Nunavut's most southerly community, are a 
collection of thin, rib-shaped rocks rising in the southeast corner of 
Hudson Bay, about 130 kilometres from the coast of Quebec.

They were named after British Captain James Belcher, who explored the 
area in the early 1700s. The islands remained virtually unknown to the 
outside world, however, until Robert Flaherty, the famous filmmaker of 
Nanook of the North, mapped the archipelago in 1914.

Today about 700 people share the tiny village of Sanikiluaq on the 
northern tip of the largest island. Sixty years ago, only 150 wandered 
the islands in search of sustenance, living in sealskin tents in summer 
and igloos in winter. Highly skilled hunters and ocean kayakers, they 
traded furs -- for guns, ammunition and tobacco -- with the Hudson's Bay 
Co. post established there in the 1920s.

Back then, the Belcher Island Inuit lived at the edge of human 
existence, unaware of the outside world and virtually unknown by it. 
Life on their barren isles was bleak even by Arctic standards. Although 
the treeless islands were rich in sea life, they were devoid of caribou, 
an essential source of food and clothing for Inuit elsewhere in the 
North. While sealskins are adequate for summer, they are not warm enough 
for winter. The Belcher Inuit endured by making parkas from the feathery 
down of eider ducks that nested on the islands.

Survival was a tenuous business and the winter of 1941 was a 
particularly harrowing time: seals had become scarce, the weather was 
exceptionally brutal, and starvation loomed. One band of families camped 
on the southern end of the islands endured the dark days and nights 
huddled together in their ice-houses, seeking hope and solace in, among 
other things, copies of the New Testament obtained from the mainland, 
where Anglican missionaries had translated the book into Inuit syllabics.

The Bible offered the promise of salvation. It said Christ would come to 
Earth to save their souls. To some this message signalled an imminent 
rescue from the hardships of a perilous winter.

One of the men brooding on the Bible that year was Charley Ouyerack, a 
sickly, 27-year-old father of two who had low status in the local social 
order. Determined to assert himself, he declared one January night, in 
the midst of a Bible reading, that he was Jesus Christ and the people 
should follow him. For support he enlisted the services of Peter Sala, a 
34-year-old stalwart of a man -- a courageous outdoorsman, a natural 
leader and the most respected hunter on the islands. Sala, Ouyerack 
announced, was God.

Of the 43 people camped that month with Ouyerack, most were willing to 
accept his assertion that the wait for Jesus Christ was over. Outside 
their igloos, they watched a shooting star race toward Earth before the 
swirling backdrop of the northern lights -- proof, said Ouyerack, that 
their rescue was near and that they no longer needed to work to survive.

"We all thought we had halos," Sala later explained to the police.

Hysteria took over. Sled dogs were shot, a rifle was broken and thrown 
into the snow. But not everyone believed in the new order. The first to 
speak out was Sarah Apawkok, a 15-year-old girl whose adult brother Alec 
had become one of Ouyerack's most fervent disciples. At a religious 
meeting inside a large igloo on the night of Jan. 26 -- a week after 
Ouyerack first announced he was Christ -- Sarah told the Inuit that they 
were wrong, that Jesus had not yet come to Earth.

Angry at her defiance, Alec seized his sister by the hair and hit her 
across the head with a wooden stick used for beating snow off parkas.

"I heard Alec say he would chop her head off with a knife," said one 
witness later, who gave a statement to police. "Someone lit a primus 
stove and held it close to her face so they could see whether she was 
good or wicked...someone said she was Satan."

Sarah cried for mercy. Her brother hit her again, knocking her 
unconscious to the floor. Others stepped in, dragging her outside where 
Akeenik, a 17-year-old girl, bludgeoned Sarah's head with the butt of a 

"Akeenik came back into the igloo and I heard her say her hands were 
cold from holding the rifle barrel," another witness told police.

"Everyone was pleased. They all said, 'Let us be thankful that Satan is 

At least one man tried to confront Sarah's killers. Keytowieack, a 
47-year-old Inuit, argued with Ouyerack and Sala that their preaching 
had to stop, but Keytowieack himself was accused of being a devil. After 
a scuffle with the men, he fled the meeting and retired to his own 
igloo, where he was killed the next morning by Sala, Ouyerack and 
another 35-year-old disciple of Ouyerack's named Adlaykok.

The three men tormented Keytowieack through his igloo window. Sitting 
alone in the ice house, he was struck first by a harpoon thrown by Sala, 
and then by two bullets fired through the window by Adlaykok.

The killing stopped for two weeks while the families joined another 
encampment of Inuit on a separate island. New igloos were built, and 
Ouyerack again set about convincing the new group that he was Jesus.

Among the new families was another well-known hunter, 42-year-old 
Quarack, his son-in-law Alec Ekpuk, 26, and a handful of women and children.

Once again almost all fell prey to Ouyerack's preaching, with only Ekpuk 
refusing to accept his wild claims. On Feb. 9, an argument ensued 
between the two men. As Ekpuk walked away from their encounter in 
despair, Ouyerack declared him a devil and ordered Quarack to shoot his 
own son-in-law in the back, which he did.

Three weeks after Ekpuk's murder, Sala was recruited by Ernest Riddell 
to guide him by dogsled on routine business to a larger Hudson's Bay Co. 
post at Great Whale River, on the coast of Quebec. There, Sala confided 
in Harold Ungarden, a Metis who was well known to local Inuit, about the 
killings on the islands. Ungarden informed Riddell, who sent his 
telegram to company headquarters in Winnipeg, where it was forwarded to 
the RCMP.

Riddell returned immediately to the Belchers with Sala. Back on the 
islands, however, they learned of another terrible tragedy.

While the pair had been away, Sala's 25-year-old sister Mina -- still in 
the grip of religious hysteria -- had run among the igloos one night, 
shouting and gesturing that Jesus was coming to take the people to 
heaven. A stout and physically powerful woman, Mina intimidated a dozen 
women and children out of their igloos in bitterly cold weather and 
herded them onto the sea ice to meet their saviour, her arms held open 
to the sky.

It was a windy night, with temperatures probably reaching minus 30 C. 
Although she kept her own parka on, Mina ordered her terror-stricken 
subjects to shed their clothes. She ran among the children, tearing off 
their pants and parkas. After a few minutes of madness, some mothers 
came to their senses, ordering their children to get dressed. Along with 
Mina, they struggled back to the igloos with as many little ones as they 
could carry. For several others, however, it was too late. Frostbite and 
numbness had set in.

Six died, including Mina's 55-year-old mother, her 32-year-old sister, 
and four children: Moses, 13, Alec, 8, Johnny, 7, and Johnasie 6. Alec 
was Peter Sala's son.

Asked later by authorities why she had abandoned one of her own children 
on the ice, Sala's wife, Anowtelik, said she wanted to save her little 
boy, "but I was carrying my baby in my arms...I managed to get all my 
children back but Alec. I put his pants back on but he was too cold to 
return, and I couldn't carry him. I was frozen myself on the bottoms of 
my feet.

"Two days later," she said, "I went out with the others and found them 
on the ice, frozen and dead."

By now, Riddell was growing frantic for help. But in Ottawa, the RCMP 
were having a difficult time launching a trip to the Belchers. Every 
airworthy RCMP aircraft in the country, and every RCMP pilot, had been 
transferred to the Air Force for the war effort.

After weeks of delay, the Mounties managed to find spare parts for an 
old Norseman aircraft sitting in mothballs in Ottawa. They borrowed a 
pilot from the federal transport department and on April 6 the 
re-serviced Norseman left for Moose Factory, on the shore of James Bay, 
where it would rendezvous with a local coroner and two RCMP 
investigators who had travelled north from Ottawa by train.

Four days later, the Norseman and its party of investigators left Moose 
Factory, taking off from the James Bay ice on skis for the white 
wilderness of the Belcher Islands. They set aside six days touring the 
Belchers by dogsled, uncovering some of the frozen, bloodied bodies, 
interviewing witnesses, and piecing together the awful events of that 
winter. The Inuit cooperated fully, making no effort to hide their 
crimes or evade arrest.

The police left the Belchers on April 16 with three Inuit on board their 
aircraft -- Quarack, Adlaykok and Mina -- whom they left in custody at 
the RCMP station in Moose Factory. The wide-eyed prisoners, who had 
never even seen trees before let alone flown through the clouds, 
appeared delighted by both their airplane ride and the promise of three 
warm meals a day.

In Ottawa, meanwhile, authorities became convinced of the need to hold a 
trial not in some southern courtroom but in the Belchers themselves, to 
demonstrate to the Inuit who lived there the full force and purpose of 
Canadian justice.

The trial in the Belcher Islands opened on Aug. 19, after weeks of 
careful planning by officials in Ottawa.

The judicial party -- Justice C.P. Plaxton of the Ontario Supreme Court, 
plus a prosecutor and defence lawyer from Ottawa -- had travelled on the 
Hudson's Bay Co. schooner, Fort Charles, from Moosonee, Ont. to the 
Belchers, dodging storms en route. Also on board were two newspaper 
reporters from Toronto.

Despite the gravity of the affair, a carnival atmosphere engulfed the 
judicial party as it disembarked onto the islands.

"About 50 Eskimos smilingly greeted the party on its arrival and among 
them were those whose lives are at stake in the trial," reported James 
McCook of the Canadian Press. "Adlaykok, one of the accused men, greeted 
Constable George Dexter affectionately, throwing arms around the RCMP 

Officials had struggled to find a six-man jury for the event. McCook and 
his Toronto Star colleague, William Kinmond, were therefore forced to 
sit as both journalists and jurists for the trial. Ernest Riddell was 
the third juryman, while the members of a geological prospecting party, 
whose ship had stopped in the Belchers a week before the trial, were 
recruited to fill the remaining seats.

And so in mid-August, inside a giant RCMP tent erected for the occasion, 
Her Majesty's court convened on the windy shore of a barren, sub-Arctic 

The "courtroom" itself was an incongruous sight: the wigged judge 
sitting at a table draped with the Union Jack, a picture of the Royal 
Family hanging behind him; the RCMP stenographer in his scarlet tunic; 
and dozens of Inuit spectators, sitting on sealskin mats on the floor, 
almost every one of them wheezing, sputtering and coughing from the 
effects of an influenza outbreak that infected the island's population 
-- and killed one woman. The flu had been brought to the Belchers by the 
prisoners returning home from Moose Factory.

There were seven accused: Alec Apawkok and Akeenik, jointly charged with 
the murder of Sarah Apawkok; Peter Sala and Adlaykok, jointly charged 
with the murder of Keytowieack; Charley Ouyerack and Quarack each 
charged with the murder of Alec Ekpuk.

Mina, diagnosed as insane before the trial, was charged with murdering 
six-year-old Johnasie as symbolic of the six who perished on the sea ice.

Mina had to be brought into the courtroom hollering and sobbing, 
strapped on a stretcher.

Aside from Mina's outbursts it was an orderly affair, with her 
co-accused freely admitting their crimes in eerily simplistic terms: 
"Did anyone tell you to kill Alec Ekpuk?" the defence lawyer asked Quarack.



"Charley [Ouyerack]."

"Did you have a quarrel with Alec?"


"Why did you shoot him?"

"Charley said that he was Satan."

"Did you believe him?"

"I believed him. He said that Jesus was going to come soon and that he 
didn't want to see any bad people."

The lawyer asked Ouyerack. "Why did you tell Quarack to kill [Alec]?"

"I didn't have my right senses," he said. "If I had my right senses, I 
would not have told him to murder that fellow."

Such testimony -- whether an honest accounting, or cleverly designed to 
assign blame for the murders on a misunderstanding of the Bible -- 
combined with the harshness of living in such a difficult place, had a 
softening effect on the court, with the prosecutor arguing against the 
death penalty.

The prosecutor came to view the trial as a mistake, arguing that hanging 
the culprits for murder would have no deterrent effect on the wider 
Inuit community. Nor, he said, could white, Canadian justice be properly 
applied in such an alien place.

Judge Plaxton appeared moved by what he called the "sombre gloom of 
these island tundras."

"Life in this desolate region," he said, "exposed as it is to the 
cruelest conditions and ever on the verge of extermination, is not 
conducive to excessive gentleness."

The jury apparently agreed.

For Sarah's death, it acquitted Alec Apawkok, and found Akeenik not 
guilty on account of temporary insanity.

For the deaths of Keytowieack and Ekpuk, it found Peter Sala, Adlaykok, 
Charley Ouyerack and Quarack each guilty of manslaughter. Mina was 
declared insane, and unfit to stand trial.

Sala and Ouyerack were sentenced to two years imprisonment, and Adlaykok 
to one. Mina and Akeenik were ordered into indefinite custody. The five 
were loaded onto the schooner Fort Charles and taken to Moose Factory, 
where they lived and worked in exile in the RCMP compound on the shores 
of James Bay.

Despite his own conviction, Quarack was allowed to stay in the Belchers.

A skilled hunter, he was ordered to provide a year-round supply of meat 
for the families of the exiled men.

"Ayeeh!" cheered Quarack, upon learning his lucky fate.


The Inuit prisoners lived under guard at Moose Factory for only a year. 
Charley Ouyerack died in May 1942 after contracting tuberculosis. By the 
fall of that year, Peter Sala, Adlaykok, Akeenik and Mina -- whose 
behaviour had returned to normal -- were released from custody and moved 
up the coast to Great Whale River, on condition that they never return 
to the Belcher Islands. For many years they lived a wandering life, 
hunting and camping along the shores of Hudson Bay, under the occasional 
watch of RCMP outpost officers.

Of the four, Sala most regretted his role in the dark deeds of 1941.

"He has stated that he was to blame for the plight of the other 
prisoners, not in the sense that he was the instigator of the crimes, 
but rather that as a leader, he should have prevented them from 
committing them," said an RCMP report in 1942. "His personal loss of 
mother, sister and child no doubt lies heavy on his conscience."

As an old man, Sala did eventually return to the Belchers, where he 
lived out his final days -- a shunned figure -- in the village of 

There, one Sunday in February 1987, two visitors knocked on his door.

Tom Martin, an Anglican priest from Great Whale River, and John Sperry, 
Anglican Bishop of the Arctic, were making their rounds, offering 
eucharist services to shut-ins in the community. When they came to 
Sala's door, Sperry went inside, discovered that Sala was sleeping, and 
asked Martin if he thought they should wake the old man up for communion.

"Let's not," the priest decided. "We'd better let sleeping gods lie."

Richard Foot
CanWest News Service

Saturday, February 07, 2004


John Prince said...

Thanks for thie Morton. Very interesting!

m. buss said...

Thanks. Sources, perhaps?

Anonymous said...

this still has an effect to my community (sanikiluaq) we still need help on healing as a community..

Jennifer Belcher said...

Wow, this is was a very unfortunate set of events. Prayers for the community...

Anonymous said...

Can this case be reopened?