In the wake of a meteor shower during the brutal winter of 1941 on the Belcher Islands in Hudson Bay, a 27-year-old Inuk named Charlie Ouyerack announced that he was Jesus, and that the community’s best hunter, Peter Sala, was God. They gained acolytes and ordered that sled dogs be killed—because soon everyone would be able to fly—and unbelievers, too. One night, Sala’s sister forced some of the islanders to take their clothes off outside in order to greet the end of the world. Six died of exposure. By the time the messianic cult had run its course, nine Inuit had perished.
American writer Lawrence Millman’s new book, At the End of the World, tells the story of the murders. While the details mark them as some of the grisliest in Canadian history, the survivors he spoke with (who have all since passed away) poignantly open a window onto some of the indirect, insidious effects of colonization. The book paints a picture of the long reach of forced assimilation—even in an area that hadn’t yet been infested by residential schools—which could warp people’s relations with themselves and with the world around them in unforeseen and catastrophic ways.
Millman, who had spent time in the Arctic in the 1980s collecting Inuit folk tales, visited the remote Belcher Islands in 2001, where he found evidence of collective shame—one Inuit told him, “If your daughter was raped, would you go around talking about it?”—but also a wish among elders who had survived that winter to unburden themselves. The stories, Millman says, “were etched savagely into their minds.” In 2014, Millman followed up with elders in Moose Factory, on James Bay, where the murderers had been exiled by the Canadian justice system after their trial.
Millman spoke with Maclean’s from his home in Cambridge, Mass., about the context and the lasting effects of the murders, and why he finds that today’s digital screen technology is severing our natural relationship with the world around us—just as the teachings of missionaries once did in the Canadian Arctic.
Q: How far advanced was the march of Christianity into the Belcher Islands at the time of the murders?
A: One of the most evil words in the English language is “missionary,” and a missionary had come, but this is all very vague—it’s not well-documented. A missionary had left a Bible in Inuit syllabics in the Belchers and departed, and one Inuk was able to read it. He talked to people about the content. It always seemed to be the case to the Inuit that the white people, the Qallunaat, had firearms and certain goods that made life easier, so it’s possible that [they thought] if you follow the strictures of the Bible, you’ll have a rifle and can kill seals more readily than you can with a harpoon. There’s an Anglican church near Little Whale River on the mainland, and my guess is that Peter Sala probably went in and heard a few hymns. He could speak some English, so he understood the words “God,” “Jesus,” “cross,” etc. The paradox is that he was the most educated of the local Inuit with respect to the outside world, and he fully participated in the murders.
RELATED: The North and the great Canadian lie
I see what the Anglican missionaries did in preaching the gospel as being especially nefarious. The Catholics accepted a lot of the [Inuit] customs, the rituals. Anglicans were aggressive. Just a year and a half ago, a Cree elder in Moose Factory told me this story: he was very late to [residential] school one day because he had been talking to Akeenik, one of the people who was exiled from the Belchers—she was maybe 15 or 16, and she had [killed] Sara, the 13-year-old girl who initially had disagreed [with Ouyerack and Sala], saying, “You’re not God, and you’re not Jesus.” Akeenik took Sara outside and started whacking her repeatedly with the barrel of a rifle. She was exiled, and this Cree chap saw her out in the Mountie [encampment], stopped to chat with her, and so he ended up being late. The Anglican minister who was the teacher was absolutely incensed, and started whacking him with a rod. The old man said looked at me—I saw his eyes becoming wet—and said, “Now, 70 years later, I still have almost no feeling in this hand,” the hand where this minister/teacher had whacked him.
Q: In the case of these murders, no missionaries were directly involved: the community’s members were attacking themselves. What are we to make of this?
A: There are quite a few variables, one of which was that this was a very bad winter. Starvation was imminent, and in a situation like this, you may reach beyond your usual traditions to try to find a way out. In other words: “Animism isn’t helping us out here; maybe this peculiar religion that’s practised on the mainland that white people have, where some guy ended up getting himself impaled on a pair of crossed sticks, will help us.” I think that there are other factors. Ouyerack was a shaman wannabe. So, having a look up at the sky at this meteor shower, he was the one who made the proclamation that he was Jesus, and Jesus would help them. I don’t think that this was [presented] in a very logical way, [such as], “I will help you, and I’ll walk into the water and start speaking to seals and they will come out, and the walrus will heed my words.” They were cut off from most parts of the world, and there was this chap who was mentally unbalanced, and found this to be an excellent opportunity to prove himself.
Q: How does he convince the others not only that he’s Jesus but also that they should perpetrate these horrible crimes on people in their community, some of whom were friends and relatives?
A: A small percentage would be considered perpetrators. As my main informant, the old woman who told me not to use her name, said, “We were all terrified that we would be next.” If that’s the case, you have several ringleaders saying, “Go get that guy,” and you listen to them. She said if one’s parents told one, as a kid, that white people had eight legs like spiders, then one would believe them, and here they were telling us to do what Ouyerack or Peter Sala [say]. If you don’t, your life might be at stake. I think a lot of people were afraid in exactly that same way, that they’d better follow the rules. And I think this is true for any number of other religious cults. It becomes like the sweeping of a strong wind—it’s very hard to stop.
Q: It seems as though this was a deadly power trip combined with spreading insanity.
A: It was spreading. I think with Peter, it’s very hard to say, because he was certainly the person who had the most contact with the outside world, and he would seem to be the last person in the Belcher Islands who would claim to be God. His sister, Mina, on the other hand, was quite unbalanced, and one could imagine her doing exactly what she did: ushering all of these people out on the ice, mostly kids and old people, and saying, “Jesus will be kayaking down from the sky.” [Of the six people who died of exposure, four were children.] Getting back to Peter, it’s a bit of a mystery, and he was among the first to realize, “Boy, I made a bad mistake.” And by that time, there was nothing he could do about it. When he heard what his sister had done, he refused to speak with her for quite some time. He burst into tears. He blamed himself for this whole thing. Toward the end of this life, he said this to a couple of people in the Belchers whom I talked to: “I could have put a stop to it, and I didn’t.”
Q: To what extent did you find that the elders that you spoke with blamed Christianity or Christians for what transpired?
A: I found that they did not. They were not people who promiscuously threw out blame, and this is very true of a lot of Inuit elders. There’s a lot that they can blame in terms of what’s been done to them, but they don’t do it. You could say they live their lives in the fashion that they decide to live them, rather than as someone else might do: “We would be so much better off if we just believed that seals and rocks and drift logs had souls, and once we learned that only human beings had souls, that screwed us.” If they were inclined to blame anyone, it would be their own people: Ouyerack, Peter Sala, and Mina, rather than the outsiders.
Q: Is there a historic equivalent to this series of murders?
A: There were several other messianic cults, none as dramatic as this, or with as high a body count. One man in Repulse Bay in the central Canadian Arctic said he would baptize everybody; he cut off a chunk of his scalp to do so and bled to death. In Baffin Island, a cult leader named Neakoteah threatened to kill unbelievers. He himself was shot and killed by one of them. Then in the Leaf River area in Quebec, another cult believed that the Holy Land was the only Holy Land, and it was the best place to be. One of the local Inuit went off in search of Israel by kayak. He had no sense of geography, and he just disappeared.
What makes the Belcher Islands exceptional is simply their remoteness, and it’s a remoteness that paradoxically is not remote at all, since they’re far closer to the centres of Canadian civilization than, for instance, the Yukon, Baffin Island, Banks Island and Ellesmere Island. I felt this story needed to be told—not simply for me to lambaste missionaries, Christianity and the effects of Qallunaat culture on [Inuit] people, but because it was a terrific story.
Q: What do you make of the trial that was held and the justice that was meted out by the Canadian judge, whereby the murderers were exiled to the mainland and forced into labour?
A: I think it was in its own way surprisingly liberal. If this had happened in Sudbury, Ont., for instance, I think that there might have been a hanging or an execution. But because these were [Indigenous] people [in a remote area], they were given a certain amount of leniency, and you could say that leniency derived from the “fact” that “they really don’t know that it’s wrong to kill other people, and we have to teach them that it’s wrong.”
Whenever Mounties appeared in remote Canadian First Nation communities during or after the First World War, the Mounties said, “We white people don’t believe that it’s right to kill our fellow human beings.” The Native people were saying, “Oh you don’t? I hear that you’re killing thousands of them across the sea.”
Q: What lasting impact would you say these murders had on the community?
A: On Sanikiluaq [the Islands’ one established community], one of the effects is that it is not as passionately religious or Christian a community as most others in the Canadian Arctic. As I mention in the book, [on] Sunday morning, everyone was going out to hunt berries rather than go to the igloo-shaped church. There were still some SkiDoos parked in front of the church—some people were going—but religion was not taken as seriously there as in other [Indigenous] villages, and there isn’t a local minister. They haven’t bit the religious bullet to the same degree as people in other parts of the Canadian Arctic.
One sign of their traditionality is their sculptures. The sculptures in Sanikiluaq are very realistic images of animals: loons, eider ducks, polar bears, etc. One of the elders I talked to said, “To be a hunter and to be an artist are very similar. To be a hunter, you need to know something about the behaviour of the animal you’re hunting, and if you want to make a realistic sculpture of an animal, you show the very muscles you would see if you were hunting that animal.” I did find that this was a sign that these people are still close to the land, close to wildlife. It could be partly because they felt in a way a serious metaphoric reprimand as a result of the murders and thought, “OK, that religious route isn’t a route that we want to take.” And I think isolation plays a part. Typically, people who are more isolated end up losing their traditions a bit more slowly than people who are closer to the so-called Mall of America, [which] is advancing fast wherever you go.
Q: There’s another strand to the book about how our increasing dependence on digital technology is having a deleterious impact on our lives.
A: I make a very strong connection between what happened in the Belchers and what happens in our world today—not so much murder as loss of life. I felt that I couldn’t write about the past without writing about the present. I think the crucial occurrence was watching 9/11 two days [after it happened] on a TV in a small, ramshackle hotel in Sanikiluaq, and having the Inuit around me laugh at the screen, look oddly at it, and a little kid saying, “Funny, funny,” pointing at the buildings falling over. I was not overly affected by seeing this, but I was overly affected by the old woman telling me about the murder of her best friend 60 years ago, because there was nothing mediating between her sad, wrinkled, ancient-looking face, and me, whereas there was a pitiful screen mediating between me and the killings during 9/11. More and more I saw it as crucial, that the screens were becoming the new gods, and they were distancing us from the natural world, the way religion as it was promoted by Anglican missionaries tended to distance [Indigenous] people from their natural world.