Murder In The Arctic






Veteran Windy Gale sent us the following article which appeared in our 53rd edition of the Vancouver Division’s Scarlet and Gold Magazine in 1971.







Photograph of Father Jean-Baptiste Rouviere.

Photograph of Father Jean-Baptiste Rouviere.

In 1911, the Right Reverend Bishop Breyant sent a mission of two young. very zealous priests, Fathers Jean-Baptiste Rouviere and Guillaurne Leroux, to the new parish of the basin of the Coppermine River at Coronation Gulf, Northwest Territories, with its archipelago from Cape Besley to Kent Penisula, and the immense territory of Victoria Island. The Coppermine River flowing North after passing the Dismal Lakes runs within very high banks, is often a raging torrent, very deep and wide. About five miles before it reaches Coronation Gulf the river tumbles into a long fissure called “Bloody Falls”, the name given by Sam (Samuel) Hearne in 1771. Hearne was the first explorer of that region; he had been on that occasion the helpless witness of the massacre of a peaceful Eskimo tribe by his own Red Indian guides and servants.

Map of northern Canada and the location of Coppermine River is highlighted.

Map of northern Canada and the location of Coppermine River is highlighted.

The Coppermine River rises and runs seawards to these “Barren Lands” which have been compared to the Russian tundra. A line drawn from the middle of the MacKenzie delta to the mouth of the Churchill River, and bending a little towards the south, would, along with the Arctic Ocean, fairly well form the boundary of those “Bad Lands” or Barren Regions. The regions are rocky and, in parts, even mountainous, but in their wide, undulating plains they hold many small lakes and muskegs. The home of the polar storms is there and the barrenness of the ground is perpetual. The west side of the Coppermine River is wooded till within twenty-five miles of the Arctic Ocean and only with poor, stunted specimens of spruce or fir trees, seeking shelter behind rocks that are “few and far between”.

During the short summer the Western Barren Lands, which have been compared to Irish bogs, or Breton Lands, are dressed out quite gaudily with a wealth of laughing flowers and are enlivened by the twittering and singing of a multitude of little birds. Further, the wide tundra stretches towards Hudson Bay, being more completely smitten with sterility. The same lake or stream whose southern bank is verdant shows only naked and stony death on the north. In the plains the width of a ploughshare divides desolation from growing greenery. On the desolate side there is nothing but rocky and frozen ground, with lichen and spongy mosses, the food of the reindeer and the musk-ox.

It is said that the layers of the Barren Lands hold quantities of precious metal. Copper, of which the Eskimo made such good use, is found near the surface, in the country drained by the Coppermine River, sometimes in mere flakes, sometimes in massive blocks.

1913 - Photograph of Vo;jka;,ir Stefansson.

1913 – Photograph of Vo;jka;,ir Stefansson.

Vilhjalmur Stefansson, the explorer, in 1910, gave the name of the Copper Group to the Eskimo tribes of the Coppermine River and Victoria Island. They live by hunting the whale, the walrus, the seal and, in the barren lands, the reindeer (caribou), the fox (many colours), the bear (black, grey and white), the wolf, the musk-ox, geese, etc.

In the spring of 1911, Bishop Breyant learned that a couple of hundred of these Eskimos were to meet the Hareskin and Dog-Rib Indians at Great Bear Lake. He decided at once to make a beginning of his long-considered effort for their conversion. He chose Father John Baptiste Rouviere (of the diocese of Mende, in France,) to be their first missionary. Father Rouviere, 30 years of age, ardent, robust and devout, was specially qualified to undertake such an arduous mission. He had lived for four consecutive years at Fort of Good Hope the life of the far north. He knew perfectly the language of the Hare-Skin Indians, who would be his interpreters to the Eskimos.

So, on July 5, 1911, he left Good Hope for Fort Norman on the MacKenzie River. Thence, with his portable “chapel”, some tools and provisions, he went by Great Bear River to Great Bear Lake, then over the 165 miles of lake. When he reached its northem coast in Dease Bay, unfortunately, the Eskimos had struck their camp and were on their way to their winter quarters on the Arctic.

The courageous Father Rouviere followed them. He had to go up the winding and rapid Dease River for half the way walking in the water and dragging his canoe. The rapids became more and more difficult and dangerous, and at last he abandoned his canoe and continued his journey on foot. It was a very toilsome journey. Praying and suffering much. Father Rouviere declared that it was the Blessed Virgin Mary Immaculate herself who brought the wandering sheep of his spiritual pasture within his views. It was August 15 1911 that he thus described the circumstances in a letter to Bishop Breyant, pencilled on his knees.

My Lord and Beloved Father: You have sent me after the lost sheep of the house of Eskimo. I found them on August 15th at seven o’clock in the evening. I had been praying without ceasing to our Blessed Lady, and it was she who guided my step in the right direction. I had abandoned my canoe, and I had been tramping the steps for three days when suddenly I saw on a hilltop three living beings. They might be caribou, they might be men! I hastened my steps in their direction. In ten minutes I saw quite a number of people on the slope of the hill. There could be no further doubt. They were Eskimos.

As soon as they saw me they ran forwards towards me. T’hen, before coming too near they halted and one advanced alone. After some further steps he also stood still, lifted up his hands on high, bent his head sideways to the right, then bowed his whole body towards the earth. These gestures he repeated several times. I responded by lifting up my hands. The Eskimo then began to draw near me and the others hastened after him. When this cautious courier was near enough to see me well, he turned around to the others and shouted. “KudIoonah” (it’s a white man). He then came to me smiling and stretching out his hand, which I shook cordially. He next took me by the arm to present me to all his friends. They took great notice of my soutane and my Oblate Cross. I gave them medals of the Blessed Virgin, which I myself hung around their necks. They were quite delighted to have them. They next brought me to their camp where I shook hands with all who were there. I was invited to join my hosts in a meal and there was no need to ask me twice, for I had eaten nothing since morning and had been on foot all day. After our meal the Eskimos riddled me with questions and I tried to convey to them that I had come to stay with them.”

Father Rouviere, after this first experience made up his mind to winter at Lake Imerenick — now called Lake Rouviere at the request of the missionary’s friends. Imerenick is about 65 miles north of Dease Bay, amid the poor and sapless fir trees of the truly barren land. Father Rouviere built himself a log cabin near the Lake and there he said the first Mass on September 17, 1911. Evidently, he was carrying a pack of some weight during the three days, which had to be brought to him at length by his Eskimos.

During September and October he was visited by many Eskimo families as they passed along towards the Arctic. It consoled him to notice that feasts of the Blessed Virgin brought them in considerable numbers. He took this as a sign that Mary Immaculate would be the special protectress of the new mission. When the last Eskimo had gone north, he spent the winter all alone, in prayer and manual labour. In April 1912, he set out in his dogsled for Fort Norman in search of his promised socinu. This was Father William Leroux., born 1885 in the diocese of Quinpe. He had arrived in the MacKenzie vicarate from the school at Liege in Belgium a year earlier. He was a very gifted young priest, able to learn new languages quickly with remarkable ease, and enjoying perfect bodily health. The two priests left Fort Norman in mid-JuIy 1912 and on August 27th they were in their cabin at Lake Imerenick. During the Autumn (Fall) they made acquaintance with many Eskimos and Father Leroux set himself very eagerly to learn their language. But the two priests soon came to the conclusion that to have a chance of converting the Eskimos they would have to go and live among them in the Arctic itself.   Those who might be seen at Great Bear Lake, or at Imerenick, were always very busy birds of passage.

The two Oblate Fathers proposed therefore to go to Coronation Gulf in the Autumn (Fall) of 1913. It was their wish to communicate with the Bishop. He had indeed given them a wide discretion, but they desired to have his formal approval of their plan. The spring and summer of 1913 passed without their chance of having any exchange of letters with Bishop Breyant. On August 13 1913 they received a letter from Mr. Joe Bernard, captain of a schooner. He had spent two years among the Eskimos of Coronation Gulf. He thought the moment favourable for the foundation of a mission in their midst. He promised to help the missionaries in any way he could. The Indian who brought this letter was going south. By him Father Rouviere wrote a few lines to Bishop Breyant, saying: “I am sending your Lordship, Joe Bernard’s note. It has helped us to a conclusion. We are about to start. Give us your blessing, and may our Blessed Lady guard and guide us.” Thereupon followed an agonizing silence of three years.

In 1914, Mr.D’Arcy Arden, an explorer, met in the Barren Lands two Eskimos wearing soutane and priestly vestment. But, when he enquired about the two white men who had visited the Eskimo country the year before, he got evasive and contradictory answers. Still, the worst might not have happened. The Eskimos might have robbed the Catholic Mission during the absence of the priests. One of the Hare-Skin Indians of Great Bear Lake said: “The Fathers told us that perhaps they would be absent for two years, as they meant to go alone with the Eskimos, no matter how great the distance.” These words gave reason for some hope, (the drowning will cling to a straw). It was thought the two fathers might have gone to Victoria Island, and that a premature thaw might have prevented their return on the ice; that they might have feared to trust themselves to a kayak (Eskimo canoe) and that they would wait for another winter. In the spring of 1915 Bishop Breyant, giving up all hope, requested the Canadian Government to send the Mounted Police to enquire into the case. His wishes were most willingly complied with.


1917 - Photograph of RNWMP Inspector Charles La Nauze (Source of photo - RCMP Historical Collections Unit - "Depot" Division).

1917 – Photograph of RNWMP Inspector Charles La Nauze (Source of photo – RCMP Historical Collections Unit – “Depot” Division).

Photograph of Constable

Photograph of Constable James Edward Freeman Wight (Reg.#6296).



Inspector D. La Nauze and Constables W. Withers and Wight set out upon the quest, taking with them all things necessary for an absence of two years. From Fort Norman, Father Trapsance accompanied them into the far north, but when the party reached their destination they were disappointed. The Eskimos, no doubt suspecting, had not come in that summer. The only information to be had was told by the ruins of the parish cabin at Lake Imerenick. Father Trapsance had to return sorrowfully to Fort Norman. The police went to Dease Bay and put up in a house which the missionaries had built there in the spring of 1913. The mills of justice sometimes have to grind very slowly, and at the end of April l9l6 the police went forward once more. In May, they reached the first Eskimo villages near the mouth of the Coppermine River. There they questioned the inhabitants very closely and cleverly, but all in vain.







The Eskimos were able to explain every suspicious circumstance. At length the police said to the interpreter: “Ask them straight who killed the two white men?” This shot brought down the whole Eskimo defence. The answer came at once: “Sinnisiak and Ulukack!” All tongues were instantly loosened and everyone began to tell what he knew and to show that he himself was perfectly innocent. They had all heard everything the day after the murder, and they were very sorry that the two good white men were killed. Statements were taken down in writing, including those of the murderers themselves. At the scene of the crime portions were found of a diary on rough paper kept by Father Rouviere. By means of all these, and the information supplied by Mr. Arden, it was easy enough to set down a detailed account of the whole tragedy.

The two missionaries left Lake Imerenick for an island in the Coppermine estuary on October 8th. 1913. Both were unwell. Father Leroux had a bad cold and Father Rouviere was still suffering from a wound which he gave himself building the house at Dease Bay. They were accompanied by a number of Eskimos, including Sinnisiak and Kormick. The journey about 100 miles took twelve days. The diary recorded repeatedly, “Intense cold”, “Dreadful weather”, “Wind in our faces”, “Hungry dogs outworn,” “Course we follow extremely rough.” On October 20th. or 22nd. 1913, were written the last words of the Diary. “We are at the mouth of the Coppermine River. Some families have left us. We are disappointed in our Eskimos. We may be left to die of hunger.” This was the first time that Father Rouviere had anything uncomplimentary to say of these poor people, for the sake of whose souls he had come from so far away. In the journey northward fishing had been unsuccessful and game rarely seen. The missionaries had brought some provisions but these were soon stolen.

One night the Eskimo who had been given shelter for nearly two weeks by the two priests stole Father Leroux’s gun from his bedside and hid it. Although it is the custom among the Eskimos never to refuse to give, yet this last theft could not be overlooked because, for a white man in the wild North to be without a gun is to starve. The gun was therefore recovered by its owner. Thereupon Kormick became furious and rushed upon Father Leroux to kill him. An old man named Koda seized Kormick and saved the priest’s life.

Afterwards Koda took the priest aside and said, “Kormick and his friends will harm you. You would do well to go back to your hut at Lake Imerenick. You could come to us again next year, and in better company.” The old man helped the missionaries to get their sled ready with its four dogs, and he accompanied them half-a-day’s journey, both to defend them and to set them on the right road. He even helped the dogs in drawing the sled. When they had gone up the Coppermine River a considerable distance, Koda said: “There are no trees here. You will easily find your way. Go straight on as far as you can go today. I love you and I would not allow anyone to injure you.” After a cordial handshake, he went back to his tribe.

The missionaries had four more nights to live. Of the first three we know nothing except that they had no tent and no firewood and that the cold was intense. During the second night Sinnisiak and Ulukack slipped away from their tribe and followed up the track of the dog-sled in the snow. In the middle of the day they overtook the missionaries. The priests were more than suspicious for they knew Sinnisiak had a bad reputation and was a friend of Kormick, However, they accepted the company of the two new arrivals who pretended that they were going to meet some friends who had been delayed on their way back from the Great Bear Lake.

It is for those friends we are bringing these two dogs; we will help in drawing your sled until we meet our people,” said the intending assassins. That evening those two Eskimos camped out near the river at some distance from the priests.”

Next morning, they came back, but that day gave them no opportunity of striking their victims. At night they built an igloo, in which all four took their rest. The law of hospitality is sacred in the Eskimo igloo (snow houses). The next day the group of four marched on in order; Father Rouviere on his snowshoes walked first, beating down the snow in front of the dogs. The Eskimos drew the sled, which Father Leroux guided from behind, just as the ploughman guides his plough. After some time, a blinding snowstorm arose. Sinnisiak said a few words to the other Eskimo and they both slipped off their harness. Sinnisiak came from behind the sled. Not, unnaturally, Father Leroux watched him. Then, by word and gesture, the Eskimo made a pretence so that the priest had to look away, and immediately he rushed upon Father Leroux and stabbed him in the back. The priest, uttering a cry, ran forward but had hardly got beyond the length of the sled when Ulukack threw himself upon him. Sinnisiak shouted, “Finish him; I will do the other.” Father Leroux, putting his hand on the shoulder of Ulukack, pitifully appealed to him. In vain, however for he was immediately stabbed twice, viz: in the stomach and in the heart.

Meanwhile, Father Rouviere, hearing the cry, came hurrying back. Seeing Father Leroux fall in the snow, and Sinnisiak raising the gun he had lifted from the sled, Father Rouviere tried to escape in the direction of the river. The first shot fired missed him. The second shot brought him to the ground. The two Eskimos then ran towards him. “Finish him,” said Sinnisiak once more. Ulukack plunged the still-dripping blade into his side. Father Rouviere fell at full length upon the reddened ground. While he was still breathing and his lips moved. Sinnisiak went back to the sled, took out the hatchet and cut off the priest’s legs and hands and head. Ulukack then cut open the body, took part of the liver, and the two monsters ate it. They then threw their victim’s body into a ravine, went back to Father Leroux, cut him open and ate his liver. When all was over they took the rifles and ammunition and went back to their camp. As soon as they arrived they said to Kormick, “We have killed the white men.”

The crime was committed between October 28th and November 2nd, 1913, in the afternoon, about twenty miles from the Arctic Coast, on the left bank of the Coppermine River, about eight miles south of Bloody Falls. Next day a number of Eskimos set out for the scene of the murder, where they found the four husky dogs guarding the dead. Some of the Eskimos, like Kormick, took possession of whatever effects they could find. Others, like old man Koda, bewailed the death of “The good white men.” Koda deposed, “I’m very sorry to hear of their death, and I went to see. I saw the body of a dead man beside the sled. It was Ilogoak (Father Leroux) and I began to weep. I did not see Kouliavik (Father Rouviere). The face of Ilogoak was almost hidden by the snow. He was lying on his back, his head a little lifted. I loved those good whites: they were very kind to us.”

Three years after the assassination, viz. on June 3rd, 1916, Constable Wight was guided to the spot by an Eskimo named Mayouk. He found the wooden frame of the sled and near it a jawbone with all its teeth perfect and white. Mayouk said it was Father Leroux’s and had been thrown there the year before by one who passed by. The Constable wishing to see the very place of Father Leroux’s death, Mayouk then brought him some yards farther towards the left bank of the river. There Constable Wight found some marks made by the claws of beasts of prey and many pieces of bone which had dropped from their jaws. Mayouk next showed him a hollow in the bed of a stream which flows into the Coppermine and said the body of Father Rouviere was there under six feet of ice and clay.   Constable Wight had to content himself with the making of two wooden crosses out of the remains of the sled and planting them in the two deserted spots where the missionaries met their deaths, as time did not permit the recovery of the body of Father Rouviere.



In August 1916, both Uloksak Avingak and Sinnisiak were found guilty of the murder of Leroux.  This conviction marked the first time that an Inuit person was found guilty of murder in Canadian court.  Due to the provocative nature of the priest’s actions before their deaths, the judge sentence them to hang but the sentence was immediately commuted to life imprisonment at a Fort Resolution police station..  In 1919, the pair assisted police in establishing a new police contingent at Tree River and were eventually release from custody in 1922.

Assistant Commissioner Charles Deering La Nauze (Reg.#4766 – O180) – joined the Force on September 25, 1908 and served in “K”, “G”, “O”, “E”, “HQ” “A” and retired on April 1, 1944 as the Commanding Officer of “F” Division.  He was born on October 30, 1888 at Newtonbutler Ireland.  During World War I, he served as a Lieutenant in “A” Squadron RNWMP and served in France in 1918.

In retirement, he became a Magistrate in Lacombre Alberta.  While on a world tour, he passed away in Gothenburg Sweden.

Sergeant James Wright – joined the Force on September 23, 1914 and retired on March 14, 1945.  After his involvement in the Coppermine River investigation, he joined “A” Squadron RNWMP and served overseas during World War I. During his career, he served in “K”, Depot, “G”, “A” and “H” Division. His brother Robert (Reg.#4961) and James’ son Alexis (Reg.#15526) also joined the Force.  James passed away on July 5, 1959 at Yarmouth Nova Scotia.