In a remote part of the Canadian Arctic lies the Belcher Islands. A cluster of islands in Hudson Bay in the Nunavut territory of Canada, with a current population of fewer than 1000 people. In the winter of 1941, the inhabitants were Inuit people, still the most common ethnic group living throughout Northern Canada. They live a minimalist lifestyle holding traditional beliefs centred on animatism, “that all living and non-living things have a spirit.” The Inuit believe that every human is made of three parts: a body, a name, and a soul. When a human dies, it is only their body that has died, their name and their soul can continue living.
In the winter of 1941, there were no police on the Islands, no priests or authoritative elders to provide guidance and keep the peace within the community. The Inuit survived from the land and through hunting wild animals; whale, walrus and caribou herds, across the long winter months.
Religion, the Bible, and the concept of a God and his son Jesus sacrificing himself for the people were still relatively new to the Inuit. Bibles had appeared on the Islands a few years earlier, with the minority who could read some English starting to read and contemplate the idea but it cannot be said religion had settled in and religious beliefs were held.
A winter meteor shower did resonate with one resident over that winter. The lights in the sky transforming the Islands out of their darkness for a short period was taken as a sign the end of the world was coming. 27-year-old Charlie Ouyerack thought of himself as a shaman, able to communicate with and receive messages from the spiritual world. The meteor shower was his sign and he told the community he was Jesus Christ, appointing a well-respected community member Peter Sala, as God. The two men proclaimed the harsh life of hunting, going hungry, and freezing cold was coming to an end and it would be replaced by an easy life flowing with food and warmth for everyone to embrace.
They arranged for almost all the sled dogs on the Islands used to keep the Inuit people mobile, to be killed, telling everyone they would no longer be needed and achieving their more likely intention of ensuring community members had no method of transport to leave the Islands. Building on the beliefs of the Inuit on internal souls being able to move between people, Peter Sala told them he was God ‘inside’ even though he didn’t look any different.
Sara Apawkok was a teenage girl with a strong independent mind and she wasn’t convinced of Sala’s and Ouyerack’s claims. She questioned them as to whether they were really true. The result of her questions was a declaration that she must be Satan and must be removed and killed to protect everyone else. Her murder was the first to occur under these two new leaders. Those who did not believe them and had the audacity to question them were killed.
In February 1941, six members of Peter Sala’s family, including four children, unbeknown to him, were taken out onto the ice in the freezing temperatures and told to strip off all their clothing. They were left there with orders not to move. All six froze to death.
It was Peter Sala’s own sister who had herded these people to their deaths, fully believing the end of the world was coming and they needed to meet their saviour. When Sala discovered her actions and the loss of multiple members of his family, he realised his alliance with Ouyerack and his declaration of being God was a mistake. It was he who had made contact with the mainland and reported the murders, bringing Royal Canadian Mounted Police and officials to the Islands to find out what was going on. Peter Sala was sentenced to prison and hard labour for his role in the scam which had ended the lives of nine people in total.
Much of the information known about this historic case comes from Lawrence Millman, a historian, traveller, and writer who wrote A True Story of Murder In The Arctic: At The End Of The World, which focused on this case. In his explanation why the community may have embraced these claims by these two men, Millman talks of the harsh winter they were experiencing, the fact they were worn out, hungry, and fearful of what the following months would bring as hunting for food became even more difficult. Millman said in an interview with Canada’s Maclean’s Magazine, “In a situation like this, you may reach beyond your usual traditions to try and find a way out.”
“As my main informant, the old woman who told me not to use her name said, “We were terrified that we would be next.”
What happened on those Islands in 1941 is most often referred to as a massacre born from a cult-like framework of just two individuals whose claims and statements held control over the community. Some followed along out of fear, others were taken by claims of a better life coming, drawn in through desperation from their current circumstances. It is a period of time those who remain on the Belcher Islands are not proud of with the senseless loss of nine members of their community being difficult for them to comprehend.
When asked what he thought the lasting impact of the deaths on Belcher Islands have had, writer Lawrence Millman stated, “They haven’t bit the religious bullet to the same degree as people in other parts of the Canadian Arctic.” It is clear this piece of history where two individuals twisted their religious knowledge to serve themselves resulting in the murder of nine, are events not easily forgotten by the families making up the remaining communities living on the Belcher Islands.