Like an iceberg, 1999 cont.: “An exorcism, followed by a penis cutting”
Almost always, as soon as I got off a plane in the North, someone came up to me to confide a tidbit of information: By 1999, I had become the reporter of secrets that many already knew about.
In Quaqtaq, a community of 300 on Quebec’s Ungava Bay, not long after my arrival in March, 1999, a man I knew headed in my direction. He whispered in my ear: Did I know about the penis cutting?
“Penis cutting?” I asked quietly.
“I heard about this guy who cut off his penis. In Akulivik,” he said. “I don’t know anything else.”
This news caught my interest at once. I was in Quaqtaq to attend the annual general meeting of Makivik Corp., a week-long ordeal because I was still shunned by some of its leaders for my past stories and reports. And this was the organization whose lawyer threatened me with jail in 1996, which left me with some bad feelings.
And, because of my reports, during many discussions, all journalists, Inuit and non-Inuit, were in 1999 kicked out of the meeting — and their translation headsets were taken away before they left the room, so no one could listen in on headphones outside the meeting, as I had done in 1994 in Salluit.
This week I expected to be asked to leave the meeting often.
But, thinking about this new news tip I’d just been handed, I felt cheered up. At least I’d have something to work on when I wasn’t in the meeting.
I thought back to February, when I’d visited Kangiqsujuaq for a meeting of the Kativik Regional Government. There I’d overheard councillors talking to each other about something going on in Akulivik — but I had gotten no straight answers about that from Luc Harvey, then the police chief of the Kativik Regional Police Force, the police force run by the KRG.
But there are no secrets in Nunavik, I learned once again.
In March, it was much warmer than when I was in Kangiqsualujjuaq after the avalanche in January, but it was still cold. The school where the meeting took place was banked with snow. Members of the media were supposed to work in a classroom outfitted with some telephone lines and larger desks. Apart from me, there were local radio and television reporters, a Radio-Canada radio host and a journalist from France.
I was staying at the home of Quaqtaq’s mayor, a man I first met when he took over as the police chief in Puvirnituq: Johnny Oovaut, a large man with a deep voice, a born-again Christian and a gospel singer. His home outside the village was large and modern, finished only months before I stay there.
It was more luxurious than most homes in the South, with entirely new furnishings, and touches I wouldn’t mind in my own home — such as a giant-sized Jacuzzi tub. I ended up hardly being there, however, as I threw myself into finding out information about the man in Akulivik who had tried to cut off his penis.
Before starting to make calls, however, I created a mental picture of Akulivik on Nunavik’s Hudson Bay coast: — that’s something I always did before trying to do a long-distance story. Akulivik, population of about 400, was a tiny place, a cluster of buildings on a peninsula that branches into the water and looks like a fish harpoon — an akulivik.
It was a place I had actually visited when I accompanied the traveling court on its regular stop to the community in the early 1990s. In the small school gym, the bleachers were full as residents watched the makeshift courtroom action unfold. Those accused stood in front of a low school desk facing Judge Yvon Roberge. The young men wore shiny padded jackets; they held sunglasses in their hands that they clasped behind their backs.
A woman rose with her husband to talk about the progress he had made since he assaulted her not long ago. She was wearing an amautik parka. A stream of light poured in on the paperback Bible lying on the desk.
Roberge listened to lawyers describe another case where a young man had stolen propane for sniffing and assaulted a girl on the same night. But that was four years ago, and the accused said he’d been clean for a year. He was working. His sentence involved probation and a public apology for his behaviour.
I recalled all this about Akulivik: It was a community that still settles its own disputes, I thought. I also remembered it was a place where there had been several violent incidents — in 1998 a man took a woman hostage, sexually assaulted her daughter and then killed the mother while another child looked on. Anything’s possible, I thought.
I found a telephone book and start dialing numbers in Akulivik, searching for information. I decided to start with anyone who had a non-Inuk name because they might less likely to have a reason not to talk to me about the incident. After a few calls, I finally got referred to a woman to whom I spoke to over her lunch hour.
“Hi, I’m Jane George from Nunatsiaq News. I want to ask you something about a story I’m chasing. Can you tell me what do you know about a man who cut his penis off? ”
“You mean the exorcism?’
“Uh” I hesitated.
An exorcism? I had been thinking it’s a penis-cutting incident. Now it was an exorcism. Okay.
“Yes, of course, the exorcism. I’ve heard about it and I wanted to check out my details.”
A woman, she told me, was the subject of an exorcism. It was the woman’s future brother-in-law who attempted to cut off his penis, after he urged others to “repent their sins.”
In Akulivik, there was only one church, an Anglican church. It was in this modest place of worship, just a few weeks previously — and not long after two southern evangelists had visited the community — that the local church committee singled out one woman as being “possessed.”
I finally called Eli Aullaluk, a municipal councilor, who described himself as “a Christian,” when I felt I have enough information to ask the right questions. He gave me more details, telling me that this woman’s family first noticed that she was disturbed on Feb. 19 — just a few weeks earlier.
“She was not being normal,” Aullaluk said. “Her mother asked her, ‘who are you?’ and her answer was, ‘I’m a bad spider, a devil, a demon.’ She knew right away that she wasn’t well.”
The woman, 30, was brought to the Anglican Church, where the church vestry committee spoke with her.
“They decided she was possessed,” said Aullaluk. “She was very disturbed. Naturally, we would know that she was evilly possessed. We believe in this.”
A rite of exorcism followed, Aullaluk said. It was held in a room usually occupied by the community’s social services unit, on the suggestion of a social worker, who was also a member of the church committee. The woman occasionally had to be restrained during the proceedings.
“They had to hold down her arms and legs or tie her arms to her wrists sometimes to prevent her from hurting herself,” said Aullaluk who saw the woman on several occasions during her ordeal.
According to Aullaluk, the recent exorcism in Akulivik came to an abrupt end when the woman injured her hands while trying to grab at a window blind. She was taken to see a nurse for medical treatment and then brought to another location in the village. Against the wishes of her family and a healer from another community who had come to assist, medical personnel wanted to remove the woman from Akulivik for more medical treatment.
“The reason why we wanted to deal with it is that she wasn’t medically sick, but she was spiritually sick. There were people who were capable of working with her,” said Aullaluk. “It was definitely a spiritual problem.”
“Spiritual incapability,” he later called her condition in a statement faxed to the newspaper.
Following a call to the regional police, the woman was removed from Akulivik and transferred to Puvirnituq’s Inuulitsivik hospital. Covered with bruises, dehydrated and hungry, the woman was heavily sedated for several days and taken to Montreal for treatment.
Also during or after the exorcism, her future brother-in-law tried to cut off his penis.
The injured man reportedly made a good recovery in Montreal from his self-inflicted wounds.
I couldn’t find out how or why he attempted to sever the organ. He had provided several differing explanations, including remorse over previous sinful behaviour, following Mark 9:43, “And if thy hand offend thee, cut it off : it is better for thee to enter into life maimed, than having two hands to go into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched.”
No criminal charges were ever laid.
Officers from the KRPF finally mumbled explanations when I call them for information about what took place in Akulivik — because this time they could no longer say nothing had happened, as they had in Kangiqsujuaq in February.
Sûreté du Québec provincial police investigators even came to Akulivik, but closed the file because its investigators couldn’t determine whether or not the woman had been held against her will.
Meanwhile, according to Aullaluk, many people in Akulivik were actually hoping that criminal charges would be laid. They hoped that, then, their side of the story would come out in court.
“We would have seen which side was right,” Aullaluk said. “The people here in the community, especially the people who were involved, are very unhappy with the decision taken by the authorities, like the police and the health services. They were wrong. She would be better now if they hadn’t taken her.”
In a statement, he said the head of Nunavik’s regional board of health of social services, Jean Dupuis, also a KRG councillor in 1999, was aware of the exorcism at the February KRG meeting, when Aullaluk said Dupuis called the people of Akulivik “witch hunters.”
“This community was strongly humiliated and is disgusted by this statement,” Aullaluk wrote in a letter to the newspaper after my story on the exorcism is published.
“I have too much respect for Inuit to use Nunatsiak [sic] News to debate fundamental human rights,” Dupuis said in his own statement to the newspaper.
“Many Inuit colleagues and members of my own family have indicated to me that religious exorcism as being practiced now does not relate to Inuit culture as they know it.”
While spiritual possession was not an everyday situation in Akulivik, other northern communities had experienced it, both recently and in the past, Aullaluk told me.
Residents of Akulivik suspected that unseen, foreign forces are afoot in their icy streets.
“This community here strongly believes that it is very possible to believe that people can be possessed by evil spirits,” Aullaluk said.
A few years later, in 2002, I visited Akulivik again. It was March, but it was one of those bitter minus 30 C days that, despite the bright sunlight, defied the idea of spring. Under a bright sun and cloudless sky, the wind was blowing snow that bit into my face. In the municipal office, I met Aullaluk who had become the mayor of Akulivik.
He looked delighted when he learned who I was. He gave me a mug embossed with the community’s fish harpoon logo as a souvenir of our meeting, which I still use today.
Like an iceberg continues May 27.
You can read earlier instalments here:
Like an iceberg: on being a journalist in the Arctic
Like an iceberg, 1991…cont.
Like an iceberg, 1991…more
Like an iceberg, 1992, “Shots in the dark”
Like an iceberg, 1992, “Sad stories”
Like an iceberg, 1993, “Learning the language of the snows”
Like an iceberg, 1993 cont., “Spring”
Like an iceberg, 1993 cont., “Chesterfield Inlet”
Like an iceberg, 1993 cont., more “Chesterfield Inlet”
Like an iceberg, 1994: “Seals and more”
Like an iceberg, 1994, cont., “No news is good news”
Like an iceberg, 1994 cont., more “No news is good news”
Like an iceberg, 1994 cont., “A place with four names”
Like an iceberg, 1995, “More sad stories”
Like an iceberg, 1995 cont., “No place like Nome”
Like an iceberg, 1995 cont., “Greenland”
Like an iceberg, 1995, cont. “Secrets”
Like an iceberg, 1996, “Hard Lessons”
Like an iceberg, 1996 cont., “Working together”
Like an iceberg, 1996 cont., “At the edge of the world”
Like an iceberg, 1996, more “At the edge of the world”
Like an iceberg, 1996, cont. “Choices”
Like an iceberg, 1997, “Qaggiq”
Like an iceberg, 1997, more “Qaggiq”
Like an iceberg, 1997, “Qaggiq” cont.
Like an iceberg, 1997 cont., “Qaggiq and hockey”
Like an iceberg, 1997 cont., “Brain surgery in POV”
Like an iceberg, 1997 cont.: “Masks on an island”
Like an iceberg, 1997 cont., “Abusers on the pulpit”
Like an iceberg, 1998, “Bearing gifts”
Like an iceberg, 1998 cont., “At the top of the world”
Like an iceberg, 1998 cont., “A bad week”
Like an iceberg, 1998 cont.: more from “A bad week”
Like an iceberg, 1998 cont., “Memories”
Like an iceberg, 1999, “The avalanche”