What better place to write and research a historic event that took place in Canada’s far north than while living in Canada’s north? Debra Komar was writer-in-residence at Berton House in Dawson City for one year and considered her time there one of the “greatest experiences” of her life.
The result is a concise, scathing, and at the same time, sympathetic account of a travesty of justice committed against the Indigenous peoples living above the Arctic Circle. As a retired forensic anthropologist who participated in numerous legal proceedings, Ms. Komar’s prior books have won her many honours, including the 2016 Canadian Authors Award for History for The Bastard of Fort Stikine. As a writer, she excels at getting to the crux of the matter, both legally and forensically. She fully sketches out the characters involved, using her research skills and critical thinking.
The story of The Court of Better Fiction* is that of the arrest, trial, conviction and hanging of two Inuit men charged with murder. The murders of not only those in their own band but of two white men, one an RCMP officer, the other an HBC employee. Considering the event in hindsight will leave most readers aghast at the legal circus that travelled north from Edmonton and Vancouver to convict and hang these two men. There were even a hangman and the materials for a gallows sent along, intimating the verdict was already in. Chapter Fourteen, “All Evidence to the Contrary” highlights how Judge Dubuc’s court was “awash in procedural and ethical violations” just two days into the proceedings. The two accused, Alikomiak and Tatamigana, were unrepresented by counsel. Officers had failed to fingerprint the two, and the body of the victim, Corporal Doak, never underwent an autopsy to recover the bullet that took his life to be matched against the murder weapon. Any of these miscarriages of justice would have been enough to get a mistrial for the defendants, had they taken place in a conventional court of law, but as Judge Dubuc admonished the jurors:
“Our Government has not undertaken this expensive Judicial Expedition to have exhibited a mockery and travesty of justice before these primitive people.”
Yet, that is what it was. It was all designed to show these “primitive people” the white way of law, one they didn’t comprehend, never having been educated in our school system or even in the English language. As such, they were amused by the spectacle of it all.
Ms. Komar is an acknowledged expert at parsing historical crimes and then re-creating the crime scene and sequence of events based on modern technology. It is fascinating to read The Court of Better Fiction as she methodically puts everything into perspective so we can see just how the British legal system was foisted on peoples who had no conception of judges, juries and legal proceedings. To them, all white men were “rich men” who were to be appeased. The Court of Better Fiction makes for compelling reading and it certainly earns a place on the shelf alongside her previous works of historic forensic legal cases. Five stars, and a place on the 2019 longlist in the Non-Fiction category for a “The Very Best!” Book Award for 2019.
The Court of Better Fiction: Three Trials, Two Executions, and Arctic Sovereignty by Debra Komar
*Note: this review was based on an Advance Reading Copy supplied by Dundurn Press. Please note if you choose to purchase this book through Amazon using the link below I will receive a small commission at no extra cost to you. If you cannot see the Amazon ad below (if you are using an ad blocker, for instance) here is the link: https://amzn.to/2WnkaX2 Thanks!