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Bringing the past to life in bits and pieces

For much of his adult life, Leonard Linklater has been telling stories about the Yukon. But in the late 1990s, while at the Institute of Indigenous Government in British Columbia hefound an article in a legal journal about a story he'd never heard.

For much of his adult life, Leonard Linklater has been telling stories about the Yukon.

But in the late 1990s, while at the Institute of Indigenous Government in British Columbia, the member of the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation found an article in a legal journal about a story he’d never heard: the story of Jim and Dawson Nantuck, the first people hanged in the territory.

Linklater, who is originally from Inuvik, had lived in Yukon for about 20 years before this, and had spent most of that time as a broadcaster. He’d talked to many people, but never heard this story.

“It really excited me to think that there is a story that’s not talked about,” he said.

He began writing the play, Justice, in the early 2000s. As auditions near, he continues to modify the script as needed. Justice will premiere this fall as part of Gwaandak Theatre’s 2012-2013 season, “Untold stories from the past.”

The opening date for the communities has not been confirmed, but will likely be at the end of September or beginning of October. Justice comes to Haines Junction on Oct. 2 and Dawson City on Oct. 4 before showing at the Yukon Arts Centre in Whitehorse from Oct. 10-13.

The play shows how justice meant very different things to Yukon’s First Nations and residents of European descent.

During the gold rush, two Tagish people, an old man and a young boy, died after eating bread. Their family had found a can of powder, and unable to read English, assumed it was baking powder and used it to make bread, which they first fed to their dog.

The dog, and then the men, died. The powder was really arsenic.

After observing a traditional year of mourning, four young Tagish men were asked to collect on the debt. They met two miners building a boat near Marsh Lake. As best as possible, they tried to explain why they were there. They used some of the prospectors’ supplies. The First Nation men decided the debt was not paid. As the men left, they shot at them. William Meed was killed, Christian Fox wounded.

The four men were tried in July and 13 months later, two of them were hanged. The other two died of scurvy and tuberculosis while in prison.

The bodies of the men who were hanged were recovered in Dawson City in 2010 by a backhoe operator who was digging a pit for the city’s sewage system.

It was a difficult story to tell, said Linklater. He was relying on information about a people with no written language. Julie Cruikshank, an anthropologist from the University of British Columbia, who has worked in the Yukon for 50 years, shared some of her articles about cultural values of the time.

Legally, it was a tricky situation. The Yukon had recently been established. The justice system “didn’t expect to be dealing with capital cases, murder cases,” said Linklater. Dialogue between the judge and the defence lawyer hint at these complexities, as well as the lawyer’s unease about killing the men.

“This is a slam-dunk court case. If you go to a murder case today, it could take months,” said Linklater. “This started in the morning and was done by lunch. There’s not a lot of minutes in the court documents.”

So he had to make static courtrooms and jail cells dramatic.

“They’re all hard,” he said of writing the characters. “You gotta find the drama somewhere. That means making it up.”

He invented personal conflicts: failed careers, family loyalties.

Originally, the play had 12 characters, but he cut that number in half. He created three pairs representing the different groups involved: the First Nation, the prospectors and the legal system and the tensions they all experience watching the rapid changes around them.

Times were different then. Dawson would have just been tents and clapboard buildings. But in some ways, things are very similar, said Linklater.

“We just went through another gold rush here with all the mining exploration that took place last year, and we’re still seeing the effects of it this year,” he said.

Linklater first learned of this story shortly after the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples had issued a report that included a section on justice. Aboriginal people are significantly over-represented in the justice system. Things are similar today to the way they were back during the Klondike rush, said Linklater.

“We still haven’t seen a change in the terms of the relationship, it’s still an unbalanced relationship (in the justice system).”

Linklater has family members who feel restricted because of experiences they’ve had with the justice system. He knows the Teslin Tlingit Council is taking over justice as part of their self-government agreement. But it will be a challenge to get the communal clan system to work well with the Constitution and its focus on individual rights, said Linklater.

He has no simple solutions, but looking at the old ways of doing things may be a good place to start, he said.

The play will hopefully allow audience members to consider what justice means, said Linklater. Besides the question-and-answer period that will follow the play, the Department of Education is developing a curriculum to go along with it, he said.

And people Outside may get the chance to talk about it as well. The production may travel to the National Arts Centre in Ottawa next spring. If that happens, it won’t be the first time Linklater’s work has left Yukon. His previous play, 60 Below, co-written with Patti Flather, his partner and Gwaandak Theatre managing artistic director, was nominated for seven theatre awards in Toronto in the early 1990s.

He has worked on other plays, but there are no plans for producing any yet.

His involvement in the staging and casting is minimal. He’s pleased Floyd Favel is directing it since the First Nation director is classically trained.

Finding professional First Nation actors can be difficult. In Linklater’s opinion, theatre is not valued as much as it should be. But when the actors bring life to his words, it’s like magic.

“Stories are culture, and that’s what theatre is. It’s defining our culture in bits and pieces.”

Contact Meagan Gillmore at