By Carrie GourMarch 2006
Producer's Journal: Getting permission to exhume
With the help of an introduction made by Mel Benson (who becomes the project's business and cultural guide), I approach Chief of the Aklavik Indian Band, Charlie Furlong with the idea of making a documentary in Aklavik that involves exhuming the body of Albert Johnson. While kind, it's hard to read his true feelings on the subject.
Charlie reminds me that many have tried this before and have been shut down by the community. I know this, but I offer our novel approach: partnership with the community. We will not just come in and "take" something and leave; we will work with the community to do this in a way that is respectful and an "exchange." In addition to telling the story of working to learn the true identity of Albert Johnson through exhuming his body to acquire sample DNA, we will tell the previously untold Aboriginal side of the Mad Trapper story. We also commit a substantial amount of money for the community as a "leave behind" legacy. We leave it open ended at this point for the community to decide what this will be: Scholarship fund, beatification project and virtual museum are ideas that are discussed.April-June 2006
Numerous phone calls and emails between Chief Charlie Furlong, myself and Mel Benson. I call Chief Charlie and Chief Charlie returns my calls to Mel Benson, who in turn fills me in... through this convoluted communications circle I eventually learn that Chief Charlie has become a champion of the project and has been quietly talking about it with both the formal and informal leadership in community the past four months. Chief Charlie especially likes that the knowledge and skill of the to-now unknown Aboriginal side of the story will finally be recognized.June 2006
I write a letter to the Mayor Knute Hansen detailing the proposal for our film, and request a meeting with his Worship and the Hamlet Council.August 2006
Our letter and proposal is presented to Council. Myth Merchant Films receives an invitation to travel to Aklavik to make a formal presentation.September 2006
Aerial view of Aklavik.
Writer/Director Michael Jorgensen, Mel Benson and I travel to Aklavik. We make a presentation to the Mayor and Council, and request their permission to move ahead with our project - specifically we want to move forward gathering the necessary requirements for an exhumation permit. The Mayor and Council are very positive and receptive to our proposal. Yay! Their only condition is that we do an appropriate amount of consultation with the various stakeholders in the community with a particular focus on the elders. Basically we are told that if we can convince the elders to support the exhumation, then the rest of the community will abide by their decision.
We subsequently commit to a series of consultation/information sessions with community stakeholders; to hiring a local liason/assistant producer; to film locally wherever possible; to hire locally wherever possible; to respect and show appreciation for local cultural values and to work with the Council to develop and create the film's "leave behind." We carved out a significant piece of the budget to gift the community with something they can look to as a legacy of the film, which we refer to as the "leave behind." Culturally, it is our effort to not just "take" from the community, but to make an exchange. October 10, 2006
We receive the formal motion from the Aklavik Hamlet Council supporting our film and we're given their blessing to begin the process of acquiring a permit to exhume the body of the "Mad Trapper."
The community supports the project for a number of reasons: There was an appropriate level of consultation with the various stakeholders in the community, such that the community was able to sufficiently think the project and the consequences through. Though others had tried to exhume the body of "Albert Johnson" and failed in the past, there was now a general desire to pursue the identity of the Trapper to bring a level of closure to the story as well as a desire to have the Aboriginal side of the Mad Trapper story reflected in the documentary and other media. It was also generally thought that we approached the community in the right way with the right kind of commitments - to tell the Aboriginal side of the story, to respect the religious and cultural significance of the story and the exhumation, to gift the community in return for the support and participation so that there was a lasting legacy of the film.October 2006
Michael and I approach well known forensic anthropologist Dr. Owen Beattie to head up our scientific team. Dr. Beattie is best known for his groundbreaking work on the Franklin Expedition. He has also been part of numerous exhumations throughout the arctic. Dr. Beattie is enthused by the possibility of joining our team, but also tells us that according to scientific protocol, the first member of our team needs to be a forensic pathologist - that everyone else on the team including him, works for this person.
Based on his extensive experience exhuming bodies in the north, and based on his knowledge of the Aklavik area, we asked Dr. Beattie what we could expect to find upon opening the grave of Albert Johnson? Would there be sufficient evidence to retrieve a DNA sample? As Dr. Beattie famously told us: "There is no way to know for sure what the condition of the body will be. He's not frozen year round there, and the area floods regularly. We may find skeletal remains and some soft tissue, but on the other hand - he may be biological soup." Gross. From this day forward until the moment we uncover the coffin, my fear is that Albert will be "biological soup."November 20, 2006
Mel Benson and I travel to Aklavik for the first series of community consultation meetings. We have requested an audience with the elders in the community as well as others. We've organized a lunch, and have been assured elders and other people are well informed of the meeting and will attend. One person shows up.
We wait two hours, when Mel has the brainstorm to contact the school, and invite students and teachers in the high school grades to come hear our presentation. We think if we cannot convince their parents and grandparents directly that the film generally and the exhumation specifically is a good idea, that perhaps we can get the kids excited about it, and they can "sell" their families at home. All the students between grades 9 and 12 come in batches to the Hamlet council chambers where we are set up. The students ask great, probing questions, and are engaged in the conversation. The day is saved.
Associate Producer Dennis Allen
We hire Inuvik local Dennis Allen as our community liason. He is perfect: Not only is he related to half the people in Aklavik, but he is also a filmmaker. He has a lot of energy, and I am overjoyed.November 2006
Territorial media begins to spin our film proposal and presence in the community in a frighteningly negative way. Emotions in Aklavik and Inuvik run high as a result, and the issue of Albert Johnson's exhumation is hotly debated publicly and privately alike. We fear things are going to fall apart before they've even had a chance to come together and I work to run interference on the negative press.December 2006
Chief Charlie Furlong and Mayor Knute Hansen issue a formal press release denouncing those spreading misinformation in their attempt to quash the film. As leaders of the community of Aklavik they come out in strong support of Myth Merchant Films, the process we are undertaking and the film itself. Hallelujah.December 2006
Our associate producer Dennis Allen conducts a series of phone meetings with people in Aklavik and Fort McPherson to hear their concerns and assess the level of support (or not) for the documentary (and the exhumation in particular). This is in follow-up to the community meeting held in Aklavik in November and the subsequent negative press. He focuses on speaking to elders. Many refuse to talk to him at all about the notion of exhumation. December 2006
I write a letter to the Chief Medical Officer of the NWT Andrew Corriveau requesting his permission to exhume Albert Johnson. It is one of the required documents for our formal application to exhume, to the Registrar General. In phone conversations with Mr. Corriveau, I am told that his permission will depend on the response from the community. The written press release and support of Chief Charlie and Mayor Knute is invaluable.December 2006
Forensic pathologist Dr. Sam Andrews is brought on the film to lead the scientific team, as per protocol. If there is substantial soft tissue, Dr. Andrews will have to do an autopsy. He is young and excited to be a part of this unusual and history-making project - and there are very few people in the world who have ever autopsied a body buried for more than 75 years!
Michael also makes contact with forensic odontologist and one of the world's leading DNA experts, Dr. David Sweet. Despite the demands on his time which include teaching at UBC, running a world class DNA laboratory, work for Interpol and the Vancouver police department, he eagerly agrees to be our DNA expert on HUNT FOR THE MAD TRAPPER. Michael and I are thrilled at the scientific expertise assembling for this project.January 9, 2007
We receive permission from the Chief Medical Health Officer Andre Corriveau to exhume the body of Albert Johnson. Things are looking up.January 2007
I write a letter to the Anglican Bishop of the Arctic, Reverend Andrew Atagotaaluk, requesting permission from the Church to exhume the body of Albert Johnson. As the "owner" of the ground in which Albert is buried, the Church's permission is also a required document by the Registrar General. As a murderer, Albert Johnson was not buried in consecrated ground in 1937, but was buried outside the bounds of the cemetery. Sometime in the 1970's, however, the Anglican Church absorbed the corner of the cemetery Albert was originally buried in.
Aklavik main street.
Mel Benson, Dennis Allen and I return to Aklavik for another round of community consultation on our film and the issue of the exhumation. We set up again in the Hamlet council chambers. We have advertised extensively and our communication is that people are aware and prepared to discuss and/or debate the issues with us (rather than discussing it just in the media). It is an evening session this time, to allow everyone who wants to, to attend. 6 people show up. While a small group, they are engaged, concerned, and ask relevant, excellent questions. When they leave, our major concern is that there was only one elder in the group, and it is the elders who will make or break us. Without their support, the registrar general will not give us the Disinterment papers allowing us to exhume.
Mel, Dennis and I discuss our options. We decide that if the people won't come to us, that we will go to the people. We know there is much misinform
ation spreading around the community, and people are basically afraid to talk to us about it. There are rumours we are going to take Albert Johnson's body to Edmonton and that we are "buying" him, among other things. To the contrary, our plan is to create a "field" forensic lab" on site and bring Albert up, examine him, and put him back down the same day.
We know we need to go to the people to hear their feelings, be able to give them real information about the project, get their feedback and receive their advice - all within the comfort and security of their homes. Since Dennis is so well known to the people of Aklavik, he is key to making this idea possible at all. People know and trust Dennis, even if they're still a little unsure about Myth Merchant Films.
For the next two days, Mel, Dennis and I go door-to-door in Aklavik, talking to people. We focus on visiting with all the elders first, then see others. This turns out to be a pivotal and invaluable experience.
Among other things, we learn the oral history of Albert's grave: The year he was killed, there were two suicides in the community. Suicides are shameful, and those who commit it cannot be buried in consecrated ground. It is difficult to dig graves mid-winter in the high arctic, and the story went that the two suicides were simply popped into the same hole as Albert. There is much concern with this story, which we heard time and again: to disturb Albert is one thing, but to disturb the other two at the same time is something else altogether...
We speak to the son of the man who built the coffin Albert Johnson was buried in. We speak to an elder who remembers seeing Albert in the community when she was a teenager. We speak to retired Aboriginal guides and constables.
We also hear that people very much want to identify Albert Johnson, in order to give his family some peace. A family somewhere lost a son/brother/father/uncle in Albert, and many people in the community relate to this unique loss, having had a relative go missing in their time. We hear often the issue of respect: once a person is laid to rest, they should remain so - full stop. While people have the right to disagree with our desire to exhume Albert Johnson, we are hopeful we have created enough positive result for the community that it ultimately outweighs the discomfort or negative feelings people have. On two occasions, we hear that if we were going to exhume the body anyway, that it would be comforting at least to know that he was blessed: could we have a minister say a blessing before he is taken from the ground, and again before he is re-buried? It's suggested that at least this way Albert can be given a "real" burial and perhaps rest finally, in peace.
January 12, 2007
Mad Trapper gravesite
I contact the Registrar General for an off-the-record conversation. With respect to the suicides, I need to know what the rules are around the potentiality of other bodies being in Albert Johnson's grave. The Registrar General tells me that if we are able to obtain permission to exhume, it is permission to exhume one body, and one body only. If we come across any other bones, we must stop digging immediately. We will not have permission to disturb any other bones, and it will be a violation of the law if we continue to dig under these circumstances.
I carry around a minor sense of dread from now until we reveal Albert's burial box that the story of the suicides is true and we will come across another body on top of his and be forced to stop everything mid stream, even after all this work and all this time...January 13, 2007
I write a letter to the Aklavik Mayor and Council stating that we have completed a very thorough series of consultations with the people of Aklavik, and I present a report with everyone's comments, both positive and negative, who we spoke to. I formally request permission to move forward with making the documentary and coordinating the exhumation. With the need to schedule the availability of our five very busy and in-demand scientists for the same weekend, the exhumation is scheduled for August 2007.
Within a week, I hear back from the Mayor and Council: They want us to come back to Aklavik again to hold yet another series of community meetings to air concerns and hear support for our film project. February 2007
John Evans from the Canadian Police Research Centre and forensic odontologist Dr. Lynne Bell join our scientific team. John will take a three-dimensional reading of the skull of Albert Johnson and recreate what he would have looked like when alive. Dr. Bell does leading-edge work with oxygen isotopes found in tooth enamel. By grinding down Albert's tooth enamel, Dr. Bell will be able to tell us where in the world the Trapper grew up. It's remarkable work, and we are thrilled that John and Dr. Bell complete our incredible scientific team.February 26, 2007
Dennis Allen, Mel Benson and I return to the Aklavik council chambers to host another round of community meetings. We have two meetings planned: one from 4:00-6:00pm and another from 6:45-8:00pm. This time, attendance is strong, which we attribute to the fact that we'd gone door-to-door just one month previous. The questions are detailed and thoughtful. While there continue to be dissenters, the majority of those present at both meetings are in favour of allowing us to exhume and move forward with our film project, believing it will ultimately be good for Aklavik.March 6, 2007
We receive a formal letter from the Hamlet of Aklavik: After a lengthy meeting and discussion following the last series of community meetings, the council voted on allowing us to proceed with the documentary including the exhumation of Albert Johnson. In a vote of 4 to 2, we are told we have permission to move ahead. The support of the people of Aklavik was always the long pole we needed to have in place before anything else could really happen in terms of the exhumation, so it is a great day! It's been a full year since discussions with the community began.March 14, 2007
Reverend Andrew Atagotaaluk, Anglican Bishop of The Arctic gives us a letter of permission to exhume the body of Albert Johnson. His decision is based on the fact that we had done "extensive interviews with members of the community" of Aklavik, and that "although some people are in disagreement with the project, the majority of people are in favour of it. The feeling seems to be that your project will not only benefit the community but will also bring closure of the events to many people." The Bishop asks that we ensure an Anglican clergy person is in the community for the duration of our project. Though Regional Bishop for the Mackenzie & Kitikmeot region is suggested, when I speak to him, Bishop Larry is scheduled for a series of weddings over the weekend of our proposed exhumation date...
This is the last piece of the puzzle. We are now able to move forward with our application to the Registrar General of the NWT requesting the Disinterment/Reburial permitApril 13, 2007
We submit our official application to the Registrar General of the NWT, requesting permission to exhume the body of "Albert Johnson." The application is one-inch thick.June 1, 2007
We finally receive the blessed document in the mail: Disinterment/Reburial Permit: issued by the Registrar General, Department of Vital Statistics