Northerners: 24 short, but vivid, biographies from 1989

You can’t live long in Yellowknife without learning about René Fumoleau. The Catholic priest from France was famous for his criticism of the church, his photography and the book he wrote about Treaties 8 and 11 (he was celebrated anew when he died in 2019). But did you know he had a bumper sticker that read: “One nuclear bomb can ruin your whole day”?

It’s the kind of journalistic detail that runs all through this charming 1989 collection of 24 short biographies, ranging from elders who grew up on the land to athletes, politicians, artists and businesspeople. 

I learned two other things in the five pages on Fumoleau. One was that in 1967, “the government sent a floating museum, complete with a ferris wheel and a children’s amusement park, down the Mackenzie River to commemorate the Canadian centennial. So nobody would miss the celebration, the government flew people living inland to communities along the river. It was the first time the Dene had met together in large groups. They started to talk and exchange ideas and in one summer, the North changed. The consciousness of the people was raised and by 1969 the Indian Brotherhood, now called the Dene Nation, was formed to represent the political interests of the Dene.” 

Even allowing for journalistic hyperbole, this is a great paragraph. I don’t know where else one would find facts joined to big ideas like this, if not from a newspaper writer crafting a book. 

One other illuminating paragraph quotes Fumoleau himself, who explains how he went from proselytizing priest to friend of the Dene, and specifically credits the fact he was not raised in Canada.  

"Every Canadian is raised with the mentality that they know that the Indians are good for nothing, that they haven’t done anything good so far, and that they are lazy and dirty. We didn’t have those kinds of suspicions in Europe. For us, the Indians were still noble savages with feathered bonnets and galloping on horses on the prairies. White Canadians have the same ideas about Indians as the French have towards the North Africans. I know it would be very difficult for me even now to work with North African people because of what I learned 60 years ago when I was a kid."

I’ll let that quote stand without comment, which is a good way to treat this book overall, as a time capsule from which we can learn much more than the author intended. 

That author was Douglas Holmes, a former reporter for Northern News Services in Yellowknife. You can tell this book was written by a News/Norther from the fact that its cast includes not a single broadcaster. Print reporters in the North generally behave as though the CBC doesn’t exist, which is probably not their actual preference, but instead of dwelling on this, I’ll just note that this is yet ANOTHER book that has stemmed from NNSL’s venerable sweatshop. That’s number five on this blog to date, and a reminder of just how important the newspaper biz is to the written word at large.

This book details an incident in the N.W.T. legislature that felt almost apocryphal to me: the time in 1981 when MLA Nick Sibbeston smashed a coffee mug on the floor and stormed out saying: “You can stick this fuckin’ legislature.” I didn’t know that a month earlier he had threatened to, and then actually did, punch fellow MLA Tagak Curley in the head. I also had no idea that he’d “turfed out” much of the “Baffin mafia,” a “reference to those who started government careers in the 1960s as administrators on Baffin Island, who had been running the government in the authoritative style of the former commissioner.”

I’d never heard of Bezal Jesudason of Madras, India, who started a hotel with his wife in Resolute Bay in 1978 and became the go-to outfitter for people heading to the North Pole (he himself visited four times, by plane). The chapter is primarily an excuse to recount some zany adventures (the Japanese motorcyclist of 1987 features prominently), but it’s also a fascinating back story to Aziz Kheraj, Resolute’s latter-day hotel owner, profiles of whom (like this NNSL one from 2011) never seem to mention Jesudason. 

I’d also never heard of Nick Lebessis, a Greek businessman who apparently made a fortune buying furs in Arviat, or Tom Jeyachandran, a doctor from India who lived and worked all over the N.W.T. and South America. 

And I knew virtually nothing about William Nasogaluak, the Inuvialuit reindeer herder who was effectively forced to sell off his herd in a dispute with the Inuvialuit Regional Corp. (I still don’t really understand what happened there and vow to read more about it.)

The book also has great, short chapters on the aforementioned Curley, former MP Peter Ittinuar, Anglican Minister Benjamin Arreak, Abe Okpik (who traveled the Arctic giving people surnames instead of E-numbers), Cece McCauley (another News/North writer) and former Nunavut Commissioner Edna Elias, among others. 

But it’s time to mention the most jarring aspect of this book, its chapter on “Margaret Thrasher: Town Drunk.” 

Thrasher was an Inuvialuk raised in Aklavik and Inuvik before she was sent to residential school. She left Inuvik as a teenager to take care of her mother in Edmonton and fell in with a rough crowd. When she moved to Yellowknife in the late 1970s, she “became the best known personality in the city. When she is not drinking, she can usually be found chatting with passers-by in front of the post office or the public library.”

Thrasher was most famous for her run for mayor in the mid-1980s (she came fourth out of five), but most of the chapter recounts her criminal charges and injuries, such as the can of spray paint that blew up in her face. “‘The metal got stuck in my lips and my glasses went flying off and I was lifted right off the ground; and you know how heavy I am. It was just like a Bazooka,'” she told Holmes.

The chapter’s headline, though shocking, turns out to be an apt description — of the public perception at the time, and perhaps still. Among the very few references to Margaret Thrasher I found online are tributes from two Yellowknife musicians — Pat Braden talked about her much as Holmes does when that weird Tale of a Town theatre duo came to town and invited people into their trailer to tell a story about the city; Indio Saravanja wrote a song about her — who may be the only other people to immortalize her (though I stand to be corrected). 

So while this book is clearly an act of journalism — i.e. the first and definitely not final draft of history — it’s also a great read, and an important one. 

Northerners: Profiles of People in the Northwest Territories
By Douglas Holmes
James Lorimer & Company Publishers, 1989
190 pages

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