Umingmak: A fine new memoir of N.W.T. Commissioner Stuart Hodgson

It’s about time we had a good, readable book about Stuart Hodgson, the larger-than-life commissioner who brought the Northwest Territories government to Yellowknife — literally, on those two planes we’ve all heard about, in 1967. 

Er, maybe I should spell that out. Stuart Hodgson was named commissioner of the N.W.T. by Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson in 1967. I’ll give you the scene as Jake Ootes gives it to us in the opening pages of his homage, Umingmak: Stuart Hodgson and the Birth of Modern Arctic

Pearson: “Your job will be to bring Canada’s Arctic into the 20th century. That part of the Arctic has been ignored for too long. Unacceptable!”

He goes on: “Arthur here,” [meaning Arthur Laing, then the Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, namesake of that office building on Yellowknife’s 49th St.] “tells me you’re the best man for the job. That you’ll stand like a rock! That you’ll give it your all!”

“I’ll give it my all,” vowed Hodgson. “I’ll move the government from Ottawa to the new capital in the North and stay at least ten years to establish the democratic government envisioned by the Carrothers Commission. But I have to warn you that I know nothing about running a government.”

Pearson: “That is exactly why I’m appointing you.” 

I’ll go straight to the text for this paragraph:

The Prime Minister rose from his chair and stepped around the desk. “Your undertaking is of historic importance, not only for the Arctic and its people, but for all of Canada.” His expression was stern. “I expect big results and more than the best from you.” He extended his hand to Hodgson. “In return, I will give you my full support. No one else in the country will have the kind of authority you will. Not even me.” 

I have no idea where Ootes (pronounced “Otis”) got the dialog for that cinematic opening to his book, which includes few footnotes and no endnotes. Hodgson died in 2015 and there’s no reason Ootes, who was a 20-something “information officer” with Indian Affairs at the time, would’ve been present.

But he had worked with Hodsgon before, and shortly after Pearson’s grand pronouncements, Hodgson invited Ootes to his office and offered him a seat on the plane heading north. Hodgson wanted Ootes to run the newspaper in Yellowknife so that he could hire the publisher. Ootes agreed to this weird proposition, which never panned out in any event, and for several years thereon managed never to stray more than a few feet from Hodgson’s side. 

Ootes became Hodgson’s assistant, and he’s an adoring acolyte. “The North needed Hodgson,” he writes. “He had proven to be a man of his word and I was confident he’d do the impossible for the rest of the North. He was the right man, in the right job, at the right time.” About a quarter of the book is made up of this kind of stuff. 

Ootes revelled in the status his connection to Hodgson provided. I laughed out loud more than once at his hyperbole. Here’s a quote from a chapter called “Arranging the Tour” in which Ootes, charged with planning Hodgson’s trip to the Eastern Arctic, has trouble getting through on the telephone. “I was to become quite proficient at using the phonetic alphabet,” he writes. “This was life on the frontier.” The actual trip — in which Hodgson and his pals rip around feasting at various white administrators’ houses, and holding the occasional community meeting — is hard on Ootes. He has difficulty sleeping in a too-warm room in Resolute Bay, and the dry air results in … chapped lips. 

I should not make fun of this, but it’s impossible not to be horrified by the white privilege that cocooned this group of people. They make much ado of the danger of wintertime air travel, and do indeed get their plane stuck. But there is no question whatsoever that any hint of actual danger would produce a military rescue the likes of which Canada had never seen. Hodgson knew this, and Ootes knew it too. 

And re: those white administrators they visit, one was Maurice Cloughley, the notorious child molester. Cloughley got a 10-year sentence in 1996. A class-action lawsuit still underway alleges the territorial government, by ignoring his behaviour, was complicit. Ootes declines to mention any of this. Instead, he recalls eating “roast caribou, powdered mashed potatoes and canned peas” off Cloughley’s “nice china.”

Like his mandate, Hodgson’s grandiosity was almost unbelievable. Here he is in Grise Fiord in 1967, at a community meeting, answering a question from a man who explains that it has been a local custom to exchange children around age eight or ten to ensure each family has enough boys. “The problem is the children then feel they have two sets of parents,” a translator says, before asking what they should do. Ootes: “Hodgson’s solution was to exchange children earlier, so they would grow up with just one set of parents.” 

Hodgson’s disdain for, and literal undermining of, the Indian Brotherhood of the N.W.T. (precursor to the Dene Nation) is even more stunning. From the very beginning, the Dene feared the new territorial government as a white invasion that would undermine their treaty rights and direct connection to Ottawa. The battle for who would get to control federal funding was underway. Hodgson — a crafty politician — won part of this battle by urging Ottawa to fund individual bands, rather than the Brotherhood itself. Hodgson hated the Brotherhood, in part (and ironically) because of the radical young white people who worked for them. This was the 1960s version of the culture wars: new age, freewheeling leftists versus regular, wholesome people who feared and detested them. Please recall that Hodgson’s reign began in 1967, a time when nations around the world (particularly in Africa) were throwing off the yoke of colonial oppression. Reaction to Hodgson’s arrival was mixed.

But none of this really mattered to Hodgson, who had carte blanche to do what he wanted in a remote region that had little means to fight back. “Anything I do will be an improvement,” he said. 

I should observe that Hodgson did indeed have an unstoppably charming side that is also part of his legacy. Visiting Clyde River in 1969, Hodgson steps into someone’s shack for tea. His host informs him he’ll now have to do the same at everyone’s shack. “I’ll try!” Hodgson says, winningly. In a place so sparsely populated, this warmth, and Hodgson’s Joe Biden-like gift for “the connect,” was no doubt crucial to his effectiveness.

And he was effective. In 1969 most settlements had no community government, no airstrips, little communications and no one to complain to. By the time Hodgson left the North, much of this had indeed begun to change. The territorial government had grown vastly and the executive council, which 10 years earlier had been directly appointed by Ottawa, was now entirely elected and would soon get its first premier. 

It’s to Ootes’s credit that both sides of Hodgson’s legacy are visible in this memoir (though often with Ootes cringing in the background on his boss’s behalf). Among those critical of Hodgson’s tight grip of power are James Wah-Shee (who wrote the forward), Chief Jimmy Bruneau, David Searle, Mary Carpenter and Lena Pederson. Ootes’s unusual choice to write entirely in first-person, re-created scenes, makes this book highly readable, and highly valuable for anyone who wants to understand this very weird period.

Umingmak: Stuart Hodgson and the Birth of the Modern Arctic
By Jake Ootes
Tidewater Press, 2020
310 pages (including photos)

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