Frontlines

The‘giveaway man’ of the North moves on

Susan Rogers June 11 1979
Frontlines

The‘giveaway man’ of the North moves on

Susan Rogers June 11 1979

The‘giveaway man’ of the North moves on

CLOSEUP

Susan Rogers

He had a habit, as he hopscotched across the tundra, of promising a fire truck in one settlement and a school in another. After 12 years as the first resident commissioner of the Northwest Territories, Stuart Hodgson, on his final tour of his Arctic domain, couldn’t resist making a few parting gestures: a half-day holiday for one settlement, a free coat of paint for a community hall.

In his early days, they called Hodgson “the give-away man.” He was not so much an administrator as a benevolent monarch, and his departure, to a new post in Ottawa with the International Joint Commission, marks the end of what Frobisher Bay Mayor Bryan Pearson calls “the Reign of Stu the First.”

The Inuit called him Umingmuk (Inuktitut for musk-ox and, in the vernacular, an affectionate nickname). So far, they don’t know what to call his sucw cessor, the former deputy commission£ er, John Parker. But one thing is clear, o From now on, the answer to questions z of self-government and wise adminis” tration in the Territories will never be w as simple as a new coat of paint.

Grise Fiord, 1,200 miles northeast of Yellowknife, is Canada’s northernmost community. The population of 95 is wholly native—except for the RCMP— and the means of survival are still hunting, trapping and fishing. A hundred yards off shore, a large iceberg stands scuttled in the frozen water—a handy resource for the Inuit who still prefer to knock off chunks of ice for their water supplies, even though the settlement now has a storage tank thanks to Santa Stu. The civil servants in Yellowknife used to dread his on-thespot decisions, but to Hodgson—a doer, not a dreamer—they made sense. Who has time for consultation when just getting around this mammoth territory (1.3 million square miles that span the longitudes of all 10 provinces) is a chore?

The day in late March that Hodgson visited Grise Fiord, on one of 14 stops he

made on his 11,000-mile final swing across the North, the sun shone brightly; everyone except the few who were out hunting came down to the community hall to hear the commissioner say goodbye. At six-foot-three, Hodgson towered over most of the residents as he talked about the changes occurring in the North.

An interpreter translated Hodgson’s words. Although he has been associated with the N.W.T. since 1964, when he was appointed to the Territorial Council, he has never learned Inuktitut or any of the Athapascan languages. “I never had time. I only know one thing and that’s how to work. I didn’t do very well at school,” he admits, having only completed Grade 8. “But who the hell cares about that?” (The University of Calgary conferred an honorary doctorate on him

in 1977, but he keeps that quiet.)

“I realize we’re going into a new era,” he said to the gathering in Grise Fiord, “and I don’t want to be an obstacle. I don’t want to be the person who holds it back.” He warned that John Parker would probably do things differently. For one thing, the new commissioner won’t have as much time to visit the farflung, isolated communities. Since becoming second resident N.W.T. commissioner, Parker has mostly remained ensconced in his sixth-floor office in Yellowknife’s territorial headquarters. Whereas Hodgson took to the air roughly 60 per cent of the time (he estimates that he has made close to 1,000 jaunts), Parker the administrator sits behind his desk. He rarely ventures out of his panelled enclave. Not only are the two commissioners as different in appearance as the geography above and below the treeline (Parker is short and slight), but their personalities are just

as dissimilar. Although Hodgson’s amiable face and frontier flair are missed, there are those who appreciate the promptness with which they now get back requisition orders under Parker paperwork regime.

Hodgson’s farewell trip had a handpicked crew of 17 that included his family and friends, government aides, a few media representatives and the young man who tends the Hodgson family orchard in Penticton, B.C. Just before Hodgson left Yellowknife, Prince Charles made his third visit to the N.W.T. to open the territory’s grand new cultural preserve named the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre.

This is Hodgson’s $7-million pet project, and one that many northerners think of as an edifice to his ego. Few would argue, however, that Hodgson’s dictatorship has been anything but benevolent. Close aide Bob Pilot maintains: “He was the man for the time.” Even Hodgson realizes, however, that he is1 not the right man to lead the N.W.T. into its new phase of wresting power from both Ottawa and its representative, the commissioner, in a determined effort to attain responsible government as soon as possible, and provincehood within the next decade.

“I started over 10 years ago to develop a system of government by which the communities would have a key say in how they would develop,” he told the people of Grise Fiord. “I have done what I set out to do. So, where we would stand here before and decide there should be no exploration, or that so many houses

should be built, or that a storage tank is needed—that time is finished. The power I had of speaking for the territories and for the people, of being in charge of Territorial Council and the administration, is now being divided among other groups of people.” In little over a decade, he has been instrumental in setting up municipal councils in 40 hamlets, settlements and towns throughout the territory; he has seen Territorial Council evolve from a partially appointed body to a fully elected one and he leaves just as it has gained parliamentary approval to expand from 15 to 22 elected territorial members, which will allow for a larger executive

that can assume cabinet-type responsibilities. But although Hodgson has been an advocate of responsible government, he was never one to sit quietly on the sidelines.

Parker says he supports the drive toward responsible government, but whether he will be as malleable as Territorial Council hopes is not yet clear. He’ll face the new, enlarged council for the first time this fall after the Oct. 1 territorial election. Though generally reluctant to comment on the last council’s stand on rapid responsible government for the N.W.T., Parker says he has his own thoughts on how fast that change should happen. “There have to be people able to accept the devolution of responsibility,” he warns. “There isn’t a large number of people in the territories with experience in senior levels of management likely to make themselves candidates.”

Since taking over, Parker has already given more responsibility to the three elected executive committee members,

indicating that he is willing—eventually—to let others run the show.

Even at 55, Hodgson’s pace continued to exhaust his aides, particularly in that final tour. Clad in his enormous parka and old duffle hat, he climbed into the back of a pickup truck at the airstrip for the five-mile trek, in -30°C weather, into Holman Island. He was in a hurry to present Helen Kalvak, the renowned Holman printmaker, with the Order of Canada in her home, where she was bedridden at the age of “roughly 80.” But the local people had planned a drum dance and so Hodgson sat down instead in the community hall and watched. When they asked him to take part, he performed a solo. That night, back in Resolute Bay, the other members of the tour were ready for bed, but Hodgson followed a desolate, windswept road to a midnight square dance. Last summer, he had the entire N.W.T. Pipe Band flown over to Greenland to celebrate its capital’s anniversary. Whether Parker will continue this costly cultural exchange is, says Hodgson, “entirely up to him.”

In an obvious attempt to mimic his predecessor as a man of the people, Parker stepped down from the platform in Yellowknife’s Supreme Court after his installation, shook hands with a stone-faced Mountie and mingled with the crowd. It is unlikely, however, he will ever get the chance to build up a rapport with the native population. Years ago Hodgson would spend hours in small communities outlining the ABCs of government to people not yet certain whether a commissioner was a person or a thing. A small but significant tribute was paid before his departure when Resolute Bay’s recreation chairman spontaneously hugged him and said: “Because of you we have everything.”

Despite his protests to the contrary, however, one would have to be snowblind not to see that this gregarious man was unable to gain the respect and trust of the Dene, as he did with the Inuit. “It tears his heart apart that he has never been able to bridge the gap with the Dene nation,” confides Pilot. The Dene, who want self-government, refuse to recognize the territorial level of government or the man imposed on them by Ottawa to run their affairs. Unlike the Métis or Inuit, they ignore his invitations to attend government functions. Parker has said that one of his goals will be to get to know the native organizations better, including the Dene. “Now is the chance for a fresh start. I think they are at a stage of change too. I will go to them,” Parker promises, “and start a dialogue.”