Stuart Hodgson, the Northwest Territories’ first residing commissioner, is the subject of a new book that examines the evolution of the North under his tenure, from the perspective of someone who knew him personally and professionally.
Jake Ootes, former executive assistant under Hodgson from 1967-1975, and past MLA for Yellowknife Centre from 1995-2003, is to host a Northwords Writers Festival question and answer session Thursday night related to his new book Umingmak: Stuart Hodgson and the Birth of the Modern Arctic.
Ootes explained to NNSL Media in an interview this week that Hodgson should be remembered as a man who held a great deal of power and responsibility when he came north to establish a capital, set up a territorial administration, create a political system and then set in motion the devolution of powers to local people.
“Basically Hodgson in the very early days was more powerful than Prime Minister (of Canada) because he had total control of all of that,” Ootes said. “So he was extremely powerful.”
The book covers a period from the early ’60s — when the Carrothers Commission under Prime Minister Lester Pearson was set up to establish territorial governance in the NWT — to Hodgson’s departure from the North in 1979.
Ootes focuses on Hodgson’s character being suited to bring Indigenous, non-Indigenous, Inuit and Metis people together and his willingness to work with and build northern communities.
“For Hodgson, it was a case of getting out there and meeting the people and saying, ‘OK, this is what government’s all about,” Ootes explained.
“He set up the territorial administration and over the following couple of years (in the ’70s) spent a lot of time travelling to deal with what the people and the communities needed.
“His job was to take (northerners) into the Canadian mainstream in order to give people in the Northwest Territories the kinds of things that were available to other people in Canada.”
Before Hodgson became commissioner, communities throughout the North had administrators who reported to the federal government in Ottawa in a more distant and colonial relationship. Ootes said it may be hard for people today to appreciate the impact that the introduction of local governance systems with open, elected councils and standard municipal services had on the North.
“There were no roads other than the one into Yellowknife,” he said of the period before Hodgson. “There were no communication systems, no transportation systems, other than the barges and sealifts, no extensive housing programs, and no extensive health and social services programs.
“People had been congregating into communities and lived in communities and lived off the land. But that was becoming a difficulty for a lot of people because, as it turned out, when people crowded into one place, they had to go further and further out on the land to harvest animals. It needed attention and a system where people could control themselves with things like garbage pickup, community roads, housing, building or water delivery.”
During the ’70s there was also great movement for self-determination among Indigenous people of the North, as described in the book’s foreward by Tlicho elder James Wah-shee, former president of the Indian Brotherhood (now the Dene Nation).
“There were conflicts between (the Indian Brotherhood) and Hodgson because some of their programs conflicted with the programs that had been developing, for instance with community, settlement and hamlet councils,” Ootes said. “Hodsgon always saw those councils as the way to administer communities. He never felt that there shouldn’t be Aboriginal organizations.”
Ootes said Wah-shee should be remembered as a young leader who had a lot of responsibilities to set and advance the Indian Brotherhood’s objectives and meet the needs of its membership.
Eventually some of the conflicts between the Indian Brotherhood and Hodgson’s efforts were resolved as territorial representation was increasingly made up of Indigenous people, including Wah-shee himself, who became an MLA.
Looking back, Ootes said he greatly enjoyed working under Hodgson, particularly as a young individual enthusiastic to make a difference.
“It was really fascinating to work for this man and that was because he had that instinct to be sensitive to what people in the communities needed,” he said. “That was a wonderful experience for me.”