Nunatsiaq Online
NEWS: Around the Arctic October 12, 2016 - 2:30 pm

Never to be forgotten: Bryan R. Pearson: May 30, 1934 — Oct. 12, 2016

Stricken by liver cancer, Iqaluit’s irrepressible founding mayor dies at home

JIM BELL
Bryan Pearson in 1984, during his last term as mayor of Iqaluit, at the IODE hall in Apex, which he was proposing to renovate and re-use as a community centre. (PHOTO BY JIM BELL)
Bryan Pearson in 1984, during his last term as mayor of Iqaluit, at the IODE hall in Apex, which he was proposing to renovate and re-use as a community centre. (PHOTO BY JIM BELL)
Pearson, with his beloved dog Kamik, at a party in Iqaluit held in 2014 to celebrate his 80th birthday. (PHOTO BY JIM BELL)
Pearson, with his beloved dog Kamik, at a party in Iqaluit held in 2014 to celebrate his 80th birthday. (PHOTO BY JIM BELL)
Bryan Pearson (right) with Eugène Rhéaume (left, wearing a muskrat parka), then the Progressive Conservative MP for the Northwest Territories, visiting Iqaluit (then called Frobisher Bay) in 1965 with John Diefenbaker, then the Progressive Conservative leader of the official opposition. Pearson had invited Diefenbaker to Iqaluit to serve as Honorary Toonik for the community's first Toonik Tyme celebration. (PHOTO BY TED GRANT)
Bryan Pearson (right) with Eugène Rhéaume (left, wearing a muskrat parka), then the Progressive Conservative MP for the Northwest Territories, visiting Iqaluit (then called Frobisher Bay) in 1965 with John Diefenbaker, then the Progressive Conservative leader of the official opposition. Pearson had invited Diefenbaker to Iqaluit to serve as Honorary Toonik for the community's first Toonik Tyme celebration. (PHOTO BY TED GRANT)
Bryan Pearson standing with a friend at the Iqaluit causeway in a photo likely taken around 1960. (FILE PHOTO)
Bryan Pearson standing with a friend at the Iqaluit causeway in a photo likely taken around 1960. (FILE PHOTO)
Bryan Pearson in 1994, standing behind the snack counter at the Astro Theatre, then and now the only Arctic cinema east of Yellowknife. (FILE PHOTO)
Bryan Pearson in 1994, standing behind the snack counter at the Astro Theatre, then and now the only Arctic cinema east of Yellowknife. (FILE PHOTO)
Pearson with the late Jonah Kelly (right) and Atsainak Akeeshoo (left) at a Toonik Tyme event held in the late 1960s. (FILE PHOTO)
Pearson with the late Jonah Kelly (right) and Atsainak Akeeshoo (left) at a Toonik Tyme event held in the late 1960s. (FILE PHOTO)

Bryan R. Pearson, 82, a tenacious, irrepressible and sometimes infuriating presence in the life of the eastern Arctic for 60 unforgettable years, died at home in Iqaluit just before 9 a.m., Oct. 12, struck down by cancer of the liver.

Known to Inuit as Sedluk—or Salluk—“the skinny one,” Pearson came home to Iqaluit this past Aug. 27 from Montreal, where he had been receiving medical care. Numerous residents gathered at the Four Corners that day to wish him well.

“It was a decent homecoming. It was special and overwhelming. After the reception I received I decided this is a good place for me to live,” Pearson told Nunatsiaq News about two weeks ago.

Pearson, the first Iqaluit mayor, founder of the first municipal council and founder of the 51-year-old Toonik Tyme festival, brought flamboyant style and entrepreneurial panache to his work at a time when the political life of the eastern Arctic was often stifled by faraway bureaucrats in Ottawa and Yellowknife.

“As the founding Mayor for the City of Iqaluit, Bryan held a strong vision for this capital city, one that included long-term prosperous growth for business and residents. Not only was he a very colourful individual, he was also a very passionate person, who cared as much about his family as he did for the city he lived in for most of his life,” Iqaluit Mayor Madeleine Redfern said Oct. 12 in a statement.

The Nunavut and Northwest Territories legislatures have each lowered their territorial flags to mark Pearson’s passing, and the City of Iqaluit has lowered its municipal flag.

Pearson launched the town’s first taxi service, and through the London-based art dealer, Charles Gimpel, helped introduce Inuit carvings and prints to European buyers.

Pearson’s landmark business, Arctic Ventures, became the name of a small store that he opened in 1968 and sold in 1985, still known in Inuktitut by some people today as “salluminiq,” or “the place that used to be Salluk’s.”

Iqaluit residents will remember him also for the Astro Theatre, the only commercial cinema east of Yellowknife, and for T-1, a popular snack bar and video arcade where Pearson held court every lunch hour throughout most of the 1980s.

And for many years he served as Iqaluit’s only undertaker, operating a hearse that carried many Iqaluit residents to their final resting place at the local cemetery.

As mayor and as member of the Territorial Council of the Northwest Territories—the predecessor of today’s Nunavut and NWT legislative assemblies—Pearson railed against government neglect of the Eastern Arctic.

He was instrumental in developing the first cohort of trained Inuktitut-English interpreter-translators, known as the Interpreter Corps, and fought for reforms in health care, housing, municipal government and better infrastructure for the eastern Arctic.

On Aug. 31, as Pearson lay on his deathbed in Iqaluit, Governor General David Johnston sent him a letter of gratitude for his contributions to Canada.

“You have made an impact on so many people and have helped shape this country over the years. I often speak of this as a smart and caring nation—you have shown that you embody that spirit perfectly,” Johnston wrote.

The desperate pioneer

Born May 30, 1934 in the gritty port city of Liverpool, England, Pearson left school at age 15 and never received much formal education. A self-sufficient entrepreneur, Pearson was a determined striver who lived by his wits. 

After working as a dishwasher on ships sailing between Great Britain and Australia, Pearson arrived on Baffin Island in 1956 via Montreal, “without a pot to piss in” as he often told his friends, to do kitchen work at the DEW line station on Padloping Island.

By 1957, he had moved to the newly-constructed satellite community of Apex, built for the Inuit near the air force base at Frobisher Bay, which Iqaluit was then called.

After demanding a job there, he worked as a cook at the rehabilitation centre in Apex that served Inuit returning to the Arctic after long periods of treatment for tuberculosis at hospitals in southern Canada.

And he soon embarked on what would become a lifelong series of bootstrap entrepreneurial ventures that led him to coin the phrase “desperate pioneer,” or “DP,” to describe himself and others like him, a play on the abbreviation “DP,” or “displaced person,” a common term then used to describe stateless persons who fled to Canada as refugees from eastern Europe.

But for Pearson, the DPs of the Arctic were those long-term non-Inuit who managed to eke out a private-sector living within the nooks and crannies of a government dominated economy.

“He seemed distinctively out of context, deer-stalker hat, tweed blazer, looking for something,” said his life-long friend John Rae, who met Pearson in 1963.

He set up a bakery, a laundry, a movie theatre, a taxi business and, in a contract with Shell Oil, refueled Pan Am and TWA aircraft flying intercontinental routes between Europe and North America.

In the early 1960s, only the wealthy could afford to travel by air. So every night Pearson sold soapstone carvings to affluent air travellers at the Iqaluit airport, or at the airline staff building in the base area that later evolved into the Discovery Lodge hotel.

He sold carvings also to Gimpel, founder of the Gimpel Fils art dealership in London, and in doing so, helped introduce Inuit carvings to the European market.

He called his first business Arctic Ventures, a company through which he managed his contracts and other enterprises.

And in 1968, he attached that name to a general store, first located near the 600s area. By the early 1970s, he had moved the store to its current location on the Ring Road, where it still stands as one of Iqaluit’s most familiar landmarks.

Pearson sold the Arctic Ventures store to Kenn Harper in 1985, who ran it until 2012, when he sold the business to Arctic Co-operatives Ltd.

Yet another Pearson business, the T-1 snack bar and video arcade, opened in January 1980 at the Four Corners on a lot now occupied by the Igluvut building.

There, Iqaluit residents often found him serving up hamburgers, chili dogs and smoked meat sandwiches he imported from the legendary Ben’s restaurant in Montreal.

He opened his most recent business, the two-screen Astro Theatre, in 1994, bringing live cinema back to Iqaluit. Piksuk Media, to whom he sold the business in 2012, still operates it.

Builder and political gadfly

In 1964, following a fire in Apex that burned out of control because all members of the volunteer fire department were intoxicated, Pearson and other residents, including Gordon Rennie, Colin Alexander and Bill MacKenzie, organized Iqaluit’s first community council: the body that eventual evolved into today’s Iqaluit City Council.

Pearson served as chair of that first settlement council, a position equivalent to mayor. He served as mayor on and off for many years throughout the 1970s and early 1980s.

During his time as mayor, Pearson presided over major expansions of the utilidor system, the creation of the first union local for municipal workers, the formation of Iqaluit’s Department of Public Works out of functions that had previously been privatized, and Iqaluit’s first planned subdivisions.

In 1970, Pearson was elected to represent the eastern Arctic in the Territorial Council of the Northwest Territories, which evolved into today’s legislative assembly. In 1975, he was re-elected as territorial councillor, this time as the representative for South Baffin.

At the seat of government in Yellowknife, Pearson complained about territorial government neglect, especially the shocking housing conditions that prevailed through out the eastern Arctic.

“Government policies were not getting through to the people, it was chaos,” Pearson told an interviewer recently.

Controversies

Pearson, to the say the least, did not always endear himself to others. His blunt, profane speech often landed him in political hot water, especially when he took aim at local and regional big-shots.

On one occasion he offended officials at the Baffin Regional Council, a regional municipal organization that is now nearly forgotten but enjoyed a high profile in the early 1980s, when the BRC brought Baffin mayors and civil servants together three or four times a year.

In 1985, he declared that the work of the BRC was not relevant to Iqaluit, which by then had become a tax-based municipality. BRC officials demanded that Pearson apologize, but he never did.

In September 1985, Pearson found himself in political trouble once more, over a townhouse development on a low hill in south Iqaluit that had been fast-tracked through the city’s permitting system.

Following enraged protests from nearby residents and a feverish whisper campaign alleging various forms of corruption that were never proven, town council ordered the developer, Jomanic-Can Inc., to stop work on the project.

The half-built town house project, now owned by Northview REIT, still stands on Nipisa Street where its completed units are leased to government. Beside them, an unused stretch of rocky outcrop that would have held more units still lies vacant.

In the municipal election that followed, Pearson suffered a landslide defeat in 1985 at the hands of Andy Theriault, then a popular regional director at the Indian and Northern Affairs office in Iqaluit.

That election featured a notorious ballot-box stuffing scandal that kept the NWT court busy for more than six months and produced headlines across Canada.

Pearson’s secretary-manager at the time, Joe Rizotto, who acted alone, was convicted in 1986 of replacing valid ballots with forged ones marked with votes for Pearson. He was sentenced to one year in jail.

Pearson knew nothing about the stuffed ballot boxes and the RCMP cleared him after bringing him in to the Iqaluit detachment for a lie detector test. But a cloud of suspicion lingered. He would never again serve in an elected office.

Pearson’s personal life, which he protected from public view, was often the subject of local rumour and speculation. He never married and he was never seen pursuing romantic relationships with either men or women.

In 1997, a judge found Pearson not guilty on a single count of sexual assault, following a trial at the territorial court of the NWT. That charge arose from an allegation that in 1983, at his home in Iqaluit, Pearson sexually assaulted a 15-year-old boy.

But the judge acquitted him after Pearson produced airplane tickets showing that when the incident was alleged to have occurred, Pearson had been travelling outside of Iqaluit.

The end draws near

In the years that followed, Pearson, after failed attempts to win the federal seat of Nunatsiaq in 1988 and the territorial seat of Iqaluit in 1991, settled into a quieter life.

From then until his death this month, Pearson nurtured his businesses and from the sidelines offered frequent commentary on the issues of the day, especially in frequent letters to the editor published in Nunatsiaq News.

After he opened the Astro Theatre in 1994, Pearson’s popularity grew and he was transformed from a political villain into a curmudgeonly old uncle.

At a small party his Iqaluit friends held in 2014 to mark his 80th birthday, Bryan Pearson, chirpy and droll as ever, brought good news—and a sardonic joke at his own expense.

“I’ve just passed my latest check up with flying colours. The doctor told me I’m the healthiest 60-year-old he’s ever seen.”

Only eighteen months later, while on vacation in Australia, another doctor told him to return at once to Canada, where he received confirmation of a grim diagnosis: terminal liver cancer. His time had come.

Email this story to a friend... Print this page... Bookmark and Share

 THIS WEEK’S ADS

 ADVERTISING