Tom Webster, 1943—2017: an Iqaluit community builder
“Tom resolutely did things the way he wanted to and lived his life the way he wanted to”
Special to Nunatsiaq News
The North has lost a well-known business pioneer with the passing of Tom Webster in Ottawa on March 31, after a battle with multiple myeloma, an illness that struck him suddenly in mid-2016.
To his loving wife Helen, he was always Thomas. To most business associates and friends, he was simply Tom. To the Inuit, he was Tommy or Thomasie. He had a long and varied career in the Baffin region.
Tom was born Sept. 21, 1943 in Pocklington, Yorkshire, England. After training as a teacher at Oxford, he came to Canada in 1966 to take a teaching position in Saskatchewan.
The Arctic beckoned after two years in the prairies and he moved to Clyde River. Teaching in an isolated community in those days often entailed far more than classroom work, so Tom was also settlement administrator and nurse.
His medical training consisted of a two-hour course at Frobisher Bay General Hospital, at the end of which he was presented with a “Lay Dispenser’s Manual,” a binder providing instructions in administering basic medical treatment.
Tom was fortunate that Clyde River had competent midwives, yet he was sometimes called upon to assist in delivering babies; he also provided basic dental services, which consisted of pulling teeth.
His marriage to a first wife ended in Clyde River, and he moved to Frobisher Bay—now known as Iqaluit—after a year. There he met Helen, who had come from England as a teacher in 1969; they were married in 1973 by local Justice of the Peace Dick Abernathy—who may be remembered by Iqaluit old-timers as the government’s area service officer.
Years later, Dick bumped into Helen in Yellowknife and asked if she was still married. When the answer was a happy “yes,” Dick was pleased, offering the comment that almost every marriage he had officiated at had ended in divorce.
Tom became involved in fine arts immediately after arriving in Clyde River. There, he helped local artists form the Igutaq Group, which marketed carvings and produced beautiful prints for southern markets. With his move to Frobisher Bay he joined the Department of Economic Development, working in arts and crafts development.
Among other things, he provided support to a local knitwear shop which manufactured high-end sweaters, assisted in procuring carving stone for local Inuit artists, and collected carvings for an eventual museum.
Deploring the idea that every government-supported project needed its own building—he felt it only created unnecessary overhead—Tom organized a successful community parka-making project for the women of the village, who worked at home.
Rebecca Veevee remembers that her grandmother made a garment for John Diefenbaker and later for Jean Chrétien. Years later, Chrétien told her that he still had her grandmother’s parka.
Helen was always Tom’s partner in these endeavours, whether official or not. Theirs was a strong and symbiotic relationship. She left teaching after two years at Nakasuk School and joined the Department of Economic Development, tasked with helping some of the co-operatives in the region get out of debt.
A local co-op, the Frobisher Bay Producer’s Co-operative, had a gallery in an extension, now gone, at the airport terminal—the white building that now serves as First Air’s cargo building. Helen is particularly proud of her success in nurturing that operation until it was completely debt-free.
Tom and Helen Webster believed strongly that Iqaluit needed a local museum. In the 1970s, the Commissioner of the Northwest Territories, Stuart Hodgson, unilaterally closed Iqaluit’s liquor store in response to entreaties from local Inuit. The museum found its first home in the former liquor store—the wholesale liquor warehouse remained at the back of the building.
For some time, Tom and Helen had been putting away carvings for the government. The Websters’ hope was was that these would form the nucleus of an eventual museum collection.
But, at about the same time, the Prince of Wales Heritage Centre was being planned for Yellowknife—both territories were one in those days—and Yellowknife wanted all the carvings that the government had diligently saved in Frobisher Bay.
Helen organized a public meeting to protest this idea, and Hodgson once again exercised his unilateral power when he proclaimed, “the east is the east and the west is the west.” The carvings found their new home in what became the Nunatta Sunakkutaangit Museum.
The museum soon outgrew its quarters, and the Hudson’s Bay Co., (forerunner to today’s Northmart) offered a surplus building painted in the Bay’s distinctive red and white, from their old post on the beach in Apex.
Baffin Building Systems moved it over the ice to its present home. Helen ran an elder’s program at the museum; it was so successful that the Royal Canadian Legion eventually paid for a separate building, today’s elders’ centre.
The Nunatta Sunakkutaangit Museum Society recognized Tom’s contributions to the community’s artistic life in a letter they sent him only two months before his death. They said, “You helped articulate the vision to develop a collection of art and artifacts to share with the contemporary public, but also with an eye for those who would come along in the future.”
The letter outlined some of the initiatives Tom had taken, and added, “This combination of initiatives gave artists outlets for their work and income to support their families. And of course your gallery and art appraisal work were very influential in growing the work as well.”
After outlining the current work of the society, the letter concluded with the sentiment, “None of this would have been possible without the solid foundation you and Helen built for the arts and crafts industry in Iqaluit and this region.”
Tom was too much of a free-thinker to remain in government service for long. Eventually he left and formed his own business. Planning for his eventual departure from the government, Tom knew that he would have to provide his own housing, for government employees in those days lived in government housing; there was almost no private housing in the community.
Tom and his brother John, who had joined him in Frobisher Bay, purchased three A-frame houses from a former tourist camp called Chartic Lodge on the opposite side of the bay, and hauled them over the ice by sled.
One became his and Helen’s home, the other John’s home, the distinctive A-frames just off the Apex Road. (The third became Bob and Ann Hanson’s home in Apex.)
In the early 1970s Tom made his gutsy move—he left government service and started his own business, Baffin Kamutauyait. It was an Arctic Cat and Polaris dealership—qamutaujaq/kamutauyaq is the local word for snowmobile—coupled, somewhat incongruously, with a small art gallery.
The building was an A-frame, like his house, but built from scratch. It was on the site near the arena, across from the Elk’s Club, where the Lester Landau accounting firm has its offices today.
Iqaluit is seen today as a “government town,” but it was much more so in the 1970s. Those who left government service and went out on their own instead of moving South, were viewed with suspicion in a way that is hard to understand now.
Helen says “Tom and I took a risk in not working for the government. Some people didn’t like us for that.”
If there was a dire shortage of housing in the community, there was an even more desperate need for office space. Tom sensed an opportunity and began to fill that void by expanding his building with the addition of a structure moved from Upper Base; it eventually housed Frobuild Construction, MacKay Landau’s accounting office, Anne Crawford’s law office, and the Baffin Regional Council.
Northern entrepreneurs had to take on whatever disparate tasks were available to keep body and soul together, and so Tom also provided logistical services, notably for a movie, The Last Place on Earth, filmed in Iqaluit.
The gallery grew and moved to an addition on the Webster’s house. The couple was successful in the marketing of Inuit fine art, and patiently nurtured and rewarded talented local artists. Eventually, they opened a wholesale business in Montreal, Arts Induvik, from where they marketed Inuit art nationally and internationally.
Tom’s expertise in Inuit art was not learned in school or apprenticing in a southern gallery; it was learned on the ground in the North, working with local people. He became an internationally recognized expert in Inuit art.
None of this would have been possible without his love of, and respect for, the local Inuit community. He began learning Inuktitut in Clyde River, and learned it well.
Helen says “Thomas had a gift for language,” smiling when she added, “He spoke it without a Yorkshire accent.” Jacques Belleau says “Tom learned a lot of his language on the land, travelling with hunters.”
He considered Akaka Sataa to be his best friend. Born on the land near Kimmirut, Akaka was a quiet, resilient man, who had learned basic English while hospitalized in the South with tuberculosis. A competent carpenter and mechanic, he was also an expert hunter.
One time, Tom and Akaka were travelling on the land with long-time local doctor Paul Stubbing when they became storm-bound in a blizzard. Akaka was horrified when a search-and-rescue helicopter arrived to “rescue” the party. They were not in danger; they were simply late because of the storm. The self-reliant hunter was embarrassed by the rescue attempt.
Tom was innately an impatient man, but the patience he did have, Helen claims, he learned from Akaka. She says, “Tom learned from Akaka not to get nervous in any situation, to take your time. Akaka showed Tom that if something didn’t work, then find a way to make it work.
Once in the snowmobile shop, he needed gloves to do some work, but all he could find were two for the right hand. He solved the problem by turning one inside-out to make it left-handed.” Tom learned many of his own improvisational skills from Akaka.
Having built his own commercial building, Tom decided to expand into the construction business. He hired Inuit for as many positions as possible. He had a merit-based approach to hiring Inuit, explains Helen, and felt that the apprenticeship system was holding back capable people.
He and Johnny Mikijuk formed a joint enterprise, Mikim Construction, in 1988—their first job was the construction, for the government, of cabins on the Kimmirut trail. Many other projects followed.
They terminated their partnership about 10 years ago; Johnny says that Tom wanted to slow down a bit.
Johnny is now the majority partner of Almiq Contracting. He says that Tom was “easy-going but tough when he needed to be. He always had time to explain to clients how projects were progressing.”
Johnny added that “a lot of people who worked with us 10 or 15 years ago, when they heard of Tom’s death, said that Tom was always a fair man.” Tom and Jacques Belleau also had a successful joint venture to develop rental housing in the community.
Jim Britton, a friend and competitor in the construction and development business, remembers Tom as “a worthy competitor in business, a great hunter and possessed of a fine sense of humour. I have never known any one who worked harder. But I most admire his decades long effort in support of the art of the Inuit.”
When Tom was four, his parents bought him a little pedal-car. On some days he pedalled far from home and his mother would have to go in search of him.
One day, when he was particularly late, she found her son hanging from a barbed wire fence, the pedal-car in a ditch.
This resulted in a trip to the hospital, stitches, and a scar that remained for the rest of his life. This was Tom’s first experience with cars, which became a passion in adulthood.
Tom was obsessed, Helen says, “with anything that would go fast – he loved to drive fast.” That’s a hard passion to indulge in Iqaluit, but Tom had fast cars in the South—a Mercedes in Montreal and a Porsche at a vacation home in Florida.
He developed a passion for Formula 1 racing. Long-time friend and sometime business partner, Jacques Belleau, described Tom as “a Formula 1 racing fanatic.” He added, “We’ve been going to Formula 1 events for over 20 years, some in Montreal, some in Indianapolis.”
With Helen, Tom also attended races in Italy, Belgium and Germany. When he was near death, Marie Belleau talked with him about his love of racing, and he perked up for a while, invigorated by the thought.
A few months ago, ailing but hoping for a recovery, he asked Jacques to buy tickets for the upcoming Formula 1 event to be held in Montreal this June, where they always had the same reserved seat year after year.
In Iqaluit, Tom also loved things that moved fast, and became involved in the organization of the Toonik Tyme snowmobile race from Iqaluit to Kimmirut, which was so often won by his friend Jimmy “Flash” Kilabuk.
Tom loved being on the land. He was the veteran of many snowmobile trips to Cape Dorset, Kimmirut, Pangnirtung and Amadjuak. When not travelling with the hunters who taught him his land skills, he often travelled with Paul Stubbing.
Paul said that “I spent many days over many years, holed up with Tom in a small, flapping tent in terrible, howling gales. In situations like that, I think you will either end up hating your partner or appreciating them.
“Fortunately, I came to appreciate Tom. He was very capable on the land. He didn’t panic or get anxious when things didn’t go well. In fact he had the facility, like experienced Inuit, of lightening the mood and laughing when the gods ignored our wishes and hurled thunderbolts!”
Paul remarked on Tom’s relationship with Inuit: “When we met or travelled with experienced Inuit, you could see the pleasure they had meeting him and feel the respect they had for ‘Tommy’ and the mutual respect that Tom felt for them.”
Paul remembers that Tom was quite parsimonious. Years ago, he did some building in Kimmirut, and didn’t have much money at the time. That spring, whenever they travelled to Kimmirut, they were hauling on their sleds “mountains of building materials (two-by-fours, two-by-sixes, drywall panels, 50-pound boxes of nails, refrigerators and other appliances, skidoo motors and parts.”
Paul remembers “it was frightening! Struggling up mountains, skidoos double teaming an enormously loaded qamutik, getting stuck and shovelling half way up a hill, was all in a days work.” Such was the life of a struggling Arctic entrepreneur in the old days, and the doctor who chose to travel with him.
Helen says that Tom was “like an explorer in a way. He was always looking for new experiences. On the land, he knew where to go, even though he’d never been there before. He could feel free there and come back to the community refreshed.”
I’ll let Paul Stubbing have the last word in summing up the life of this remarkable northern pioneer: “Tom resolutely did things the way he wanted to and lived his life the way he wanted to. What others thought of that was not a concern to him as it is to most people. He was a strong person.”
Tom is survived by his beloved wife Helen, of Iqaluit and Montreal, and his brother John, in Calgary.
A “come-and-go” reception in recognition of Tom Webster will be held at the Nunatta Sunakkutaangit Museum in Iqaluit from 1:30 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. on Thursday April 20.