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Thursday, February 17, 2022

Reader's Diary #2285 - Jake Ootes: Umingmak

In 1967, Prime Minister Pearson appointed Stuart Hodgson, a white southerner with no experience running a government, Commissioner to the Northwest Territories. His role was said to be modernizing the North, but essentially it was, for better or worse, to build and enforce a colonial style of government. Jake Ootes, also a white guy from the south, was his right hand man during this time. 

The full title is actually Umingmak: Stuart Hodgson and the Birth of the Modern Arctic. It seems to give a lot of credit to Stuart Hodgson and also implies this will be a largely flattering book. I think it's only healthy to go into such a book, especially given Canada's shameful colonial legacy, with a lot of skepticism. Perhaps the wisest thing the publishers did was include a forward by none other than James Wah-Shee, a respected Tłı̨chǫ Elder, former president of the Indian Brotherhood of the Northwest Territories and as such, often an adversary of Stuart Hodgson. This is the most balanced part of the entire book. He acknowledged that they often did not see eye to eye and yet there was still a mutual respect. No offence to Jake Ootes, but that went a lot further in suggesting the true measure of Stuart Hodgson.

Initially Ootes's recollections of Hodgson were a little grating. Hodgson was presented as some larger than life, charismatic hero. Perhaps though, as Ootes himself was younger and less experienced in the early days, that is the way he saw him and thankfully some of Hodgson's shine wore off and Ootes finally presented him as a more complex, flawed but still not terrible, human being as their time in the north went on. Interestingly, it became more of Ootes's story than Hodgson's, and honestly, I was fine with that.

I enjoyed hearing about the communities across Nunavut and Northwest Territories that they visited in the late 60s and 70s. I've not been able to get to many myself, and certainly they would have changed a lot since then, so it was a fascinating glimpse into a different time and places. 

The dialogue was often stiff though, very speechy; trying to work in a lot of history as if it had been told by people back in the day felt awkward and inauthentic. 

Still, I'm a sucker for northern history and this definitely scratched that itch.


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