Douglas Gibson remembers Gordon Robertson, who died Jan. 26.
It was good to see that the very full obituary of this remarkable civil servant devoted space to a photograph with the caption “In 1953 Robertson became Commissioner of the Northwest Territories.” That was indeed an important part of his life. However, the accompanying photograph that shows him accepting the dramatic official mace dates from a slightly later period.
James Houston’s autobiography, Confessions of An Igloo Dweller, gives a full account of how, in 1956, a group of major artists from Cape Dorset, including Pitseolak Ashoona and Osuitok Ipeelee, were formed as a team to assemble the very first NWT territorial mace from Northern materials such as “a narwhal tusk, muskox horns, a piece from an ancient shipwreck, Inuit whalebone carving, Dene porcupine quill weaving, gold from Giant Yellowknife mines, and a native float copper from Coppermine in the central Arctic.”
As this wonderfully talented team went to work on these materials under James Houston’s direction, they had the most trouble with “the piece of oak from HMS Fury,” which went aground on Somerset island in 1825. But eventually, Mr. Houston was able to fly the 17-kilogram mace south from Cape Dorset in the spring of 1956, in time for the famous photo.
Later when Gordon Robertson, as deputy minister of the Department of Northern Affairs, came north to stay at the Houston household, Mr. Houston quietly tried to explain to his young sons, John and Sam, just how important this high-level visitor was. He succeeded all too well.
“Later that same day I could hear Inuit children gathering in the pingwavingmi, a room set aside as a playroom in our house, with John and Sam warning the others to quietly follow them. Then they led their friends one by one down our short hall and encouraged them to peek around the corner at the Deputy Minister [who was having soup with James and his wife, Allie]. They looked wide-eyed at him, then ducked back out of sight.
“I’d heard Sam say, ‘Avitilo, mukolo, siakok, atowskituinak kisiani,’ a .22 bullet, one only for this rare sight.”
So the Houston boys (who once burst into tears when they were told that their playmates were correct, they were indeed white) were charging their friends in bullets, the currency of boys in the north, for the sighting of Gordon Robertson, the big boss.