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Stuart Hodgson holds a young Justin Trudeau in his arms to help him look closer at a painting of an Inuit hunter. (NWT Archives)
Stuart Hodgson holds a young Justin Trudeau in his arms to help him look closer at a painting of an Inuit hunter. (NWT Archives)

OBITUARY

Stuart Hodgson: Public servant was a ‘supersalesman for the North’ Add to ...

Stuart Hodgson dodged Nazi U-boats on frigid Arctic convoys before battling Communists within his union as he organized loggers on both coasts of Canada. Later in life, he built a distinguished career as a public servant, most notably serving as the first resident commissioner of the Northwest Territories.

A towering man with large, rough hands and a booming voice, he displayed a good-humoured enthusiasm that verged on the comical. The New Yorker writer Edith Iglauer once described him as a “supersalesman for the North [who] always talks in exclamation marks.” The Inuit knew the jolly, mustachioed commissioner as Umingmak – muskox.

Mr. Hodgson, who has died at 91, was also a founding signatory of the New Democratic Party. Mentored by NDP Leader Tommy Douglas, he received his northern appointment from Liberal Prime Minister Lester Pearson, befriended his successor, Pierre Trudeau, and, later still, served several in public administration roles in British Columbia with appointments from Social Credit Premier Bill Bennett.

Stories by and about Mr. Hodgson are legion, perhaps the best known involving the union leader being approached about becoming commissioner by Mr. Pearson.

“But I don’t know that much about government,” Mr. Hodgson protested.

“That’s why I’m sending you,” the prime minister replied.

The commissioner exercised one-man rule over a vast swath of the North American continent, a sparsely populated expanse of 1.25 million square miles, a third of the Canadian land mass. His instructions were to begin a process leading to self-rule by northern residents.

His administration coincided with a growing rise of militancy among younger native leaders and the commissioner earned criticism for his authoritarian approach to governance. As commissioner, he was a force unto himself, combining the roles of premier and lieutenant-governor, as well as legislative speaker. “I am the government,” he once told a reporter. At the same time, he insisted his every edict was issued with the interests of the territorial population in mind. “I have 34,000 bosses,” he once said.

Eager, gregarious, though unfamiliar with the Arctic except for his brief wartime experience, Mr. Hodgson was a superb choice for the transitional period. “I had gone north as a tourist, I suppose, looking for adventure and I returned home as someone who realized the enormous potential there,” he wrote in an unpublished memoir. He promoted tourism and mining, and established a civil service in the territory. He also found a lingering acrimony among northerners toward their southern rulers. The federal Department of Northern Affairs and Natural Resources, known as DNANR, was referred to by northern residents as the Department of No Action and No Results. The commissioner pushed the territory toward self-rule. In this role, he was on occasion referred to as one of the last fathers of Confederation.

In his years in the North, he befriended commoner and royalty alike, from hunters on the frozen tundra to Prince Charles, who invited Mr. Hodgson to his wedding to Lady Diana Spencer in 1981. “I’ve always looked upon him as a friend,” Mr. Hodgson told Angela Mangiacasale of The Globe and Mail. “To think of all the millions of people he must have met, it’s nice to know he feels the same way.” In the end, Mr. Hodgson had to send his regrets, missing out on what became known as the wedding of the century.

Stuart Milton Hodgson was born in Vancouver on April 1, 1924, a second son for Mary Louisa (née Allen) and Allan Jay Hodgson, a labourer at plywood mills on the Fraser River. The boy, who would grow to a strapping 6-foot-2, began working in the mills at age 15, taking a full-time job when he quit high school after completing Grade 11.

With war waging around the globe, he joined the Royal Canadian Navy Volunteer Reserve. He served as an anti-aircraft gunner aboard HMCS Monnow, a frigate that escorted a convoy to the Arctic port of Murmansk in the Soviet Union. Mr. Hodgson and another gunner were credited with shooting down a German combat plane off the Norwegian coast. At war’s end, a boarding party from the frigate accepted the surrender of a German U-boat.

Mr. Hodgson returned to the West Coast and the mills, becoming an activist in the International Woodworkers of America. The enemy then was not so much the bosses but rival trade unionists seeking to affiliate the woodworkers with a Communist union. “A vicious fight,” he once described the struggle to Jamie Lamb of the Vancouver Sun. “Fist fights. Shotguns. That sort of thing.”

In 1951, he married Pearl Kereluk, a secretary originally from Hairy Hill, Alta., whom he had met when she asked him for a light for her cigarette.

Mr. Hodgson’s faction prevailed and he became a prominent figure in British Columbia trade union circles. In 1959, he was dispatched to Newfoundland to support what became a bitter, bloody loggers’ strike. The death of a policeman during a brawl in the town of Badger and the subsequent incendiary words of Premier Joey Smallwood caused a mob to seek out Mr. Hodgson at his hotel in Grand Falls. The organizer arrived shortly ahead of the vigilantes only to find the innkeeper had tossed his possessions into the snow.

As Mr. Hodgson frantically tossed his clothes back into a suitcase, a passing cab driver asked what had happened.

Fell on the ice, he explained, and the (expletive) suitcase popped open.

Mr. Hodgson took a seat in the cab, eager to make his escape.

The driver was in no hurry.

“There’s a mob comin’ our way and the word is they’re going to hang a guy,” the cabbie said in a Newfoundland brogue. “That ya might like to see it.”

The mob was spotted coming over a hill toward the hotel.

Mr. Hodgson, seeking to not betray his identity, not to mention his urgent desire to flee, politely asked if there was a way to avoid being caught in the jam.

As they drove down side streets, the driver asked what brought the stranger to town.

“I’m a shoe salesman,” he lied. “But, you know, business is bad. I’m having a hard time moving any product.”

“Well, there’s a strike on,” the driver explained.

The cabbie later realized the identity of his passenger, whom he ordered out and left abandoned on the side of the highway. Mr. Hodgson and other union leaders eventually made their way to a deserted barracks at Gander airport where they hid for several days before seeking to leave the island. They tried to buy tickets on a flight to Ottawa, but the agent balked. “Not for you fellas,” he said.

Meanwhile, word got out about the union guys being at the airport and a small but noisy group pursued them through the concourse.

An alert Pan Am agent quickly got the men onto a trans-Atlantic flight that happened to be stopping in Gander to refuel.

Mr. Hodgson wound up seated in the front of the plane, where he persuaded a stewardess to leave him a bottle of Crown Royal. Once the plane was airborne, he realized he did not know his destination. He was never so happy as when he landed in New York.

An activist with the social democratic Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, Mr. Hodgson and his union played a central role in the creation of the NDP following the debacle of the 1958 federal election. But he soured on the new party after it failed to make a breakthrough in the subsequent election. In 1967, he accepted a Liberal appointment to serve as a territorial commissioner. He led two chartered propeller planes filled with bureaucrats and office furniture, as well as one civil servant’s pet skunk, to the small mining town of Yellowknife, where the territory capital was established after decades of rule from faraway Ottawa. The new government offices were temporarily located in a school, a curling rink and a bowling alley.

Mr. Hodgson’s tenure coincided with times of great change in almost all aspects of life in the North. The commissioner appointed Abe Okpik to head Project Surname, visiting communities and asking the Inuit to choose surnames to replace their government-issued identity numbers, which had been printed on leather disks and worn around their necks like dog tags. A distinctive polar bear-shaped licence plate was adopted in 1970 as part of centennial celebrations for the territory. The inaugural Arctic Winter Games were held that year, a brainchild of Mr. Hodgson’s after he despaired at the poor showing local athletes made when facing southern competition.

In 1975, he relinquished his authority to an elected council, an important evolution on the path to self rule.

On April 16, 1979, Prince Charles officiated at the opening of the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre, a $5-million museum and archive in Yellowknife that served as a showpiece for Mr. Hodgson’s desire to boost tourism. The commissioner had also hired American artist Arnold Friberg, known for his monumental set designs for Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments, to paint a life-sized portrait of the Prince.

Mr. Hodgson soon after left the North to serve as chairman of the International Joint Commission, which handles issues involving shared water boundaries with the United States. This was followed by a term at the helm of the BC Ferries and, later, as head of BC Transit. Mr. Hodgson then served as a citizenship judge until his retirement in 2005.

He was invested in the Order of Canada in 1971 for his role in labour relations and as commissioner. Pearl Hodgson was named to the Order three years later for her volunteer work in the North. As well, Mr. Hodgson was made a commander in the Order of the Dannebrog by Queen Margrethe of Denmark.

Mr. Hodgson died in Vancouver on Dec. 18. He leaves a son, a daughter and five grandchildren. He was predeceased by his wife.

In his time as commissioner, Mr. Hodgson tried to visit every hamlet in the territories at least once a year. The commissioner carried a rifle and sometimes a sidearm, but did not shoot game either for sport or sustenance. When asked once why he did not hunt, he reportedly responded that it was because of the plane he shot down during the war. While most of the crew were rescued, one young man had died. For Mr. Hodgson that was enough death to last a lifetime.

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