Northreads Blog

Umingmak: A fine new memoir of N.W.T. Commissioner Stuart Hodgson

Review: Umingmak: Stuart Hodgson and the Birth of the Modern Arctic
by Sarah Minogue, November 23, 2020


It’s about time we had a good, readable book about Stuart Hodgson, the larger-than-life commissioner who brought the Northwest Territories government to Yellowknife — literally, on those two planes we’ve all heard about, in 1967.

Er, maybe I should spell that out. Stuart Hodgson was named commissioner of the N.W.T. by Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson in 1967. I’ll give you the scene as Jake Ootes gives it to us in the opening pages of his homage, Umingmak: Stuart Hodgson and the Birth of Modern Arctic.

I’ll go straight to the text for this paragraph:

The Prime Minister rose from his chair and stepped around the desk. “Your undertaking is of historic importance, not only for the Arctic and its people, but for all of Canada.” His expression was stern. “I expect big results and more than the best from you.” He extended his hand to Hodgson. “In return, I will give you my full support. No one else in the country will have the kind of authority you will. Not even me.” 

I have no idea where Ootes (pronounced “Otis”) got the dialog for that cinematic opening to his book, which includes few footnotes and no endnotes. Hodgson died in 2015 and there’s no reason Ootes, who was a 20-something “information officer” with Indian Affairs at the time, would’ve been present.

But he had worked with Hodsgon before, and shortly after Pearson’s grand pronouncements, Hodgson invited Ootes to his office and offered him a seat on the plane heading north. Hodgson wanted Ootes to run the newspaper in Yellowknife so that he could hire the publisher. Ootes agreed to this weird proposition, which never panned out in any event, and for several years thereon managed never to stray more than a few feet from Hodgson’s side.

. . . It’s to Ootes’s credit that both sides of Hodgson’s legacy are visible in this memoir (though often with Ootes cringing in the background on his boss’s behalf). Among those critical of Hodgson’s tight grip of power are James Wah-Shee (who wrote the forward), Chief Jimmy Bruneau, David Searle, Mary Carpenter and Lena Pederson. Ootes’s unusual choice to write entirely in first-person, re-created scenes, makes this book highly readable, and highly valuable for anyone who wants to understand this very weird period.

Read the full review at