‘His heart was always in the North’

First resident commissioner Stuart Hodgson dies at 91

Simon Whitehouse | SOMBA K'E/YELLOWKNIFE
December 23, 2015
Stuart Hodgson, right, and his wife Pearl, centre, greet Prince Charles of Wales, who visited Yellowknife in April 1979. Hodgson, the first residential commissioner of NWT, died Friday at his home in Vancouver at 91. - NNSL file photo

Stuart Hodgson, right, and his wife Pearl, centre, greet Prince Charles of Wales, who visited Yellowknife in April 1979. Hodgson, the first residential commissioner of NWT, died Friday at his home in Vancouver at 91. – NNSL file photo

The North lost a true pioneer Friday as first territorial resident commissioner Stuart Milton Hodgson died at his residence at Vancouver at 91.

Hodgson was the first person not based in Ottawa to oversee the Government of the Northwest Territories, which he did from Yellowknife between 1967 and 1979.

Prior to that, the NWT was run by the federal government from Ottawa.

On Sunday, Premier Bob McLeod expressed his sadness over Hodgson’s death and celebrated his role in laying the “foundation for responsible, representative government for the NWT.”

“Overseeing the move of the Government of the Northwest Territories from Ottawa to the new capital of Yellowknife, Mr. Hodgson was committed to bringing government closer to the people,” McLeod stated in a news release.

Hodgson – who was born April 1, 1924, in Vancouver – was responsible for the Arctic Winter Games, said McLeod, which was founded during the commissioner’s tenure in Yellowknife in 1970.

Prior to being appointed to the federal territorial council, the original governing body of the Northwest Territories, Hodgson served in the Royal Canadian Navy during the Second World War and was also a union official with the International Woodworkers of America.

In an undated photo Stuart Hodgson, right, with his wife Pearl, wave under a propeller plane during his tenure as commissioner. – NNSL file photo

But it was his work of building a government in the North for which he is most celebrated.

“His life was equally interesting down here in (British Columbia), but his heart was always in the North,” said his son Eugene.

“He loved the North and to this day every time I went to see him – which was often – he always said the best time of his life was in the North. He really missed it.”

Following the Carrothers Commission of the mid-1960s, which had the federal government studying the establishment the Government of the Northwest Territories, he became deputy commissioner and moved to Ottawa in the fall of 1965. After two years he was appointed by Prime Minister Lester Pearson as the first resident commissioner of the NWT.

He moved to Yellowknife, the new capital, in September 1967 to set up the new government – a well-remembered event as two DC-7s under Transair flew in from Ottawa with civil servants and office equipment.

“When the decision was made to move government north, they did it lock, stock and barrel,” said former commissioner Tony Whitford, who worked for Hodgson in the 1970s.

“They had airplanes fly directly from Ottawa loaded with everything – the office furniture, the garbage cans, the typewriters and the staff and landed at the airport. (Hodgson) came down like (Douglas) MacArthur landing in Luzon. I think his first words upon landing was, ‘Your government is home.'”

Yellowknifers may be most familiar with Hodgson’s name in association with the Stuart M. Hodgson Building on 49 Street, which holds the lands registry office and the GNWT’s executive office. It is sandwiched between the Arthur Laing Building and the yet to be named new government building.

Whitford was hired right out of university to work under Hodgson in recruiting, training and placing aboriginal workers for services in the territorial government. Because the idea of self-government was so new and the North was so raw, he said Hodgson was one of the “Big Three” who were integral in putting in the work needed to get government services into the communities. The other two, according to Whitford, were Arthur Laing, former Indian and Northern Affairs minister and John Parker, deputy commissioner.

“Mr. Hodgson was the architect of the current NWT politics,” Whitford said. “He had a vision that at some point the Northern people – especially aboriginal peoples – would eventually become a government themselves.

“I don’t know if he ever envisioned self-government to the extent that it is now but he certainly wanted to have the legislative assembly as it is now where we have our own elected body with full responsibilities for all of the departments and things that make up a government.”

Former Commissioner John Parker, now 86 and living in North Saanich, B.C., remembered their partnership in developing “a territorial service” as “exciting times.” He took over the role of commissioner when Hodgson left in 1979 and continued the devolving of power to elected representatives.

“I think he would be very proud,” Parker said, when asked how he thought Hodgson would feel about how the GNWT turned out. “He said as much at different times in the last few years and saw the development as a natural and proper development and quite proud he had hand in setting it up.”

Hodgson had an equally active career after leaving the North in the spring of 1979 and becoming chair of the International Joint Commission between the United States and Canada. He moved to Ottawa for that position before moving to Victoria B.C. in 1981 to become chair of BC Ferries until 1986.

He later chaired BC Transit until 1992 when he formally retired. He spent some years afterward in the role of citizenship judge in Vancouver up to 2000.

Hodgson was last in Yellowknife to mark the 20th anniversary of the legislative assembly in 2013.

Eugene said it was a very moving experience for him because it stapled his career as having given the North a sense of permanent governance.

Current commissioner George Tuccaro said he toured Hodgson and his family around town for his last experience in the North and talked about how things had changed.

“There was one moment when I drove him to (the) old commissioner’s house on the corner of Matonabee and I drove into the yard to just let him sit there and have his moment,” he said. “He looked at the building and his eyes were welling up a bit and I’m sure he was thinking of his late wife (Pearl, who died in 2003).”

A memorial service is to be held in Vancouver on Jan. 14 and a Yellowknife celebration of Hodgson’s life will be scheduled in the New Year.

Hodgson was predeceased by wife Pearl (Kereluk), who he married in 1951. He is survived by both his children Eugene and Lynne, as well as grandchildren Stuart Jr., Evan, Sarah, Travis, Kyle, and Brittany.