Still Feisty After All These Years

He’s led a long, combative life in the Arctic, as a kingmaker, undertaker and, well, bellyacher. Don’t like him? You know where you can go. By Chris Windeyer

The day before I trudged up Apex Road to visit Iqaluit’s most notorious old curmudgeon, smoke from the city’s dump-fire caught a rare northward breeze and settled over the capital like rancid fog. The smoke was so noxious school administrators caught one whiff and sent their students home.

Of course, Iqaluit residents bitched about it – they’d been bitching for weeks, ever since the fire had spontaneously ignited in the West 40 landfill and defied firefighters’ efforts to put it out. But no one in Iqaluit bitched like Bryan Pearson.

“It’s the most unbelievable bloody mess I’ve ever seen,” says the 76-year-old, shortly after pouring me a coffee and taking up a position in a well-worn armchair. Over the next two hours, as Pearson rants, its bloody this and goddamn that. His caustic Liverpool accent sharpens every word; his arched brows and piercing eyes add fierce punctuation. This is a man whose whole persona drips contempt – and today, that contempt is for city hall.

On the state of Iqaluit’s urban planning: “They’ve allowed the most higgledy-piggledy bloody chaos I’ve ever seen.” On the city’s problems with bootlegged alcohol: “The only solution is to open a fucking liquor store. Put those bootleggers out of business.” On Iqaluit’s new medical boarding home, which features flaps on the roof that he says are a stupid idea given Nunavut’s blustery weather: “That building, I guarantee you, will end up in Greenland.”

Pearson is famous in Iqaluit, or maybe infamous. This scowling malcontent is the rarest of creatures: A white man with more time in the Arctic than most Inuit. For half a century, since Iqaluit was little more than a Cold War military outpost, he’s been a fixture here, running businesses, holding high office, developing an opulent homestead — and always, always being critical.

Pearson’s home, located on a barren ridge with sweeping views of Koojesse Inlet, is in some ways the archetypal Iqaluit residence. It’s not fancy on the outside, but the interior is pure Northern comfort: designed for reading, cooking, hosting. There’s a ton of art on the walls – he’s got a thing for African masks – plus photos of Pearson from his political days, posing with Queen Elizabeth II, Brian Mulroney and Jean Chrétien.

Issy, a small, puffy mutt on whom Pearson dotes, sniffs my leg and rolls over for a belly scratch. Pearson makes coffee and toast in a kitchen adorned with a massive set of beautiful copper pots. He asks me a second time what publication he’s being interviewed for. I tell him. “They must be hard up,” he says.

When Pearson built this house back in 1961, it was in the middle of nowhere – midway between the neighbourhood of Apex, which was predominantly Inuit, and the Frobisher Bay military base, which was basically whites-only. Being a man who likes his space, Pearson found the location ideal. He was none too pleased when, eight years ago, the city sprawled to his doorstep, plunking the Arctic Winter Games arena right next door. (Claiming damages from “noise and nuisance,” he recently sued the city for $325,000.)

Pearson first came north in 1956 to work on the DEW Line, after arriving in Montreal from England “with not a pot to piss in.” He laboured at the Frobisher Bay camp first as a dishwasher, then as a baker. “I’d had experience as a baker in England putting crosses on hot cross buns,” he jokes. “So that qualified me as the most experienced guy in camp when the baker quit.”

Later, he talked his way into a job running programs at a rehabilitation centre for Inuit who’d been taken south for medical treatment. Under his guidance, they operated a bakery, sold carvings and sewed clothing. By 1959, Pearson had founded a taxi business as well as Arctic Ventures, which did cargo-handling for sealift vessels (he later sold it; today’s version of Arctic Ventures is a store).

By the early 1960s the village had become an administrative centre for the Eastern Arctic. When the first local council was formed, Pearson won a seat and was named chair. All told he served 16 years as Iqaluit’s mayor, over various terms, until 1985. He also spent nine years as a territorial legislator, first representing the entire Eastern Arctic and later the riding of Baffin South. His proudest accomplishments, he says, were launching the territorial housing corporation and helping found Nunavut’s interpreter corps, which allows Inuktitut speakers to recieve government and legal services in their native tongue.

Over the two hours I spend with him, Pearson’s personal recollections become a sort of cultural narrative – about the triumphs and disasters of Arctic politics, about how the Shah of Iran once landed in town to get his plane refuelled, about the days when Iqalummiut all knew each other and lived more traditionally and the Far North had no TVs or skateboard parks or jets to Montreal. In a way, as I listen to him, it strikes me that he’s a sort of qallunaaq oral historian – the grumpy white version of those Inuit elders who, in their long life experience, carry with them the collective memory of the North.

These days Pearson spends part of his time as the town mortician, complete with a hearse and everything. Despite his seeming misanthropy, he’s said to be gentle and sympathetic toward both the dead and the bereaved. But unsurprisingly, the job has also brought him into conflict. Two years ago he fought with the city to get a new morgue built. Perhaps also unsurprisingly, he lost.

With the rest of his time, Pearson runs Nunavut’s only cinema, the Astro Hill Theatre. Callers to the theatre’s hotline are sometimes greeted by recordings of Pearson ranting, such as a few years ago: “It’s Tuesday and it’s probably bloody raining, so what else are you going to do: Go to the movies! … We’re having a very hard time with Twentieth Century Fox because these assholes [at the Yellowknife theatre] have reported us as being a bad theatre. … I hope anyone going to Yellowknife will boycott those bastards.” Despite such tirades, today Pearson talks excitedly about his theatre – particularly about a digital upgrade that will allow him to ditch his 1950s-era projector and save on the costs of shipping film reels North.

And he still participates in Iqaluit’s civic life, penning frequent missives to Nunatsiaq News. A recent letter he wrote, warning Iqalummiut to be ready for lengthy power outages thanks to a power plant he believes is straining over capacity, garnered a few thankful responses but also suggestions that Pearson is just a paranoid crank. Jose Kusugak, the former president of the territorial land-claims organization Nunavut Tunngavik, once likened Pearson’s letter-writing style to that of a “blind man with a shotgun.”

At the suggestion that he’s alienated some, Pearson shrugs his shoulders. “Take a look around,” he says. “I don’t give a fuck what they think. Every person has an opinion. That’s my opinion, and if the paper publishes it, what are you going to do?”

Iqaluit’s current mayor, Elisapee Sheutiapik, first met Pearson when she was nine years old and sick in the local hospital with appendicitis. She remembers Pearson visiting the sick kids and showing them balloon tricks. She’s philosophical about his constant carping. “He’s got more negative things to say than positive,” she says. “But I really do think he cares.”

It’s hard not to draw that conclusion. As Pearson sits back in his armchair, sounding off about the city government, his passion manifests itself in expletives — bloody, Christ, bitch. I ask him why he still feels compelled to ruffle feathers. His answer is true to form. “Well, fuck,” he says. “I live here.”

Up Here Magazine, December, 2010.

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