'I made a life here:' Iqaluit's first mayor, and curmudgeon-in-chief, dead at 82

Bryan Pearson, one of Iqaluit's most colourful characters, has died after 60 years as a businessman, politician and impresario in the city.

Outspoken serial entrepreneur was one of capital's most colourful characters

When Bryan Pearson was told he couldn't open his own store, he did it anyway. When he was told he couldn't start a town council in Frobisher Bay, he'd already done it.

"Who the hell do you think you are?" he recalled hearing again and again, with scant regard for the answer.

Pearson, who was Iqaluit's first mayor, a serial entrepreneur, an undertaker, and never shy with an opinion, died on Wednesday after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in January. He was 82.

Originally from Liverpool, U.K., with a Grade 7 education and few marketable skills, Pearson first landed in Frobisher Bay (now Iqaluit) in the mid-1950s at age 22 to work for the DEW Line. Sixty years later, he was still there, with some renown as a serial entrepreneur, a politician who would run for anything, and a generous host who could rise to almost any occasion.

His life was small in some ways — he spent much of it confined in the lobby of his movie theatre and his lone house on a hill away from the community — and large in others, especially in his own telling.

A vagrant upon arrival

It was chance that brought him north.

He left home at age 14 to go to sea, signing on for a round-the-world trip with the British Merchant Marine the next year. He jumped ship in Australia, leaving behind a crew that later mutinied over dreadful conditions on board.

Bryan Pearson arrived in Iqaluit in his early 20s and stayed for the rest of his life. (Bryan Pearson Collection)
He came to Canada at age 21 as a way to avoid military service in the U.K. He was classified as a vagrant upon arrival.

Pearson arrived in Frobisher Bay in 1956, not long after the United States Air Force had established the Frobisher Bay Air Base, which, along with a Hudson's Bay Company store, formed the kernel of the future capital.

He was paid $400 a month to wash dishes seven days a week.

Taxis, funerals and politics

Within three years, he had launched the town's first taxi business and his own all-purpose contracting company, Arctic Ventures. He would go on to open a bakery, form a housing co-op, open his own grocery store (in direct competition with the Hudson's Bay Company), and launch the much-loved Astro Theatre.

For years, he was the town's undertaker, importing a hearse, which he parked outside his house, so that people could have a dignified burial.

Pearson and the late Jonah Kelly at the opening of the CBC building in Iqaluit. (Bryan Pearson Collection)
Several of his "projects" began as a means of rehabilitating tuberculosis patients who had returned North after spending years, sometimes decades, in sanitoriums in the south. Others were simply a way to create jobs.

He entered politics in the late 1960s when the first Frobisher Bay municipal council was formed in response, he said, to the "disgrace of a night" when a man's house burned down while the town's firemen were drunk, a situation for which he wouldn't stand.

He was elected chair and he ran in almost every election thereafter, doling out books of matches that, in his ever-practical manner, read "Elect Bryan Pearson" without specifying what for.

A royal greeting

As mayor, Pearson brought paved roads to the city, telephones to nearby communities and, in 1965, launched the first-ever Toonik Tyme, the annual celebration of spring that continues today. Pearson invited Prime Minister John Diefenbaker to be the first Honorary Toonik, and would later tell tales of the time Diefenbaker slept on his couch.

Much has been made of his relationship with Queen Elizabeth.

"I have fond memories of my visit to Frobisher Bay, in the Northern Territory of Nunavut, when Mr. Pearson was Mayor of Iqaluit in 1970," she wrote in a letter read aloud at a celebration of Pearson's life held in Iqaluit in April.

(Bryan Pearson Collection)
He rubbed shoulders with other celebrities too, including Ginger Rogers and Paul Newman (but not the Shah of Iran — "you couldn't get near him with a 10-foot stick"). They arrived, often in the middle of the night, when their jets heading to and from Europe stopped to refuel.

Pearson — who loved to cook and entertain — enjoyed the role of ambassador, but also held the managers of Pan Am and Trans World Airlines in some contempt.

At the time, he also ran the American military's laundry service and remembers how the airlines refused to give him their business — "those miserable, bloody bastards" — because he had no way to iron the sheets.

A smiling Bryan Pearson at a special celebration of his life held at the Frobisher Inn in April. (Bryan Pearson Collection)

Building an Interpreter Corps.

In 1970, Pearson went to Yellowknife, elected to represent the Eastern Arctic in the Council of the Northwest Territories. In that role, he visited every Nunavut community, often at the side of Commissioner Stuart Hodgson.

Those visits led directly to his proudest achievement: the creation of the Interpreter Corps, the first group of Inuit who were assembled and trained specifically to ensure those that spoke Inuktitut could speak directly to the government, and vice versa.

He had other causes, too. His campaign to improve housing in the region included a photo of an Inuk baby, alive and well but wrapped in bedclothes that were frozen fast to a wall inside a poorly insulated shack. His lobbying led to the creation of the N.W.T. Housing Corporation.

He also persuaded the government to give the city several old portable classrooms that could be used to house offenders locally rather than hundreds of kilometres away. He took great pride in the low security and the fact that inmates were given rifles to go hunting on weekends.

Making a life in the North

Few of his "projects" were self-serving, or particularly profitable. A common theme was doing what had to be done — almost always for the betterment of the community.

One day the local business development officer said to him, "This town needs a movie theatre." Seven weeks later, the Astro Theatre, where he and his dog greeted moviegoers in the lobby, was up and running.

Pearson gained some notoriety for his weekly recorded messages, which gave the movie listings and whether or not they were worth seeing, and sometimes went on to pan the distribution companies as well.

He was never shy to share an opinion. Even at the very end, when pancreatic cancer spread to his liver, he railed against incompetence and bureaucracy, with particular fury for the local airlines, traffic, Iqaluit's road maintenance, even 

"But I survived," he said. "And I made a life here."